There was no poetry for Uncle Herbert

On the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, three very different views on how we should commemorate the victims of war
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS not much of a diary - a penny notebook fastened by elastic inside a cheap leatherette wallet that his sister Augusta had sent him in anticipation of his 17th birthday. But it began as English adventure stories have begun for 600 years: "Embarked for France."

Ten days later, Herbert Hattersley, Private 2042, the 1/7 Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, the Notts and Derby Regiment, "went to trenches with 1st Hampshires. Relieved after 24 hours. CV Shepherd killed by accident."

After that it was a litany of death. "Went up to trenches in motor buses, went to place where big advance was made, hundreds of dead lying on the ground."

Even when his friends were killed he made his entries with the same laconic brevity. "Our Division made an attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt, Jack Burton was killed on the same day. We were relieved from the trenches and went for a rest."

Only the final page records more than the bare facts. First it lists "battles since I arrived in France. Plugstreet, Kemel, Houge and Sanctuary Wood [all Ypres], Vielle Chapelle, Mont St Eloy." Then it repeats the story of how Jack Burton died.

"Jack was killed in a bayonet charge, I think that he was hit in the head by a piece of shell. He was 17 and a half when he first came to France. Pt H Timpson was killed trying to bury him."

It would be foolish to talk of premonitions. Bert had no time for anything so fanciful. He was a labourer in the packing department of a company, who had joined the territorials when he was barely 16, because a recruitment poster promised a fortnight's summer camp at "Fascinating Filey". And although his terms of engagement did not require him to serve abroad, he had volunteered for active service rather than risk the contempt of his newly found comrades-in-arms. When he died on the Somme on 1 July 1916, he was not quite 19.

They found the diary in his billet in Bienvilliers. Folded inside were three letters from home. Bert's religious mother ended with a pious hope: "Bless you and may He send you safely home." My father, his 12-year-old brother, was infuriatingly philosophical: "I expect that you are sorry that you haven't had leave before now, but your turn will come." Augusta, who gave him the notebook and the wallet, told him that another brother, Leslie, "was giving Alice Smith the glad eye". The messages were all written in careful ink. Bert wrote in indelible pencil, turned blurred and purple by the incessant rain.

It had rained for more than a week before the day of battle, and the downpour was more difficult to bear than the shelling. The Sherwood Foresters were wet in the trenches and wet in their dugouts. On the eve of the big push, they waded knee-deep through the mud of the supply trenches to their position 600 yards to the right of Gommecourt Wood. Bert, in C Company, was part of the third wave to go over the top. The official history describes it as being "virtually annihilated". The enemy machine-guns were trained on the gaps in the British barbed wire. The few men who survived to advance into no man's land found that the Allied artillery bombardment had left the German wire intact, and they were caught like fish in a net. Of the 600 Sherwood Foresters who went into action, only 90 came out.

Bert's diary, in all its brief inadequacy, is not much of a record of the war in Flanders. But it leaves no doubt about the nature of the men who died like cattle, with only the monstrous anger of the guns for passing bells. Not for them the poetry of war - even if that, according to Wilfred Owen, is where the pity is to be found. Anything that makes the First World War seem like a noble enterprise mocks those men and their memory. They may not grow old as we who are left grow old. But, by God, they would have welcomed the chance.

It was on their behalf that I caused some mild offence at last week's Wilfred Owen Festival by suggesting that much of the poetry that was written about the First World War would best be forgotten. The early verse, with all the nonsense about death bringing "rarer gifts than gold" and dead clerks going "to join the men of Agincourt" are hideously unforgivable. But even the poems of compassion give the butchery a grace that it did not possess. Last week's Wilfred Owen Festival included a Shrewsbury School production of Journey's End - one of the worst plays written between the wars, and a travesty of the suffering caused by the First World War.

Isaac Rosenberg is, perhaps, the one exception. But Rosenberg was a private soldier without misconceptions about some corner of a foreign field being forever England. The only possible defence of those who once harboured such notions is that their false romanticism provides consolation and catharsis for the next of kin. It is a treacherous sort of comfort, encouraging the belief that the sacrifice of 4 million was better than a sinful waste.

Bert's name is in the Book of Remembrance in St Mary's Church in Nottingham and on the monument at Thiepval to the dead who have "no known resting place". But - now that the brother who urged fortitude and the sister who bought the notebook are dead - nobody remembers how he was in life.We do not know how he would have grown up. All that is left is a penny notebook in a leatherette wallet, and three letters. And unto those who would have been his sons, he gives his immortality? Forget the poetry. Remember the men who could not spell the names of the battles in which they fought and died.