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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...