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
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital