Teenage Co Armagh soldier’s Somme diary to go on display

Helen McComb holds the diary of her great uncle Private Thomas Chambers
Helen McComb holds the diary of her great uncle Private Thomas Chambers

A 100-year-old diary written by a teenage Ulster soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme is to be displayed to mark the centenary.

A 100-year-old diary written by a teenage Ulster soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme is to be displayed to mark the centenary.

Private Thomas Chambers, who was just 17 when he died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme

Private Thomas Chambers, who was just 17 when he died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme

The horror of war is revealed in the 17-year-old’s pocket-sized leather journal, which was recovered after his death and kept by his loved ones in a box under a bed.

Private Thomas Chambers, known as Tommy, was among almost 20,000 British soldiers killed on July 1 1916, little more than three months after he had arrived in France from Ireland on what he described as his “adventures”.

His short diary, around 16 pages and written mostly in pencil, gives an insight into the preparations for a battle the British were hopeful they could win, but which resulted in a huge loss of life.

The young private’s great-niece Helen McComb, from Glenanne in Co Armagh, said she was moved to tears reading the last words of her great uncle who set off for battle never to return.

Ms McComb, who came across the diary recently when she heard there was to be a display for the centenary at the local Orange Lodge, said: “My mother read it to us and told us about Tommy when we were children, and the diary was put away for safekeeping. But I hadn’t realised the importance I think until recently.

The 56-year-old added: “I got goosebumps reading it. I just felt really emotional. I cried reading the last page. But I’m very proud that we have it and am happy for others to be able to see it.”

While Pte Chambers’ gravestone records his age as 19 the soldier was just 16 when he signed up to the army and 17 when he died fighting with the 36th Ulster Division, painstaking research by local woman Hilary Singleton uncovered.

The solicitor checked census records and looked into the history of what was happening in France on the dates of each of the diary entries.

Mrs Singleton, who has written a play telling the story of Pte Chambers and the other young men from the village of Glenanne who fought and died at the Somme, said: “It actually felt incredible to hold a diary that a soldier had in his breast pocket 100 years ago. It’s in excellent condition.”

Detailing his training and preparations for battle, Pte Chambers’ diary describes noisy shellfire, and marks out one specific bombardment by the British of the German front line as “like hell let loose”.

His final diary entry is brief, but particularly haunting as it is the only one made by the young soldier at the beginning of a day.

He writes simply: “Left for trenches at 2am 1st July.”

Ms Singleton, who transcribed the passages as part of her research, said: “There’s something completely unique about that because every other entry he wrote at the end of the day. This entry was looking forward to what was about to happen.

“He’s leaving for the trenches. Why did he write it like that? I think he wrote it that way because he thought it was likely that he was going to be killed. He had that level of realisation.”

In the weeks before Pte Chambers and his comrades would go over the top of their trenches to face a hail of German fire the men played sport – something Sergeant Joseph Lowry’s grandson Colin said was particularly poignant to read.

Sergeant Lowry, also from Glenanne, was wounded in the shoulder on the first day of battle, but was one of the lucky ones who survived.

On returning home to a lack of employment the soldier, who was awarded the Military Cross, became somewhat disillusioned and threw a number of his much-cherished war medals into a nearby lake, his grandson said.

After reading Pte Chambers’ diary Mr Lowry, 57, whose grandfather is mentioned by Tommy as having been with him at a football match in early June, said: “He (Tommy) really was only just a boy – they all were.

“It really brings it all home. They were playing a football match, all comrades, and in a matter of days they had died. It’s really sad.

“And for the community – it’s only a small village – it would have been a big loss to their village at that time.”

The diary will go on display at the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in Armagh as part of their Somme exhibition.

Life on the front line

Private Thomas Chambers served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers as part of the 36th Ulster Division. The teenage soldier kept an account of his time training for battle, entitling his diary “Adventures from my leaving”.

Here are some extracts from the journal written 100 years ago.

• On April 3, a few days after arriving in France Pte Chambers told of the routine he and the other soldiers settled in to.

He wrote: “Revolly (sic) blew 5.30. Breakfast 6.30. Parade 7.45, then marched to the training camp about twelve miles away carrying our dinner, sometimes two hard cakes, a piece of cheese and tea. We returned to the base at 4.30 every evening and had dinner which was very little.”

• The young soldier described the noise and drama of war, but was matter-of-fact in his reaction.

On April 22 he wrote: “Guard. At 9 o’clock at night our artillery started to bombard the German front line and it was just like Hell let loose. Shells bursting round me and machine gun fire as it fell my luck for being on sentry duty when they started. I was nervous for a while but I came round.”

• A week later on April 30 Pte Chambers told how he “went to a service conducted by Rev Hallyhan and took holy communion under shellfire”.

• A lengthy German bombardment into the early hours of the morning of May 7 killed Pte Chambers’ Company Sergeant. He wrote: “We all had to man the trench and commence rapid fire. The shells were flying every way. It was that heavy that you could not have heard yourself speak.”

• On June 26, just days before his death, Pte Chambers wrote about a preliminary bombardment of the German front line. He said: “Had to retire twice under very heavy shell fire. All having very narrow escapes.”

• In his last letter home, dated June 30, Pte Chambers told his family he was in “very fair form” and promised to “write soon again”.

• His final diary entry reads: “Left for trenches at 2am 1st July”.