World War One diary of Ulster soldier describes ‘terrific adventure’ and acts of bravery

A detailed war diary belonging to an east Belfast man who served his country along with his two brothers during World War One gives an extraordinary insight into life on the front line.

Private Henry Berry’s journal spans from 1914 and 1918 and includes annotated maps of his surrounds at the Somme along with his account of the actions of a VC hero who died saving fellow soldiers in his trench. He ends the diary describing his WWI experience as “a terrific adventure”.

A section of the diary showing an annotated map of the Somme

A section of the diary showing an annotated map of the Somme

His great nephew Dave Berry who lives on the outskirts of Lisburn discovered the diary more than 50 years after the soldier’s death.

The father of three’s passion for family research led him to his cousin Wendy Robinson, originally from Carrick but now living in Scotland.

He said: “Wendy had the diary written by her grandfather. Up until a few years’ ago I didn’t even know Wendy nor had I seen the diary.”

The diary starts on September 16, 1914 when, aged 18, Henry Berry enlisted along with his brothers Charles and Freddie. Mr Berry, 60, said: “Freddie joined up too young and his father wrote a letter asking that he be sent home on the account that his other two sons were already lending their support to the war effort.

Private Henry Berry

Private Henry Berry

“He came home and as soon as he was old enough he went back out again. He didn’t want to miss out, though sadly he’s the one that died two weeks before the war ended.

“It is mentioned in the diary. Henry says, ‘Sergeant of A company told me of Fred’s death. He was killed in action on October 14’.

“That was written nearly two weeks after he died. That’s the only mention. It’s so strange. He went into quite some detail on other stuff. Maybe it was just the shock of it, what else could he say. He’s stuck in a picture of Freddie on that page.”

Mr Berry said: “The diary finishes with him talking about having two sulphur baths a day to get rid of the lice, though it’s the last bit that amazed me. He says, ‘so ended a terrific adventure’.

Private Berry's war diary

Private Berry's war diary

“Imagine finishing a diary like that after what he went through. Maybe the comment came from the fact that at least he got home alive. He was still a youngster.”

Mr Berry was five when his great uncle Henry died in 1963, though he said he still has fond recollections of both his great uncles from that short time.

He went on to follow in his great uncle Henry’s footsteps – both men served with the Royal Corps of Signals, a fact Mr Berry only discovered recently through the war diary.

Some of the passages in the WWI diary written by Private Henry Berry make for extremely striking and poignant reading.

This is how he describes the sacrifice of Private William McFadzean, later a VC:

“I’m in the bombing section and we occupy a trench to ourselves but we are standing shoulder to shoulder. Billy McFadzean was killed in this trench when some bombs fell off the parapet and sheared the pins. McFadzean threw himself on top of the lot and was blown to pieces. One or two others were wounded with splinters, don’t know yet how I escaped.”

On going over the top:

“zero hour, going over amid a swarm of shells and machine gun bullets, before we had cleared the wood most of my platoon were killed or wounded”.

On the road to the trenches:

“There is a road leading out of the village and up to the line. It is closed to traffic during the daylight. It has screens of net, wire, pieces of grass and cloth fixed to it and supported on high posts.

“These screens are supposed to blind jerry’s gunners but on one occasion an artillery transport wagon happened to be on this road at daylight and was promptly shelled.”

On Thiepval Wood:

“This has been a fine woods at one time but now most of the trees are blasted and splintered by enemy guns.”