Saturday, 10 March 2012

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

The Wisbech Advertiser was first published in August 1845, and continued in one form or another until 1975. It is now the Fenland Citizen. In 1914 the editor was  F.J. Gardiner, and the family had a general printing business based in Union Street. Frederick and his wife Amelia had two sons. The elder was Grahame, who was already involved in the family business, and Ernest Frederick, known as Eric. 

Eric originally attended Barton School, but was sent away to the rather more prestigious Mill Hill school in London. From there, he had qualified as an accountant. The family was home was 'Trevordale', which still stands at the end of Alexandra Road.

Courtesy of Frederick Gardiner having 'a quiet word' with influential friends, Eric was able to secure a position in one of the elite regiments of the British Army - The Honourable Artillery Company. This was the country's oldest Territorial regiment, and dated back to the time of Henry VIII. It was very much a gentleman's regiment.

The first units of the HAC were sent to France in December 1914. Eric missed this first draft, and was able to spend Christmas in Wisbech, but when he returned to barracks in January 1915, he found that his company was preparing to cross the channel in mid January.

Very much against military regulations, Eric kept a diary. It was beautifully written, both in the sense of the flowing, beautifully legible handwriting, and the apt and careful use of English. The diary is tiny - smaller than an audio cassette. It begins:

This diary belongs to
Private E.F. Gardiner

Relates his experiences in The Great European War

Commencing at arrival at Base Camp at Rouen 25/1/15

Eric's unit traveled by train from Rouen to Bailleul, in Flanders. Bailleul was an important railhead, air depot and hospital centre.

Eric's diary entry for 30/1/15 says:
"On arrival at Bailleul heard for the first time heavy gunfire. Many aeroplanes knocking about. It is reported 1 enemy aeroplane brought down. While walking sound of nine bombs dropped heard. Sounded pretty close, and caused everyone to start and look up."

It should be pointed out that the HAC were not, in fact, an artillery regiment - they were infantry, and their name stems from their earliest days when the word 'artillery was given to any kind of mechanical weapon, such as a musket or a crossbow.
By early February, Gardiner's relatively peaceful baptism into soldiering was over. His company had been moved up into trenches near Kemmel and Locre. 
On 14/2/15, he writes:
"All this time, our guns, against their usual custom) had continued firing at night, and both sides were blazing away, lighting up the country all around. We started out feeling here was something doing…and we halted while the German star shells in numbers lit up the sky around us. The order came sharply. "Lie flat down!" and we all went down like one man. I went down on my stomach in mud which covered our boots over the tops…We then proceeded to relieve our fellows in K1 (trench) having negotiated several awkward places where shells and streams had made the ground knee deep in mud and water."