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Diary of boy soldier from Glenanne who died on first day of Somme is revealed

By Aine Fox

Published 23/05/2016

Private Thomas Chambers was only 17 when he died
Private Thomas Chambers was only 17 when he died
His journal
Relative: Helen McComb, private Thomas Chambers’ great-niece

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

The horror of war is revealed in the Co Armagh 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 soldier's great-niece Helen McComb, from Glenanne, said she was moved to tears reading the last words of her relative 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 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 Pvt 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.

The Great War. 1914-18. Flanders.
The Great War. 1914-18. Flanders.
Corporal Adolf Hitler, right with two other soldiers and a dog during his stay in a military hospital, WWI, Pasewalk, Pomerania. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
United We Stand - Postcard showing uniformed men representing Britain, Irish National Volunteers and Ulster Volunteers flanking a sailor with a sword in one hand and a gun in the other presented as united on the outbreak of war. The verse reads 'Old discords have sunk to oblivion, For the honour of Britain they stand, In Unity shoulder to shoulder, In defence of the old homeland.' Collection Ulster Museum
Troops at the Battle of the Somme
Rifleman Jackson Clarke of the Royal Irish Rifles (circled) marching off to war. He survived the Great War, remaining in the army until 1931. Pic from Stephen Kerr
First World War image of a British soldier pulling colleague from rubble. It is unlikely that the helped soldier would look as cheerful as he does or that the helper would pull the buried and probably injured man in so unprofessional a way if he had been lying beneath the weight of soil and rubble after an explosion. It is more likely that the man has slipped and fallen into this position while examining damage, the aftermath of which is depicted here. (Hogg, A. R ) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Women in Britain say go! - Hill, Siffken and Co (LPA Ltd) - First World War Recruitment poster; 'Women in Britain say Go!' This poster, produced by E V Kealey, in 1915 for the First World War British Army Recruitment Campaign shows an image (by artist Ernest Ibbetson) of mother and children at open window watching troops march off to war. which reflects the growing engagement of middle-class women in public life, civic and recruitment campaigns Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster no.75. Original accession card states it is Parliamentary Recruiting poster No.72 Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British stretcher party surveying wounded on battlefield. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image showing soldiers in snow with tanks on backs. The men may be carrying some kind of disinfectant or else a de-icing fluid as it is visibly a cold winterís day. The item on the cart looms rather like the flue of a fire or heater, indicating that the men may well be carrying hot water. (Hogg, A. R ) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image showing British soldiers washing in water held in shell hole, which appears to be the location for several British graves as indicated by the wooden crosses surrounding the crater, where the men may well have perished in an earlier explosion. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Theres room for you. Enlist to-day - W.M. Strain & Sons Ltd. - First World War recruitment poster; 'Theres room for you. Enlist to-day.' froman original drawing by W.A. Fry. Poster shows a cheery scene of soldiers going off to war by train. Published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, London; poster no.122 Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers marching over battlefield. The devastation caused by repeated shellfire over four years left some parts of the Western Front and its hinterland a total ruin. (Hogg, A. R) Photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British soldier at machine gun post. Machine gun fire was sometimes effective against low-flying German planes. Note the bolt-holes for the gunner to hide during bombardment, the trench spike against the skyline and the horn of what may well be a gas-alarm. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British first aid team treating wounded soldier. There are three orderlies, treating a soldiers treating a man on a stretcher with head and shoulder injuries. The location would appear to be littered with shells and shell boxes and there is a building which has been damaged by artillery fire or an explosion. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers wearing capes carrying shovels, road-building party, along the Western Front, probably wet and muddy conditions of Flanders, 1917. The Irish soldier and poet Francis Ledwidge was killed in just such a group as this at ëHellfire Cornerí at Ypres in 1917. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers grouping in battlefield. The road is long which soldiers marched to and from the front were known to enemy artillery which by the end of the war was becoming more and more accurate in its fire. Note the posts which mark the line of the road, all too easily spotted by air reconnaissance (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of tank and troops. Tanks were first used in September 1916, at Delville Wood. There were over 6,000 tanks in allied possession by the end of the war whereas the Germans did not greatly make or use them. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
'Everyone should do his bit. Enlist now' - Roberts & Leete Ltd. - First World War recruitment poster; 'Everyone should do his bit. Enlist now.' Poster with boy scout standing musing in front of a wall covered in recruitment posters. Published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee London No.121 Original artwork by Baron Low Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British soldier using periscope to look over rim of trench. The soldier also exhibits other features of trench hardware such as water-bottle and Lee Enfield rifle. There were various models of periscope, some improvised by the men themselves. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Posters and Memorabilia at the launch of the National Library's World War One Family History Roadshow which takes place between 10am and 7pm on Wednesday March 21st next. Pic Steve Humphreys 15th March 2012.
British troops manhandling a field gun, World War I
Belfast Telegraph. Page. Wednesday 5/8/1914 "Britain Declares War on Germany"
German troops and dogs prepared for the threat of 'chemical warefare' during the Great War, with gas masks.
Women making cartridges for British troops during the Great War. 1914-18
The return of British pow's, from the Great war, met on arrival at London by frienfs and family with refreshments.
Awarded the Victoria Cross for services in the Great War: Edmund De Wind (top left) James Somers (top right) Captain JA Sinton (centre) J Duffy (bottom Left) Robert Quigg ( bottom right)
Lord Kitchener inspects the 36th Ulster Division before deployment to the Great War.
British troops supply line during the Great War.
Crowds in Belfast line the streets as soldiers returning from the Great War march past Belfast City Hall.
British artillery on parade during the Great war.
British infantrymen occupy a shallow trench in a ruined landscape before an advance during the Battle of the Somme
Men of war: soldiers remove an injured man from the battlefield
The will of Private John Fleetwood, grandfather of Mick Fleetwood, who died during the First World War
First World War soldiers were treated for venereal disease in a camp at Chiseldon, Wiltshire.
The 36th Ulster Division march past at Belfast City Hall in May 1915
Undated handout photo of the front page of the Flanders Fields Post, a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, which has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
File photo dated 04/08/14 of the Grenadier Guards being watched by a crowd as they leave Wellington Barracks in London for active service in France at the beginning of World War I, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
The wills of soldiers who died during the First World War will be made available online
Family handout photo of Captain F. J. Roberts with his son Bill Roberts in 1914, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Undated family handout photo of Captain F. J. Roberts with his division, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Letters home from the Western Front in the First World War gave a snapshot of the horrendous conditions suffered by Ulster soldiers in the trenches
16-year-old Lee Dunion re-enacts the conditions in the trenches as a soldier in Thiepval Woods during the First World War
File photo dated 17/08/14 of British soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Cheshire Regiment in a Belgian town on their way to Mons as part of the British Expeditionary Force, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
Sgt David Harkness Blakey who died in 1916
Handout photo issued by London Transport Museum of Ole Bill, a 1911 B-type bus No. B43 flanked by standard bearers in the Armistice Day parade 1920 as wreaths are being laid at bus stations and garages across London in memory of the transport workers who died in the First World War.
A British soldier uses a periscope device in a First World War fire trench, as it was revealed a system of practice trenches have been found in Hampshire
File photo dated 20/08/14 of the scene outside the Enlisting Office in Thogmorton Street, London, at the beginning of the First World War, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
Men of the Royal marines landing at Ostend, during the Great War. 1914
Family handout photo of Capatain FJ Roberts (right) with family (L-R) Bert, Will, Nell and Fred Roberts, (front) dad Henry and mom Mary Roberts in 1900, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Records show newspapers urged women to send 'small comforts' like cigarettes and warm clothes to troops in the trenches
Research suggests most people in the UK do not realise the First World War extended beyond Europe
Wooden wing sections from a First World War bi-plane have been saved by RAF conservation experts
The Winchester Whisperer, a journal handwritten on toilet paper that was circulated by conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for their beliefs during the First World War. (Religious Society of Friends in Britain/BBC/PA)
Horror of the trenches: many from here made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War
Family handout photo of a young Captain F. J. Roberts, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.

Ms Singleton, who has written a play telling the story of 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, Pvt 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 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 disillusioned and threw a number of his war decorations into a nearby lake, his grandson said.

After reading Pvt 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 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 its Somme exhibition.

Riveting account of life in front line

Private Thomas Chambers served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers as part of the 36th Ulster Division. The teenager kept a diary called ‘Adventures from my leaving’.

Here are some extracts.

  • On April 3, 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 at 4.30 every evening and had dinner which was very little.”
  • 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.”
  • On April 30 Pte Chambers told how he “went to a service conducted by Rev Hallyhan and took holy communion under shellfire”.
  • German bombardment into the early hours of May 7 killed Pte Chambers’ Company Sergeant. He wrote: “We all had to commence rapid fire. The shells were flying every way, that heavy you could not have heard yourself speak.”
  •  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.”

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