Jack Martin’s Diary

Extract

‘Presently the tanks came along. They had to drop down the bank about six or eight feet, wallow through the mud and climb the opposite bank. One came over the top of the Signal Office and again we feared for the safety of those inside but there was no need to worry. Another got stuck in the mud and refused to budge.’

Jack Martin’s Diary, 7th June 1917 p.73

Introduction/Context

This gobbet is an extract from the personal diary that Jack Martin kept during the First World War. Born on the Norfolk coast in September 1884, the thirty-two-year-old was a clerk at the Admiralty prior to his being called up to serve in the Great War in September 1916.[1] Martin wrote his diaries in secret, hiding them from his fellow comrades throughout the entirety of the war. Richard Van Emden, editor of the published text, questions whether Martin knew that it was forbidden for ordinary soldiers to keep diaries, concluding either that he had a lenient commanding officer or enjoyed taking risks, considering the volume he wrote.[2] It is clear also from this that Martin was from at least a middle class background to be able to write something of this calibre, as most middle class men would have sought recreation from reading and writing prior to, and during the war. Ultimately this is one of the biases of primary sources such as these, as literary texts tend to only be representative of middle class soldiers who used this medium to respond to dramatic events.[3] Transcripts of the Martin’s diary were later discovered by his family after his death several years after the war, although none of the original diaries are known to have survived, in fact, very little official documentation of Jack Martin’s service still exists.[4] During the war, Martin served in France, participating in the Battle of the Somme and offensives of Ypres, and his accounts has been praised by Bloomsbury for allowing its popular audience to understand what the Great War was really like for the ordinary ‘Tommy’.[5]

Content

This particular extract is significant as it details part of the first day of the battle of Messines on the 7th June 1917. After exploding nineteen mines, the Britain and her Imperial army’s troops seized the Messines Ridge south of Ypres, where fighting continued until the 14th June; this was fought as a prelude to the Third Battle of Ypres.[6]  Martin’s account, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2009, has been said to have “gut-wrenching immediacy” by the Daily Mail.[7] This immediacy is highlighted in the gobbet extract whereby Martin writes as if he is providing a live commentary of the tanks’ progression, as opposed to writing retrospectively after the event has taken place – as would have been the case. Martin’s commentary tells us that the British struggling to competently operate these tanks, one of new pieces of technology developed in modern warfare. These were meant to be machines of destruction, and it is clear from the extract that even those on the same side as these unfamiliar machines initially ‘feared’ for their safety, as Martin feared for those inside the Signal Office he describes one of the tanks passing over. It’s interesting that Martin appears to refer to the tanks as animate objects, giving them a stubborn characteristic as the one that got stuck in the mud “refused to budge”.

Comment

Overall, reading an individual’s experience of war is highly useful as it shows us what the ordinary soldier thought was significant enough to document at the time. Unlike an official war diary written by an officer with the intention of providing a sharp and concise record of the day’s events, Martin’s personal diary gives us a sense of his emotions which ultimately humanizes memory of the war rather than reducing it to the collective actions of the Battalion.

Bibliography

Primary Source:

Jack Martin’s Diary, 7th June 1917.

Texts:

Richard Van Emden (ed.), Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin, (London: Bloomsbury, 2009)

Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon: Continuum, 2007)

Websites:

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., ‘Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin’, available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/sapper-martin-9781408803110/ [accessed: 15/02/19].

1917, Total War in Flanders, ‘The Year 1917’, available at: https://www.flandersfields.be/en/1917/year-1917 [accessed: 15/02/19]

Worcestershire World War 100, ‘Key Dates Over June 1917’, available at: http://www.ww1worcestershire.co.uk/key-dates/1917/06/battle-of-messines-after-the-explosion-of-19-huge-mines-british-irish-australian-and-new-zealand-troops-seize-the-messines-ridge-south-of-ypres-fighting-continues-until-14-june/ [accessed: 15/02/19]


[1] N.A., Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., ‘Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin’, available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/sapper-martin-9781408803110/ [accessed: 15/02/19]. Richard Van Emden (ed.), Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin, (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), p.2.

[2] Van Emden, p.5.

[3] Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon: Continuum, 2007), pp.154-155.

[4] Bloomsbury; Van Emden, p.2.

[5] Bloomsbury.

[6] N.A., Worcestershire World War 100, ‘Key Dates Over June 1917’, available at: http://www.ww1worcestershire.co.uk/key-dates/1917/06/battle-of-messines-after-the-explosion-of-19-huge-mines-british-irish-australian-and-new-zealand-troops-seize-the-messines-ridge-south-of-ypres-fighting-continues-until-14-june/ [accessed: 15/02/19]; N.A., 1917, Total War in Flanders, ‘The Year 1917’, available at: https://www.flandersfields.be/en/1917/year-1917 [accessed: 15/02/19]

[7] Bloomsbury.

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