Mark's War        A transcription of a First World War diary

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Introduction

The Diary

The Visit

 

the visit

 It started at Brent Cross.

My wife wanted to buy some lights at John Lewis. The assistant said he would put the chosen ones aside, could he have a name? 

"Foreman", she said,

"That's funny", he replied, "that's mine as well, I don't suppose it's with-an-e?" 

"It is, as it happens ".

"Oh! I wonder if we're related", he pondered aloud. 

"Well actually it would be my husband. Were any of your relatives from Southend? "

"My Uncle Nat and Auntie Ray lived there." said Mr Foreman.

"That's Selwyn's grandparents!" 

 

It all stemmed from that performance in coincidence. We were invited to the Foreman's house. Such nice people. They had kept a box in their 'archives' of memorabilia from the Foreman family. Did we know that his Uncle Mark, his father's brother  (my grandfather's brother), who had died in the trenches of the First World War, had left a diary with his personal effects? Did I want to see it?  

There it was, a hand written soft-back  6" by 3" half inch thick notebook turned diary with its attached pencil holding loop.Thirty odd pages detailing six months, the last six months,of Mark's War and Mark's life. It was hand-written by Mark in the months between receiving the diary in October 1916  "as a birthday present from Alma Harris" and the final entry in May 1917.

 

 

I started to read it, at first without too much difficulty, the pencilled cursive script was surprisingly accessible after eighty years although it was soon clear that the place names and military terms would have to be explained. Had it been transcribed, had it been published? Had any one else read it, has it been offered to the Imperial War Museum? I had so many questions.

My newly found cousin kindly lent me the book so that I could photocopy it and would send it back ASAP. I determined there and then that this tome deserved a wider audience. The work of transcribing the 3,000 or so words started in 1996 and was complete two years later. I'd gone to the Imperial War Museum and spoken at length to the archivist, Simon Robbins who was very helpful with the military terms. I'd poured over the Michelin guide map to sort out most of the place names and worked over and discussed each doubtful transcription until it was ready for publication.

 

 

Once word-processed my friend, Brian Minkoff, helped me set up a website devoted to the diary so that as many as possible could gain access to Mark's words. Mark, I hope, wrote it for others to see - never other than plain words and clauses of description; nothing edited in the name of poetry thereby losing important detail, nothing changed to predict an outcome or to take a reader to a conclusion or to make a political point, simply a record recalling that day's mundanity, monotony and mayhem.

The study Mark provided was perfect as a tool to understand a conscript's mindset -   to retell a timeless story of a civilian dragged into war trying to survive whilst serving king, country and colleagues. Useful links on the website to the BBC FWW web pages, to the sites set up for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum insured that many more had access to the diary and the visit counter soon mounted up   - people started to leave messages in the guest book.

 

 

One from a certain Mark Foreman, no relation, was interesting enough but then unbelievably a couple from a New York University professor - I emailed and then we spoke on the phone. It transpired that the discovery of the diary, now mentioned in some guides to places on the web for FWW diaries,   inspired Marlene Grover to want to use it to teach the FWW to her students as part of their History Module. She insisted it was the closest insight to what really went on in the war; not filtered through 80 years of fame and commentary -   just a raw report in plain English of what happened. The course has now been running for three years. It's truly amazing to think that dozens of US graduates are informed by Mark's words written amongst the trenches of Northern France. 

 

 

Taking up a whole page in the diary about half way through and seemingly out of context there's a short poem in another's handwriting, it was most probably copied into the diary by Alma for Mark to discover as a surprise when he got to that page. 

 

When you marry him - Study him; 

After you marry him - Love him  

When he is sad - Cheer him; 

When he is talkative - Listen to him  

When he is quarrelsome - Ignore him;  

When he is noble - Praise him 

When he is confidential - Encourage him;  

And, when he deserves it - Kiss him. 

Will I go far wrong . 

Alma

 

 

Does anyone know of Alma (née Harris) from the East End born I would guess around 1893?For some time I wanted to visit the Arras Memorial where Mark is commemorated. His body was never found - two weeks after he wrote his last words on the 16th June 1917 aged 26, his own battle with the war ended   - there are no real details of his death - just the general reports of others in the regiment who survived. We visited all the places mentioned in the diary in his stomp through the killing fields. They are just picturesque and peaceful - not trampled and troop marched as then -   yet something of the surreal remains in comparing the road signs with the place names in the diary. Before and after the bombs, the barbed wire and bayonets these places were beautiful.

 

 

We saw 19th Century barns, inns and churches that Mark would have seen giving us a sense of architecture  but without any context for the horror and hell that those buildings and he witnessed. We tripped in and out of a succession of  F.W.W. cemeteries that peppered the countryside. Each giving a sense of local nationality as the young dead of the regiments of Ulster, Newfoundland and Wales were respected. We visited to pay our respects to these buried souls. So many cut down at the ages of my own young sons. The vast majority of the stones were crosses, just occasionally a Mogen David could be spied and we made a bee-line to stand over a Jewish combatant. We read the inscription aloud and thought of his parents getting the news of his death we placed a pebble on the stone and moved on.

 

 

The enormity is only driven home by the relentlessness with which the geometric patterns cross into view as stone after stone reveals itself as you walk down the perfectly kept aisles and rows of gravestones.The people who lovingly cherish these sites for a pittance are today's heroes and are a true fitting tribute to the fallen   - we should reward them better that they can gain and keep the respect they have earned in tending the flowers, lawns and gravestones so well. So our journey to France was complete where Mark's own journey ended; at Arras Memorial. His name, one of five thousand, etched at eye level onto a light grey stone panel and his diary are all that is left to act as a testament, to keep alive how terrible war can be   - that he should not have died in vain.  

 

 

 

Postcript

15/9/98 SJF visit to the Imperial War Museum.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission a Mark Foreman is recorded as having died 16/6/1917 but with no known grave and commemorated at the Arras Memorial. The age given is 26 and the address as 2 Coleman (should be Colmar) Street, Mile End, London. His regiment is the 2nd/1st London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers with service number 204325.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Simon Robbins at the Imperial War Museum (020 7416 5221) and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (2 Marlow Road, Maidenhead, Berks. SL6 7DX ( 016286 34221) for their assistance. And, of course, to cousin Raymond Foreman of Kingsbury, NW9 (Mark's nephew) who lent me the diary to copy and who has donated the original to the Imperial War Museum.

Other points of reference

Office for National Statistics (Death Certificates), Smedley Hydro, Trafalgar Road, Birkdale, Southport PR8 2HH

( 0151 471 4469. Birth Certificates - Cardiff - extn. 4816. )

Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond TW9 4DU (020 8876 3444).

The Family Records Centre, 1 Myddelton Street, London EC1R 1UW (020 8392 5300).

Links. 

The Imperial War Museum

BBC Online: The Great War-80 years on.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.