Lancashire grandad's poignant diary from the trenches of WW1

Captain Norman Hall, second left

Acting Company Sergeant Major James Hutchinson VC, Captain Norman Hall, Lance Sergeant Edward Benn Smith VC DCM, and the reserve member of the Party, Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant A. Mooney - Credit: Tricia Rothwell

In August 1916 the 55th (West Lancashire) Division received the following message from its Commanding Officer, Major General H.S. Jeudwine, following a particularly gruelling engagement on the Somme Front: “The casualties in the actions in which the Division have recently been engaged have been very severe, but the bravery and courage of the troops in the attack were magnificent, and the Lancashire characteristic, dogged determination, was never better shown. Any ground gained was seldom lost. Our Line was advanced 500 yards on the right, and 300 yards on the left. 13,000 yards of trenches were dug by the Division in the 17 days, and over 3,000 yards were deepened and widened.” 

The 55th Division had been formed – or, rather, re-formed – in January 1916, bringing together a number of Lancashire units, mainly from the western side of the county, but also including the East Lancashire unit of the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, raised in Bury.  

My grandfather, Norman Hall, was in the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers. Their Brigade, the 164th Brigade, comprising the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, the 1/4th Loyal North Lancashires, the 1/4th King’s Own Lancasters, and the 1/8th Liverpool (Irish), took part in the engagement mentioned above, an attack on the village of Guillemont.

Captain Norman Hall was injured at the Somme, but survived the war

Captain Norman Hall was injured at the Somme, but survived the war - Credit: Tricia Rothwell

Though Major General Jeudwine’s message to his troops no doubt put the best gloss possible upon the engagement, it had to be accepted that the casualties were “very severe”, and the gains described do not sound especially significant, even to our untrained ears. Certainly the objective of the attack, Guillemont, was not captured. 

Overcrowding in the trenches and poor communication were a particular problems in the engagement. My grandfather was fortunate that the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers were not involved in the first wave of the attack. He was even more fortunate that an order for his unit to join the attack at 4.20am was not received until 4.45am, too late for the order to be carried out; his good fortune is brought into yet sharper relief by the fact that a report in the unit’s official War Diary (held at the National Archives) shows that the Commanding Officer of the Battalion had in any event decided to call off the attack at 4.00am, an order which had no chance at all of getting through to the front line before the time appointed for the attack 20 minutes later. The toll of casualties was such that, if Norman had “gone over the top” at 4.20am, he certainly would not have survived. Such was the fine line between life and death in World War One. 

In 1919 Norman began writing a diary of his experiences during the war, which is now in the Imperial War Museum. His loyalty and commitment to the cause of defending Britain from the German threat could never at any time have been in doubt, and he had the greatest respect for Major General Jeudwine, but he says of the ill-conceived and badly organised attack on Guillemont on  August 8, 1916: “Several Divisions had made an attempt to do this previously, but had failed. What were our chances with one Brigade, which was already weak after many casualties? But it was typical of the tactics on the Somme – a nibbling, useless waste of good troops; innumerable lives were wasted in this way.” 

What shines through Major General Jeudwine’ message, however, is that a particular aspect of the Lancashire character – stubbornness, if you like – meant that, no matter how difficult the conditions were, a Commanding Officer could rely on Lancashire troops under his command to do their very best. 

The former family home in Bury

The former family home in Bury - Credit: Tricia Rothwell

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Norman was born and brought up in Bury, the family home in 1914 was at 217 Walmersley Road. He attended Bury Grammar School, then Manchester University (Owens College, as it was then) to study chemistry, and on graduation went to work for Lever Brothers in Port Sunlight about a year before war broke out. 

He originally applied to become an officer, but was rejected on chest measurement. Still keen to join up, he enlisted as a private with the Liverpool “Pals”, the 19th (Service) 3rd City Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment on September 3, 1914, aged 19. He described his experience at the recruiting office like this: “There I found a line of fellows waiting with similar intentions to my own. We were given several forms to fill in. Then we were told to strip for medical inspection. Being the first time I had been medically inspected in public, I felt somewhat embarrassed; however, it had to be done – so now for it. 

“A Sergeant took me in hand first. He took my chest measurement. ‘Eh lad th’yll have to do better than that. Take a deep breath. Eh, go on, deeper’ – eventually by not holding the tape too tight across the back I only just reached the required standard. This measurement was duly recorded on one of the Army Forms. Then I had to be weighed. The Sergeant seemed very struck with my slimness – of course I never was really fat! On the scales I jumped, and turned it at 7 stone 11 pounds, to the amusement of the Sergeant who said, “Eh, mon, you’ll never make a soldier with that weight. Are you a jockey? Anyway, we’ll soon make a man of you in the Army.” Then I had my eyes tested, my lungs, and several other odd tricks. The final decision was alright – “Are you keen?” - to which I replied “Yes – what do you think I came here for if I wasn’t?” 

“We then dressed – and returned to be sworn in. I was given a form describing my general appearance etc. and out I went – a soldier – feeling as proud as punch and inches taller.” 

Shortly after commencing his training with the Liverpool “Pals”, he managed to get a recommendation to become an officer in the newly-to-be-formed 5th Reserve Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers in Bury, and transferred across to them as a 2nd lieutenant in October 1914, going to France with the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers on 3 May 1915.

The memorial to the 55th West Lancashire Division

The memorial to the 55th West Lancashire Division - Credit: Tricia Rothwell

He was fiercely proud of his Lancashire roots, and, like Major General Jeudwine, believed Lancashire men were blessed with a distinctive character. He thought of them as being innately sensible and down-to-earth, as illustrated by his comment about a new chaplain joining the unit: “A Padre who used to be at Bolton Abbey came to us, a narrow and conceited man with high ideas – not a bit suitable for Lancashire men.” 

In early 1916 Norman was promoted to Captain, in charge of “Z” Company, comprising some 50 men. Later, looking back, he says: “I positively loved that Company … every man of whom I knew so well”, and he describes one means of getting to know them being by censoring their letters, though he does not break any confidences by revealing specific contents. He always speaks of the men with affection, often putting their words into the Lancashire dialect. On the occasions when he had to write a letter to inform the family of a man’s death, he clearly felt the loss personally. 

Norman was seriously wounded on the Somme in September 1916, but returned to France in June 1917, this time to join the 1/5th Lancashire Fusiliers. His luck held, and he survived the war to write his diary, now published in a 344 page paperback under the title of A Lancashire Fusilier’s First World War, edited by his grand-daughter, Tricia Rothwell. 

The book mentions about 400 individuals who served alongside Norman, many from the Lancashire Fusiliers, but also from other regiments, especially Lancashire regiments, and includes about 200 illustrations, many in colour, about 90% of which are copied from the original diary. 

It is a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in the trenches and mud of northern France and features some heart-rending accounts of comrades who never returned. 

A Lancashire Fusilier’s First World War, £15, and is an entirely not-for-profit venture, with £9 of purchases from the publisher’s website - Lancashire Fusilier (p3publications.com - going to charity.