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Remembered Today:

Diary of a Dispatch Rider

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The 1918 diary of John Sangway, a dispatch rider who served on the Western Front with 'R' Corps (XVII Corps) Signals Company, Royal Engineers.

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Continuing the diary of John Sangway, dispatch rider. The Allies are about to fight the Battle of Amiens, the first step in the advance to victory. During the buildup, secrecy had been maintained as much as possible but as John's diary today shows, word had begun to leak out:


Bank holiday. Paid Fris[by] 5 f[ran]cs*. Don’t mind as things are going strong down south & rumours of another shove as well coming in.


Awful toothache for two days & a night. Take Aspirin – it’s the goods!


* This was in relation to a bet John lost. Back in April, at a low point for the Allies, he had wagered that the war would be won by the August bank holiday.



Continuing the diary of Cpl John Sangway, dispatch rider. John and his unit had been resting for a fortnight, their first in months. The German offensives were just about played out and soon the Allies would be hitting back:


Rest “fini”. Pack & report in 3 hours! Return to D_. Hades!!



Continuing the diary of Cpl John Sangway, dispatch rider. John and his unit had just begun their first rest in months and today's entry is a brief one:


Physical jerks & rushing about for new bike*.


*John would end up purchasing this motorcycle when he was discharged from the army.


03/07/18 12:30am

Just a passing thought. A year ago I used to come off night duty and walk down between white cottages with hard blue shadows in the moonlight (very romantic looking) thinking how peaceful it was & yet how a turn of a hand would send a shell crashing at us. Now, how different! Frequently the bosche overhead making bad shots with bombs (he never scores!) & never knowing when he will start shelling again. Are we downhearted? Not a bit!



Quel jour! The OC wanted some screws so Carson gave me the job & permission to see Hughie [John’s brother, who was serving with the RAF] en route. I found him & was promptly invited “up”. I was keen but afraid of being sick or something, the lift feeling possibly. I threw out a line or two about not going far or high but they fell on barren ground – fortunately. The rush of wind prevented much foreboding at first but one’s mind became active as we dashed across the open ground slightly bumpily & with an unsteady feeling about the engine. Then all at once all was smooth. We were up. Then a gust of wind or rather several gusts drove us upwards in jerks. The plane rode them as a boat rides the waves though – no feeling of being turned over after the first one or two but the lift feeling was just noticeable. I wasn’t wasting any time in thinking about falling out though & soon began taking an interest in the ground. There was a very slight feeling of precariousness, and as we turned to cross a wood at two or three hundred feet or rather more the idea that it would be soft to fall on came up. All at once however I got used to the security & comfort of the motion & never had a second’s uneasiness of the slightest sort. Shortly I noticed the altimeter at 1000. The sea became easily visible with a big haze on. The base depot I know best showed up very clear, also some pretty villages, a big church, and a great wood. While I was taking all this in, we had risen to 2000 feet before I tumbled to the fact that we were still climbing. When I saw the dial I realised how different the fields looked, the patchwork had become smaller & less marked with detail. Soon it was 3000 & we sailed over the town. Everything was very clear & distinct & I picked out, I think, my old camp & the hospitals marked glaringly with the red cross. Everything look[ed] comically tiny & a group of some 20 Nissen huts puzzled me for a minute. They looked like little bed rolls.
Banking round curves was mildly exciting, especially when the wind gave a boost at the same moment, the first sign was an apparent movement of the ground until one noticed the wing tips. Hugh went some distance “hands off” & the machine was perfectly steady. He wrote several notes which I shall keep. The first was “What would Mother say if she could see us now!” At 2000 a waggon on the road would have been an exceedingly difficult target with a gun, but one sees the value from a photographic standpoint, every road, track, depression, hay-rick &c was clearly defined. A couple of holes in a field were strongly shaded & suggested bomb holes – possibly they were. Then came time to descend. Hugh took the ground, after sundry manoeuvres for position relative to wind, with perfect smoothness & was congratulated on his landing by the mechanics. In the moment of landing more than anything I realized that he was “some” pilot. I was quite deaf for some time afterwards having had neither hat or helmet. I was rather impressed with my novice’s difficulty in locating myself & mistook our own village within a few minutes after glancing elsewhere &, as I thought, back again. Perhaps the most striking thing was the absence of any feeling of height or being unsupported – even when looking straight down. The earth always seems like a big saucer & too full of interest somehow to appear a long way off. This was purely a natural feeling & not forced by calculating safety or anything like that. The "atmosphere" was one of safety & not of a falling proposition. I cannot define it more clearly.



Fritz has bought a pup today. The umpth* squadron moved last night & today for the first time Fritz started shelling their old aerodrome steadily!
He is still (or rather again) swinging ‘em over near us. They come at intervals with a lazy drone or a mild whistle and bump or crash. One gets used to ‘em after the first few have given the idea of their destination. It’s rotten at night though when one is awakened & half asleep hears the crash of a near one intensified by the stillness. Morale seems to go to sleep with one!
*John's obfuscation of the squadron number



Saw very fine sight at about 11.0pm. Fritz plane came over very low (Visible to [?some/me] although the moon was barely showing over the horizon). It crossed us towards the searchlights over an open stretch of country & when about a mile or less away was picked up by the beams. The sky was an inky blue, the rays of the lights were a bluish white and where the three crossed, the plane shone like mother of pearl – blue yellow creamy ghostly thing. The fixedness of the lights was rather impressive of sternness & rigidity. In a long moment or two we held our breath & then things started. The aviator fired tracer bullets down the beams & others were fired from the ground in bursts, while shell bursts occurred all round the target. Some were near in the beam itself but the plane kept on its way - hell for leather – too low to sideslip and just as it was lost to our sight the searchlights broke away with a sweep from the zenith to the horizon & back & then went out. We don’t know the end of the story but we think there could only be one reason for that signal from the searchl[igh]]ts.



Upon reflection I can now note the different kinds of shell sounds. The one I like best is the lazy drone. It seems to sail out of the blue easily and slowly until the crash comes. We have heard a lot of the sort with a preliminary pop, a fierce whistle & a great crash. There have also been several big ones with no sound at all until the explosion. They are merciful but alarming. Inspected a hole 25 feet across & 10 feet deep made by one of the latter. It threw chunks of pavé high in the air to a distance of some 200 yards. Fearful argument in mess about some 20 of the rubber heeled [i.e. silent] shells. Everybody thought there was a railway gun near, but nobody knew where! We knew where some of the shell-holes were though!


Much less windy now. One gets used to things, but imagination needs a stern hand occasionally.


Bet Frisby 5f[ran]cs peace will be declared before Aug[ust] Bank Holiday.



Went to ____ to open rear office. Thought [to] picnic but too much tied to office. Returned next day – only “wind-up” after all. Met _____ Cas [Casualty?] chaps who had been alarmed at _____ by German agents that Huns had broken through with cars and cav[alry]. They had scooted miles & left kit but sent back for some of it immediately after. Spy question serious. Geo. Milton got it into his brain & sees a spy every time he goes out. Sent police & APM to arrest a harmless lineman climbing up a pole once.
Interesting at rear office to hear plane circling over in moonlight – just not visible – and wait for bombs to drop with one eye on a convenient ditch! They dropped a few miles away & all was peace once more.
5am. All Quiet again now. Worth noting feeling when expecting to be blown up. Few nights ago ‘plane circled above from an hour before dawn to dawn (several nights in succession). One morning he dropped some bombs some distance away & then I heard a whistle just as he came over again. I thought “it” had come at last, but was suddenly coldly calm & sort of wondering what it would be like – but nothing happened – dud apparently. Curious because before & after I was trembling with funk.
Saw Guy this evening. He reports the worst time since he came out. Severe casualties including Godlee [there are no likely Godlees in CWGC records so he was perhaps only wounded]. Heaps of work. Up at 2am daily but doing damned well. Says he doesn’t fear for himself but can’t lie in bed without worrying about the men. Predicts that this is the end of the war. I hope so.



One tries to forget unpleasant experiences and at 4 days after I have almost lost my impressions of our first experience of the big offensive. Moreover one’s emotions are very elastic and one trembles with funk at 5.30am and jests cheerfully at 6, or more definitely is terrorised by a distant explosion at night and takes a nap in the open next day lulled by the whine of shells passing over.
Somewhere about 5.15am on the 21st, I was awakened by a “pop”, a whine and an explosion not too far away. I lay silent not wanting to show “wind-up” and presently someone said “that was the third like that!” After that one after another awoke and joined in the conversation like birds awakening at dawn, the shells continued about the same at intervals of a few minutes and later at longer intervals. The men soon begin to joke about them. The best effort was when a man passed on horseback, and a thin small voice said “There’s Billie Blank [General Sir Charles Fergusson, XVII Corps] (the GOC) ‘opping it!
During the day I went over to where the shells had pitched and heard a couple more come over.
That night I was on night duty and things were quiet until I returned at about 1o/c. I had just turned in when the firing started again but at slower intervals and nearer to us. I was tired and got an awful wind up & started to go down the [shelter] trench but was dissuaded, finally dossing on the floor with the others. Slept well when firing stopped.
The next night I lay awake until nearly 4am because of a similar thing but more particularly because of one of our guns which disturbed me every time I began to doze. It took me several hours to realize it was one of our own!
Sat[urday] night (23rd) I was called out of the billet to see an “air-fight”. I turned off the light, seized my tin-hat & went out in time to see a line of tracer bullets from a very low plane go over the billets towards a straggling end of the village. It was no fight but rather a fright. Thereafter I slept like a log until 5.30 when Geo. Milton going out with a special [dispatch] threw a handful of stones on the roof & later whined like a shell! I trembled again until I heard his bike start up & tumbled to it!
Sunday [24th] brought a few more shells, an enemy plane or two, some moments of fright but when a man straight from the front line came into the office at 1.30am (Monday) I became as calm as a rock although a bomb dropped some little distance away. Sort of pride I suppose. Wonderful effect though. Some gas shells dropped half a mile away that night, but not many. Slept well from 2.30 to 8.30 with lucid interval about 5 when a gas and a h[igh] v[elocity] shell came over.
Period of distinct windiness, feel big things are happening but painfully ignorant. Bad rumours & some gloom but personally very confident that we are coming out well on top & that the war is being hurried on to an early end.
Painful scenes when villagers were cleared out of an old home, not forced to go but frightened by tales of immediate bombardment.



John Douglas Sangway, a bank clerk from London, served as a dispatch rider on the Western Front from 1917 to 1919. He kept a diary of the final year of the war, starting in the days just after the great German offensive began in March 1918, and as we are now all locked down with nowhere to go and little else to do, I thought I'd get on with transcribing it and publish it here in instalments on the anniversary of each entry.
John was born in Marylebone on 17th December 1887 and was the eldest of four children; he had a brother, Hugh, who served in the RAF, and two sisters, Dorothy and Margaret (nicknamed Daw). While John was growing up, the family lived at the National Bank's Baker Street branch, where his father was an accountant and cashier.
He was educated at Habderdashers' Aske's School, Hampstead, and was a fit young man who excelled at gymnastics, won prizes at sports day and was a member of St Gabriel's Amateur Gymnastic Club, Cricklewood. After his school days, John followed in his father's footsteps and became a bank clerk.
He joined the army under the Derby Scheme on 8th December 1915 and was called up on 8th July 1916, quite a late callup even though he was medically A1 and a single man. As he knew how to ride a motorbike, he joined the Royal Engineers as a motorcycle corporal (service no. 192020) and served as a despach rider with 'R' Corps (XVII Corps) Signals Company from February 1917 until demobbed in July 1919.
Summing John up, his CO thought he had "proved himself an NCO of the highest type” and went on to say that he was “Well educated, industrious & willing, [...] a man that can be confidently recommended for advancement in civil life. He has done splendid work under all conditions for the Signal Service, can do running repairs & kept his machine on the road in all circumstances.” John left the army with his motorbike (which he had bought), the British War and Victory Medals and the King Albert Medal, an award for both Belgians and foreigners who had rendered outstanding services in charitable and humanitarian work in assisting Belgians in distress. There do not appear to be any surviving records relating to the awarding of this medal and unfortunately John's medal has lost its ribbon, which would have indicated whether his was awarded for helping with the re-victualling of Belgium or for some other service.
After the war, John's family moved out to the suburbs and lived in Cheam, Surrey. John resumed his civilian career and eventually became a bank manager. He married Helen Knights, in Steyning, Sussex, in the 1920s and they took a flat in Dulwich before moving to Banstead, not far from the rest of the family at Cheam. The early death of their son meant that they had no grandchildren and so after John's death in old age, his widow, Helen, passed on John's diary, papers and medals to the couple who had bought their old house in Banstead, with whom she had struck up a friendship. At one of many events taking place in Banstead to mark the centenary of the Great War, John's memorabilia was donated to the Banstead History Centre (in Banstead Library) and so we can now share his diary entries with you.
John did not record the day-to-day work he was engaged upon but he seems to have had both regularly scheduled and special dispatches to carry up towards the frontline. He was not a habitual diarist (a gap of a fortnight or so between entries is normal) but rather used his diary to record the more exceptional events in his time on the Western Front, starting with reflections on his experience of coming under artillery bombardment during the German's March 1918 offensive. Unlike the infantry, he was unused to shellfire and he didn't mind admitting his fear in his diary and analysing his emotional reactions to being fired upon. He was a keen photographer and it may be that he had an idea for a book of photographs, possibly coupled with some of his reflections recorded in the diary, entitled "Panoramas of a Purple Past."


John had come home for a period of leave in England between 2nd and 16th March 1918, during which time he probably bought or was given the slim black diary he went on to keep for the next year or so. The lists of names, items and events he entered show how hectic a period of leave must have been for most men, with little time to wind down. Many people had to be visited and there were trips to the shops, visits to the dentists, a call to the bank, a concert to see, admin to do and subscriptions to renew, a visit to the photographers and a list of people to send copies of the photos to, presents to buy for his family and necessities to buy to take back to France with him: an Ingersoll watch, pants, tobacco and a pipe.
It was just a few days after he got back to the Arras area that the Germans attacked and four days later he made his first proper diary entry, recording what it was like to come under bombardment.


So, on with the transcriptions... Additions, clarifications and queries will appear in square brackets. John self-censored and blanked out the names of locations and units; where we are able to identify these then we will add them. I would like to add some context from his company's war diary too but as that is at the Royal Engineer's Museum at Chatham and we are all staying home it won't be possible to do that just yet. For now, I will just say that XVII Corps were in the Arras area and so north of the main thrust of the German offensive which began on 21st March 1918.

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