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Remembered Today:

Diary of a Dispatch Rider

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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 dispach 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's day-to-day work is largely neglected in his diary and the company's war diary (National Archives WO 95 947-5) is also unenlightening, being mainly concerned with cabling work (and occasionally the movements of pigeon lofts) and barely mentions the dispatch riders or their work but they seem to have had both regularly scheduled runs to deliver DRLS (DIspatch Rider Letter Service) packets of messages (over 1,000 of these messages per day sometimes) and special dispatches (up to 20 a day) to carry up to the units under the corps' command. 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.


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