By Elizabeth Foster, Department of History & Archaeology, University of Chester
Arthur Marwick wrote in The Nature of History that ‘it is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself’. With the recent centenary of World War One, it is more relevant than ever to look back on our Great War heritage. Cheshire’s contribution to the First World War went far beyond the Cheshire Regiment, and it is important to record and remember the experiences of the Cheshire residents before these stories are lost.
Diaries are an invaluable source, showing how real people experienced history as it happened. As they are not written for an audience, they often contain a more honest, personal account than some other sources. By the Second World War, the importance of keeping a diary had been recognised, and the Mass-Observation Project was set up in 1937 by Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson in order to provide a record for the future. It was for the Mass-Observation Project that the housewife Nella Last wrote her well known World War Two diary, providing insight into the lives of civilians, and the changing role of women during the war. Two decades before this initiative Albert Simpkin, from Manchester, kept a diary during his time as a Despatch Rider in the Great War, which has now been published by his great-nephew, David Venner (Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18 – The Diary of Sergeant Albert Simpkin MM, Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2015).
A Despatch Rider carried messages between Army, Corps and Divisional commanders at the rear to brigades and battalions at the front, and was often sent to find troops who had got lost in the war-torn French countryside, a job which could be difficult and dangerous. While trying to find a battalion – or sometimes a single soldier- in a foreign country where the landscape was altered almost daily by the ravages of war, a Despatch Rider was forced to dodge German shells, risk gas attacks and contend with dangerous road conditions. Their work was invaluable, but the part played by these men is often overlooked. The job was not easy, but Sgt Simpkin later wrote in the preface to his diary that ‘looking back, I am sure a Despatch Rider with a division had one of the most interesting jobs in the army.’
Albert Simpkin was born on 28th June 1885, in Salford near Manchester, and before the war he had been apprenticed as an engineer to Crossley Brothers. When the war broke out, his younger brother was called up from the territorials, but Albert was turned down. He was desperate to do his part for the war effort, but did not want to join the infantry, writing in his diary on 14thSeptember 1914 that ‘I always hated walking!…I have almost lived on wheels since I was 12-years-old.’ Albert was a keen motorcyclist, and as a member of the Auto Cyclists Union he heard that the army was looking for experienced motorcyclists to carry despatches. He was sworn into the Royal Engineers, as one of the ten Despatch Riders with the 31st Signal Company. He trained at Buxton, Cheshire, where two months later he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
Albert and the other Despatch Riders were issued with new Triumph motorcycles, and on the 28th July, 1915, he sailed for France with the 37th Division. His Division was involved in the Battle of Arras, the Battle of the Ancre, the 3rd Battle of Ypres and the Final Allied Offensive. Sgt Simpkin’s diary relates the perils he faced and the privations of life at the front, but also highlights other less obvious dangers. After the Battle of Arras, Sgt Simpkin wrote that for a Despatch Rider ‘his chief preoccupation is keeping from falling under the wheels of lorries and waggons, rather than running the gauntlet of ‘shot and shell’’. It is easy to imagine that as a Despatch Rider Sgt Simpkin may not have shared the horrors of war experienced by those involved in the fighting, but his diaries testify otherwise. He writes of the enormous losses suffered by both sides, the suffering of wounded or captured men, and of running for his life from German snipers.
Despite the hardships he faced, Sgt Simpkin’s diary frequently dwells on the happier moments of his time in the army. While training at Buxton in January 1915 he recorded that ‘hockey on roller skates is the latest craze. Each signal company has a team and some fierce matches have been played, usually with casualties’. The published diaries of other World War One soldiers in France are often gloomy, focusing on the sorrows of the troops and the tragic effects the war had on the French civilians. Sgt Simpkin’s diary abounds with funny incidents, the high jinks of the men, and colourful descriptions of the French inhabitants he encounters. Although Sgt Simpkin and his battalion experienced a great deal of danger and tragedy, it is the references to the men doing their best to stay cheerful even in the most difficult circumstances that stand out most in Sgt Simpkin’s diary. His reports of the Christmas dinners enjoyed by the Despatch Riders are particularly glowing. In December 1915 he reported that
The D.R’s Christmas dinner was a great success. Soup, fish, goose, plum pudding and all the usual trimmings…After we had drunk every toast we could invent as an excuse for a glass we adjourned to the DRs’ billet for entertainment and refreshment. Everyone had to give a song, no excuses accepted, and so it went on until midnight.’
The men seem to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves that night, and Sgt Simpkin’s diary suggests that a spirit of camaraderie existed among the DR’s. Though Albert was a Sergeant, his diary frequently bemoans what he terms the ‘childish snobbery of the old army’, and he greatly enjoyed the company of his fellow DR’s, writing in December 1916 that:
‘I had an invitation from the sergeants’ mess though I would much preferred to have been with the DR’s. The company sergeants are all fine fellows but I missed the nimble wit and humour of the DRs’ mess’.
Sgt Simpkin survived World War One and returned home in 1919. He was one of the lucky ones; many Despatch Riders did not make it through the war. His diary repeatedly mentions accidents involving Despatch Riders, even during their training at Buxton. In 1918, at the Armistice, he wrote that ‘before the war most of my leisure time was spent in search of mildly dangerous sports…All that is over, I have had enough excitement for a lifetime’. After the war, Sgt Simpkin returned to Crossly Brothers, becoming Chief Engineer at the Openshaw works. At the Armistice, he wrote in his diary that ‘all I want is the peace of the English countryside and the solitude of the hills’, but his adventure was not yet over. He married in 1926, and soon after he was sent to Buenos Aires, where the company was hoping to expand. He and his wife remained in Buenos Aires, where he died in 1966 aged eighty.
Albert Simpkin’s contribution to the war effort is an example of the many varied roles carried out in the First World War. Although Despatch Riders were in the minority compared to other army personnel, they were just as vital to the success of the allies and laid their life on the line every day. For this they deserve recognition and their rightful place in the history of World War One.
***For more on Albert Simpkin, please visit David Venner’s website, http://www.diary-of-a-despatch-rider.co.uk/.
Broad, Richard & Suzie Fleming, ‘Editor’s preface’, in Nella Last’s War – A Mother’s Diary 1919-45by Nella Last (London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1981)
E.H. Carter and R.A.F. Mears, A History of Britain – Section 5, 1688-1958, 3rd edn, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1960)
Marwick, Arthur, ‘Introduction’ in Total War and Social Change, ed. by Arthur Marwick (Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1988)
Marwick, Arthur, The Nature of History (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1973)
Venner, David (ed), Despatch Rider on the Western Front, 1915-18 – The Diary of Sergeant Albert Simpkin MM, (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2015)