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Irish soldier’s diary on end of first World War released

Albert Woodman’s entries provide details of life in Dunkirk during final days of conflict

Image of Albert Woodman, who was stationed in Dunkirk during the last days of the first World War. Woodman’s diary has been made available online.
Extract from the diary of Albert Woodman, who was stationed in Dunkirk during the last days of the first World War.

A diary from an Irish soldier chronicling the last days of the first World War has been made available online.

The diary, written by Albert Woodman, a signaller in the Royal Engineers, provides details of day-to-day life in Dunkirk, France, from mid-January 1918 continuing through to the armistice that marked the end of the conflict in November 1918.

Although the port of Dunkirk was behind Allied lines, it was regularly shelled from the sea and bombed from the air by German forces.

The diary has been transcribed and uploaded online by students at Maynooth University.

The project was developed by students enrolled in An Foras Feasa’s digital scholarly editing module.

Prof Susan Schreibman, director of An Foras Feasa and project supervisor, said Woodman’s experience gave a different perspective on the first World War, one from behind the frontlines.

However, Woodman’s experiences at Dunkirk were not without risk. One diary entry notes how “at 8.30am Fritz dropped another big shell . . . at 1.25pm a big shell arrived . . . another shell about 3pm”.

The diaries give a vivid account of the alarm that gripped the Allied lines during the German Spring Offensive of March 1918, which was the closest the British and French forces came to defeat in the war.

“One can meet a super abundance of English pessimists nowadays which makes me feel inclined to say I don’t care a damn who wins or loses,” he wrote late in March 1918.

Another diary account from March 30th states: “Germans are going great shakes down by the Somme direction and have reached a point about ten miles from Amiens, so that town will come under their strafing methods once more.”

Woodman’s background

Woodman was the eldest son of an Anglo-Irish family living in Glasnevin, Dublin, prior to the outbreak of the first World War.

With skills in telegraphy, developed while working at the GPO before it was destroyed in the Easter Rising, Woodman joined the Royal Engineers’ Signal Corps and was soon stationed in France.

While home on leave in late 1917, he married his sweetheart, Nellie Mae Preston, before returning to France.

He wrote regularly both to his wife and about her. “Wish I had that wee wifie of mine somewhere near. Wonder when I shall really see her again and hold her in my arms.

“I think I want her more than ever now. I can’t forget our wonderful happiness together. She certainly is a wonderful wee woman. Roll on the end of this blooming guerre.”

The diary entries continue up to the end of the war, about which he writes: “This Division is going to the Rhine to keep the peace until the conclusion of the armistice. LONDON & PARIS gone mad!!! Kaiser abdicates & GERMANY in revolution and all split up.”

Albert’s daughter Thelma found his diary while clearing out their family home in Glasnevin. In turn, her daughter Joyce Timms kept them when clearing out her own parents’ house some years later.

Ms Timms lent the diary to a Remembrance Day exhibition in her local parish, and through that she became aware that they might be of more general interest.

The diary can be accessed online.