It survived both a war and a century in storage. Now, a diary written by a soldier during the Battle of the Somme has been sold at auction for £2,600.

Written by Private Arthur Edward Diggens, the diary was found in a Midlands barn and contains astonishing insights into the author’s experiences.

On the first day of the battle, Diggens wrote: ‘Something awful. Never witnessed anything like it before. After a bombardment of a week, the Germans mounted their own trenches and the infantry reckon that every German had a machine gun…’.

Militaria expert Adrian Stevenson with the Somme diary. Written in pencil by Private Arthur Diggens, it survived for a century in storage. Image: Hansons
Militaria expert Adrian Stevenson with the Somme diary. Written in pencil by Private Arthur Diggens, it survived for a century in storage. Image: Hansons

That day – 1 July 1916 – is regarded as the bloodiest in the history of the British army, with nearly 20,000 soldiers killed. The battle, intended to hasten an Allied victory against the Central Powers, lasted until 18 November 1916. The Allies advanced a few miles, but many key objectives remained unfulfilled.

Despite the high casualty rate, Diggens survived. He was already an experienced soldier, having taken part in the Gallipoli campaign the previous year, before moving to the Western Front, where he recorded the peril he faced.

His entry for 6 July reads: ‘A shell drops just a few yards in front of our billet. We were all out except three of the boys. One was wounded… a good job I was not on my bit as a piece of shell buried itself in my candle. Oh, you lucky devil’.

Demobbed in 1919, Diggens married the following year. He later served as an ARP warden during World War Two.

The entry for 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme. Despite the high casualty rate, Diggens survived the battle and the war. Image: Hansons
The entry for 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme. Despite the high casualty rate, Diggens survived the battle and the war. Image: Hansons

Diggens wrote two other diaries, one during Gallipoli and one following his time at the Somme, but both have been lost. This surviving notebook, although tattered, is still legible.

A great deal of mystery surrounds the item, which was found alongside some unrelated militaria items in a Leicestershire barn. The owner had no idea who the items belonged to, although suggested they may have been acquired by his grandmother.

The diary was discovered by militaria expert Adrian Stevenson at a valuation event and sold at Hansons on 20 March, with a guide price of £300.

Stevenson said: ‘When I opened it, I was amazed… The fact that both the diary and the soldier survived is pretty remarkable, given those awful statistics.’

At the same auction, items belonging to World War One pilot Lt Stuart Leslie, found alongside the diary, sold for £2,500.

This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.




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