Tommies laughed amid war horrors

Somme Tank
Somme Tank

The wonderful sense of humour of British soldiers who were experiencing the horrors of the First World War is revealed in a wartime diary, loaned to us by a Warwick man.

John Payton of Woodloes Park has submitted the diary of his great uncle, Joe Payton, who served in the Motor Transport Unit of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

The diary consists mainly of sketches and cartoons from 1916-17 as well as signatures and names and addresses of his army companions.

John said: “The Tommy’s sense of humour comes through in the diary. The German soldiers couldn’t understand why we kept laughing. The British soldiers saw humour in anything.”

One of the cartoons (pictured), entitled ‘Somme Tank’, shows a Heath-Robinson style German tank propelled by a belt with boots and tiny soldiers hanging on the front. Another drawing shows an opened bottle of beer with the caption: “Opened by Censor - what hopes for our poor Tommies - an everyday occurrence.”

At the start of the war, John’s father William and his brother Joe were taxi drivers in Birmingham. One of them picked up an army officer at New Street Station who said they were short of army drivers. So the pair of them volunteered and joined the motor transport unit. Both survived the war.

John was moved to write a poem after a visit to the First World War battlefields, where there are a great many headstones simply carrying the inscription “A Soldier of the Great War” as it was not possible to establish their identities. One of the verses is:

What was it that drove all those brave men

To face sudden death again and again?

They’re the Lost Generation who we’ll never meet

Who were sent out to achieve an impossible feat