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Inkpen woman's Great War diaries discovered

Author uses poignant documents in book

John Garvey


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Inkpen woman's Great War diaries discovered

THE diaries of an Inkpen woman whose sons fought in the First World War have been discovered.

Nancy Peto, the wife of former Devizes MP Sir Basil, poured out her heart in the pages while two of their sons were serving on the Western Front.

They are to be published, for the first time, by author and historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore in the new paperback version of Somme: Into the Breach, along with her sons’ moving missives from the front.

The couple’s eldest son, Michael, went to France with the pioneer battalion of the Grenadier Guards, while her second son, Christopher, was with the cavalry regiment The Lancers.

Both survived the battle, but not before they witnessed many gruesome sights.

Christopher was wounded after the Somme fighting but was sent back to fight once he had recovered.

Michael, meanwhile, was brought home from the trenches after the Somme, suffering with shell shock.

But he also had to go back to fight before the war ended.

The entry in Lady Peto’s diary on July 4, 1916, three days after the biggest attack in history had resulted in more than 57,000 British casualties, is typical: “It is now 11 p.m. and as I pulled my bedroom curtains apart to open the window still wider, having turned off the electric light first of all – police precautions – I see five or six powerful searchlights throwing great beams of light across the sky.

“Not having thought about Zeppelins and their attendant horrors for some time, this reminder strikes a fresh chill upon one’s heart.

“How much it has to bear and suffer! How it jumps and throbs at every little unexpected sound, at some sudden association with those darling boys, and above all the strain that is put upon it when one hears the ‘rat-tat’ on the front door which means nothing else but a telegram.

“The sigh of relief, the inward prayer, the return to one’s occupation, only to suffer every detail all over again the next time a telegram comes.”

Meanwhile, Michael told his mother: “I have been working just where Chris is supposed to have buried all the bodies, but I suppose there were so many that Chris grew tired, for the ground is still thickly strewn.

“They are, as someone remarked today, a bit riper, so to speak, than they were when he was there!”

Mr Sebag-Montefiore described the diary as an “untapped gem”, the contents of which have never before been published.

He said he had never seen another like it because it combines vivid accounts from the front with very frank descriptions of what it felt like to read about them at home in Inkpen.

He added: “[It] is not just notable for its descriptions of the battlefield and her fearful reactions – it is full of interesting details about how war-time life on the home front differed from what it was like during peace time.

“For a start, women were doing all the jobs that used to be done by men.

“Petrol was in equally short supply. As a result there were hardly any taxis available.

“If you wanted a ride, you had to get into a vehicle pulled by a horse.

“Sugar was in very short supply and although meat, fish and tea were still available, the price had shot up.”

The paperback edition of Mr Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach, published by Penguin, is out now, as is the updated paperback 75th Anniversary edition of his Enigma: the Battle for the Code with new material added, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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