Manitoba

'The heavens were filled with these little devils': Winnipegger's diaries chronicle WW I experience

The fading script and brittle pages of a Winnipegger's century-old First World War diaries are giving the public a raw glimpse into a soldier's daily life in battle, after recently being transcribed and made available online.

Walter Eggertson was a 20-year-old student at Wesley College when he set aside his studies to serve overseas

Walter Eggertson's diaries have been transcribed and made available online by the University of Manitoba's archives and special collections department. (University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections)

The fading script and brittle pages of a Winnipegger's century-old First World War diaries are giving the public a raw glimpse into a soldier's daily life in battle, after recently being transcribed and made available online.

"It's a first-person account but it's also uncensored, which is very rare for war records. We have a lot of different war records but the correspondence is always censored," said Natalie Vielfaure, an archivist with the University of Manitoba archives and special collections department, which recently acquired the diaries of Walter Eggertson.

Censorship of soldiers' letters was commonly undertaken by regimental officers checking to ensure no sensitive operational details were mentioned.

Walter Eggertson was a 20-year-old student at Wesley College when he enlisted in the army. (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

Many other accounts of the war were written after the fact, which means some details might have been forgotten, Vielfaure said.

"Eggertson's diaries were written in the moment," she said.

They also weren't sent through the mail, which is why they weren't subject to censoring. The diaries were carried with him through the war and upon his return after being discharged.

And it was important to him that they be preserved, Vielfaure noted.

"There's an instance [in the diaries] where he writes, 'Keep this as proof. Do not lose it. Take good care of this diary.'"

The U of M wanted to have them transcribed and available to coincide with Remembrance Day. While there are some instances where words couldn't be deciphered, the text of the diaries has been fully reproduced.

Eggertson was a 20-year-old student at Wesley College (one of the University of Winnipeg's founding colleges) when he set aside his studies in 1916 to enlist in the army and serve overseas.

The diaries begin in May 1917. (University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections)

The diaries, which begin in May 1917, start with documenting the time he spent training in England before going to the front in France.

Eggertson's first entry, dated May 25, 1917, was written while in a reserve camp in Folkestone, a port town in southeast England:

"Immediately after eating there happened something I will never forget as long as I live. 

"We were on blanket parade and had just reached the quartermaster's stand when I heard a sound, similar to that of a sky rocket, followed by a great clash. However, I did not pay much heed to it. Then a minute later I heard a repetition of this and saw mud and stones flying, and realized what the trouble actually was.

"Looking up in the air I noticed at first three or four silvery white aeroplanes, which are known as the Kaiser's white wings or Taubes. Then of a sudden it seemed as if the heavens were filled with these little devils, and I counted no less than 17 of them. Bomb after bomb was dropped and one of these … fell about 50 feet from me blowing up one hut completely and partly demolishing two others.

"After the smoke had cleared away no less than 10 soldiers were carried away dead and 19 injured."

Soldier and traveller

Eggertson chronicled many experiences in the diaries, which provide glimpses into his training, combat, travels and friendships over the course of a year and a half of service.

"It's a really well-rounded insight into the day-to-day activities of someone that was serving overseas at war. The entries are short but they cover a wide variety of topics," Vielfaure said.

"There's tales of victory and devastation, but there's also what kind of seems mundane or routine — like he'll talk about the weather that day, or how many letters he might have written home, or the amount of money he received during paydays.

"Even smaller incidents — his definition of smaller incidents — are very startling, like he tells about a small gas attack. When you think of a gas attack, you don't think it's a small event, but I guess relative to everything else he saw, it was."

The entries are not restricted to a soldier's perspective, either. Some reflect the views of a traveller.

Over a century later, the ink and pencil marks in the diaries are fading and their pages are becoming increasingly fragile, says Natalie Vielfaure, an archivist with the University of Manitoba archives and special collections department. (University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections)

"He's a young man who is seeing parts of the world for the first time. He talks about visiting new cities in England, France, Scotland — seeing the sights while he's on leave," Vielfaure said.

"There are a lot of elements in the diary that are very relatable, even today. He talks about going to the pub with some of his friends, he plays baseball, football, he likes to play the piano. He attends concerts and goes to the theatre and even talks about his 21st birthday, going joyriding with some friends.

"But at the same time, there's always that element of war. At the end of his birthday, it ends with an air raid near Dover."

Time takes toll on diaries

Over a century later, these remnants of Eggertson's service are fading, quite literally, Vielfaure said. The ink and pencil marks are paling and the pages of the diaries are becoming increasingly fragile.

The transcriptions were made "to ensure these memories are not forgotten," states a news release from the U of M.

The transcriptions include annotations to provide a broader context — clarifying obscure abbreviations and, in instances where Eggertson refers to the death of a comrade, links to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, where readers can learn more about the fallen soldiers. 

Eggertson rose from private to the rank of sergeant before being wounded and discharged after the end of the war, in March 1919.

In the postwar period, he spent some time working in real estate in Florida before returning to Winnipeg, where he worked for the City of Winnipeg's assessment department and married Elizabeth McGillivray.

Eggertson died on May 1, 1977, and the diaries were later donated to the U of M by his grandson Grant Sveinson.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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