A black and empty future

A wounded soldier is carried to safety on 1 Aug 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele
Photo: John Brooke © IWM Q 5935

Of the many first-person accounts of World War I, the diary of Edwin Campion Vaughan stands as one of the most vivid and harrowing ever kept. Joining the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 19th June 1916 as a second lieutenant, eighteen-year-old Vaughan soon found himself on the Western Front, and by July was amidst the Battle of Passchendaele, embroiled in the overwhelming chaos of trench warfare. In his diary, Vaughan chronicled the confusion, fear, and unrelenting violence that marked this infamous conflict, including the eventual decimation of his company. By the time of this, his final entry, on 28th August, the human toll had become deeply personal, leading him to reflect on the tragic loss of friends and the emptiness of survival.

The Diary Entry

August 28, 1917

With ironical politeness I apologised in French for the condition of the roads and he replied in all seriousness that we had made a greater mess of theirs. Thinking he might be interested, I told him that Springfield had fallen, and he immediately asked me what had happened to the officer. He was very distressed when I told him for, he said, they had been at school together and also served together in the army. Close to Irish Farm he was taken off to the prisoner of war cage, while we continued on to Reigersburg. Not one word did we speak of the attack, and in the camp we separated in silence. I found that I was alone in my tent, which I entered soaked in mud and blood from head to foot. It was brightly lighted by candles and Martin had laid out my valise and pyjamas. As I dragged off my clothes he entered and filled my canvas bath with hot water.

Doggedly driving all thoughts out of my head I bathed, crawled into bed and ate a large plateful of stew. Then I laid my utterly vacuous head upon the pillow and slept.

At about 9 a.m. I dragged myself wearily out to take a muster parade on which my worst fears were realised. Standing near the cookers were four small groups of bedraggled, unshaven men from whom the quartermaster sergeants were gathering information concerning any of their pals they had seen killed or wounded. It was a terrible list. Poor old Pepper had gone—hit in the back by a chunk of shell; twice buried as he lay dying in a hole, his dead body blown up and lost after Willis had carried it back to Vanheule Farm. Ewing hit by machine gun bullets had lain beside him for a while and taken messages for his girl at home.

Chalk, our little treasure, had been seen to fall riddled with bullets; then he too had been hit by a shell. Sergeant Wheeldon, DCM and bar, MM and bar, was killed and Foster. Also Corporals Harrison, Oldham, Mucklow and the imperturbable McKay. My black sheep—Dawson and Taylor—had died together, and out of our happy little band of 90 men, only 15 remained.

I thanked God that Harding was safe, but he had not been in the show; he had been transferred some days ago to the School of Musketry. The only officers who are left are Berry, Bridge, Coleridge, Samuel and MacFarlane, in addition to the CO and Mortimore.

So this was the end of ‘D’ Company. Feeling sick and lonely I returned to my tent to write out my casualty report; but instead I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future.

Further Reading

Diary entry excerpted from Some Desperate Glory: The Diary of A Young Officer, 1917, first published by Frederick Warne in 1981 © C.E.C. Vaughan and J.P.M. Vaughan. As mentioned above, Vaughan’s war diary is as brutal and unflinching as they get—increasingly so as the days and weeks go by—and it serves as an important reminder of the horrors of conflict. Vaughan survived the war, going on to qualify as a pilot with the RAF. Tragically he died in 1931, aged 33, when he was mistakenly administered the wrong drug by his doctor.


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