Teen soldier’s Somme diary to go on display

Helen McComb from Glenanne holds the diary of her great uncle Private Thomas Chambers, known as Tommy. Photo Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Helen McComb from Glenanne holds the diary of her great uncle Private Thomas Chambers, known as Tommy. Photo Brian Lawless/PA Wire

A 100-year-old diary written by a teenage soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and kept by his Glenanne family is to be displayed to mark the centenary.

The 17-year-old’s pocket-sized leather journal was recovered after his death and kept by his loved ones in a box under a bed.

Private Thomas Chambers, known as Tommy, was among almost 20,000 British soldiers killed on July 1 1916, little more than three months after he had arrived in France from Ireland on what he described as his “adventures”.

His short diary, around 16 pages and written mostly in pencil, gives an insight into the preparations for a battle the British were hopeful they could win, but which resulted in a huge loss of life.

The young private’s great-niece Helen McComb, from Glenanne, near Markethill, said she was moved to tears reading the last words of her great-uncle who set off for battle never to return.

Ms McComb, who came across the diary recently when she heard there was to be a display for the centenary at the local Orange lodge, said: “My mother read it to us and told us about Tommy when we were children, and the diary was put away for safekeeping. But I hadn’t realised the importance I think until recently.”

The 56-year-old added,“I got goosebumps reading it. I just felt really emotional. I cried reading the last page. But I’m very proud that we have it and am happy for others to be able to see it.”

While Pte Chambers’ gravestone records his age as 19 the soldier was just 16 when he signed up to the army and 17 when he died fighting with the 36th Ulster Division, painstaking research by local woman Hilary Singleton uncovered.

The solicitor checked census records and looked into the history of what was happening in France on the dates of each of the diary entries.

Mrs Singleton, who has written a play telling the story of Pte Chambers and the other young men from the village of Glenanne who fought and died at the Somme, said, “It actually felt incredible to hold a diary that a soldier had in his breast pocket 100 years ago. It’s in excellent condition.”

Detailing his preparations for battle, Pte Chambers’ diary describes noisy shellfire, and marks out one specific bombardment by the British of the German front line as “like hell let loose”.

The diary will go on display at the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in Armagh as part of their Somme exhibition.