George Punchard’s First World War diaries

The Suffolk Record Office at Ipswich was delighted to be able to borrow the original diaries of George Punchard to take digital copies to add to the collections (P850). George was a tannery worker from Ipswich who was a bandsman in the 4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment and acted as a stretcher-bearer on the First World War battlefield. The original diaries contain written accounts, photographs and ephemeral material and date from 1912 to 1925.

The diary was written up into 2 exercise books in 1919 from pocket notes made at the time of the events described. Punchard added a little to the diary in subsequent years, up to 1925, after he had re-joined the Territorials. It is important for his description of his experiences in the battles of Givenchy, December 1914, Neuve Chapelle, March 1915, and Second Battle of Ypres, April 1915. The bandsmen of the battalion had been trained as stretcher bearers from the 1913 summer camp, and Punchard describes the thick of the action. Away from immediate conflict there are descriptions of his service guarding Prisoners of War in 1918 and 1919, in the Home Defence Force in England, from January 1916 to February 1917, and in work as an NCO in a Labour Company.

The diary is also important however in a local and social context. Punchard was an Ipswich man who signed up to the local voluntary Territorial Batallion, the 4th Suffolks, along with other local men, and there are many named in the diary. Officers from prominent Suffolk families of the time are also named. Lieutenant Ganzoni, in the diary several times, had been elected as Member of Parliament for Ipswich in May 1914. The Battalion Colonel, Colonel F Garrett, was from the Garrett’s of Leiston, Ironworks, family. Of the Pretty family, (Ipswich corset business) Lieutenant Duncan Pretty became the first Officer from Ipswich to be killed in the war, whilst his brother Major Frank Pretty survived, and went on to purchase the Sutton Hoo Estate with his wife Edith, who later commissioned Basil Brown to excavate the Anglo Saxon burial mounds. Captain Tollemache was from the titled Helmingham family and a member of the Turner family was a Director of Turner’s Tannery in Ipswich, where George Punchard worked.

Punchard introduces the diary stating “I am writing an account of actually what happened from my point of view” and this is consistent throughout. He sticks to the events of his military service, essentially 1914 to 1919, and his thoughts about those events. He hardly mentions his family and does not describe anything about his 4 periods of leave back in Ipswich. Two of his three brothers were killed in August 1918 but this is not recorded.

A read of the full diary however does reveal a lot about George Punchard himself, the thoughts and philosophy of an ordinary, but thinking man, about huge events at a crucial time in our history; he writes well and is articulate. On page one Punchard states that he joined up (into the Territorials in 1912) “with a good heart and I always tried ever afterwards to do so”. This is born out throughout the diary, there are never any complaints about his situation or the deprivations he suffered. He always has a positive attitude, will help anyone, and give everyone a chance, even men with a bad reputation. He is conscientious, hardworking and honest. Punchard believes in fairness, voices his disapproval when he sees injustice, assesses people and situations on their merits, and hates dishonesty, such as when he sees a Quartermaster on the fiddle. When guarding the Norfolk coast at Cromer he is upset at the unfairness in society when on blackout duties. Lights that shone from the big houses on the cliffs, were duly reported, but no further action was ever taken, whilst several poor women in the town were fined for allowing a small light to show from a crack in their blinds.

A common theme in the diary is his poor opinion of most, but not all, officers, who he felt mainly stayed in safe dug-outs, avoiding possible danger, and he states “this war has made the average English Officer the laughing stock of the whole world” and complains they have not modernised in their relationship with the men as other country’s armies had. He gives a long description of a situation when they were ordered to drill in a field in full sight and range of the German positions. They were subsequently shelled resulting in a lieutenant and 4 men killed, and 10 injured. The Adjutant “emerging from a strong dugout” then reprimanded Punchard and the other NCOs for allowing the men to scatter when the shelling had started, and they were ordered to drill in the same field again a few days later.

Despite his social views Punchard is fiercely patriotic and pastes a 1919 newspaper article ‘Britain for the British’ in the diary which calls for all foreigners in Britain who had worked for the war effort, and others, to be sent home as soon as possible. On a personal level he seems to get on well with everyone, Indians, Australians, Americans, civilians, and talks fondly of the NCOs German servant at the Prisoner of War Camp, and secretly admires a prisoner who escaped. “Germans are our enemies” but “I think we have worse enemies in England (capitalists, profiteers, spies) making or hoarding up food and coal which makes the price of things go up so high that the soldier’s wives and children have to go short”. He is appalled that during his demobilisation process in 1919, soldiers operating the process expected tips, and offered ‘better of everything’ for the right bribe.

Apart from a war diary, the document is a good example of the social views of an Ipswich man in the early 20th century.

Looking at one of the original George Punchard diaries

Looking at one of the original George Punchard diaries

By Paul Botwright, Suffolk Record Office volunteer