Heritage: Daily life of a Merton rifleman in the Great War
For over half a century from 1911 until his death, Merton-born Tim Elliott (1895-1967) kept a secret daily diary.
Discovered in his loft 11 years later, it was a valuable find indeed since - apart from the rest of his life - it also offered an extremely rare insight into the personal experiences of an un-promoted serving soldier throughout the First World War from the early period to Armistice.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for example, his entry said he charged but was “one of the few” who returned alive.
The diary has remained with the family until recently when Robin Gregory, Tim’s son-in-law, a writer and lecturer, published it as an illustrated book entitled Tim’s Wars: The Psychology of War and Peace through One Man’s Eyes.
It reveals the calm of pre-war life in Merton 100 years ago as well as the storm of war. Tim’s father worked for the agriculturalists John Innes.
The family moved home from Mostyn Road to No 12 Wilton Crescent before the war, he left school at 14 and was a budding amateur actor, playwright and producer. He even got a few professional engagements, playing all the minor parts in a village hall within a bus or train ride of Merton.
On 31 October 1914 he was fined at Woking Police Court for riding his bike without a light. A few days later he enlisted in the Ninth Battalion County of London (Queen Victoria’s) Rifles and began training at Crowborough .
He enjoyed the discipline and on 8 March 1915 was allowed home leave.
On 8 May he was selected for the Expeditionary Force but managed another trip home and a walk on Wimbledon Common with girlfriends before leaving for France.
By 10 June he was in the trenches known as Scottish Woods, remaining on active service for over four years.
The diary describes his experience of the Somme in detail yet he made few complaints, apart from noting that the French troops were allowed leave every three months, unlike the British. He was finally granted home leave in late September 1917, returning to Merton, but two trips to the cinema with a girlfriend were both interrupted by German air raids and bombings.
Back in France he was involved in the second Battle of the Somme and was recognised for various acts of bravery yet retained the same rank of Rifleman throughout. During August 1918 his battalion repeatedly captured ground and prisoners and the diary describes every move and counter-move as Tim puts his own survival down to luck.
Even when injured in hospital with shrapnel wounds to his face and an eye he never stopped recording his experiences. During convalescence his light duties included burying the dead, assisting in the operating theatre and guiding reinforcements.
On 5 October he was finally granted more leave as a reward for long service and the diary describes a vivid dream of the war while he was on holiday in Devon.
When the war ended and as he awaited discharge, he joined an army entertainment group and volunteered for a female role to ensure a good part.
After the horrors of war, life could become fun once more. But later finding he couldn't make a go of it as an actor he went on to a successful career as a mental nurse, at one point living in Kensington Palace nursing the Earl of Athlone (1874-1957), a great uncle of the present Queen. His place in history was confirmed.
Tim’s Wars: the Psychology of War and Peace through One Man’s Eyes is published by Loaghtan Books at £14.95.
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