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Dadswell Family

Diary of a Sapper –
World War One Reflections of Sapper Henry W Dadswell

Cover of 'Diary of a Sapper' book

More than 90 years after Henry Dadswell scribbled his daily diary entries in the trenches of World War One, his writings have emerged in a 144-page book Diary of a Sapper – World War One Reflections of Sapper Henry W Dadswell.

While the book essentially re-publishes an earlier typed manuscript, it now includes background information to place the author's story into the context of the war, and it includes photographs originally kept by the author and some of his fellow soldiers.

The emergence of the book, which tells of the life of an Australian Army signaller on the battlefields of France and Belgium, follows more than a year of research and other work which produced some extraordinary results -

  • five of the original diaries kept by Henry Dadswell during his war years were discovered in an attic;
  • the final hand-written version of Diary of a Sapper was found some 1,400 kilometres away, preserved and undisturbed for perhaps 20 years;
  • gradually-expanding drafts of many of the chapters of the book were found in a box of Henry Dadswell's papers, showing how the diaries grew over many years from small notebooks into manuscript form; and
  • close to publication time, a rare photograph was discovered among the papers of another soldier, showing Henry Dadswell working with horses while training as a signaller in England.

In this internet age, it was also possible to check much of the text and – importantly – to fully identify most of the 180 people mentioned in the original manuscript, even though some of them were originally identified with little more than 'nick names'.

Although not part of the original manuscript, the book also includes a chapter describing something of Henry Dadswell's experiences during World War Two, an event the old soldiers never dreamed would happen while they lived with their World War One memories.

The book is one of few which describes the life in battle of signallers who worked as telephone linesmen, placing and maintaining lines around the battleground so that those directing a battle could communicate with front-line troops and artillery as they faced the German Army.

Like many of those in France and Belgium, the life of signallers in battle was often lived under appalling conditions. Henry Dadswell lived to tell of his war-time life but in his time in France and Belgium he experienced the shock of a shell blistering across his back, a bullet slicing into his boot, a bullet hitting his metal helmet and another bouncing off his arm, being buried alive, being gassed and sprinting across 'no man's land' under fire from German snipers.

The battle scenes make for compelling reading.

Diary of a Sapper, with the original text, additional background material, photographs and an index, has been published by the family of Henry Dadswell. It is available from Harley Dadswell, PO Box 519, Curtin ACT 2605, for $20 plus $5 postage (within Australia). Enquiries: .

The original diaries

The original diaries were either small notebooks or actual diaries with one day per page. They briefly record the events of the day and noted what mail had been received.

    May, 1917
    Tuesday 1

    Morning. Arriving at Romes Camp near Amiens at 6.30am, stayed there for day. Left at 5.15 pm and came to Albert, arriving about 9pm. March to camp and stayed all night. Saw number of tanks for first time. Also leaning statue in Albert Cathedral. Town in ruins from shelling.

    September 1917
    Sunday 23

    Morning bursts of very heavy artillery fire. Ken Smith wounded, two other slightly gassed. Later Witchell and Fairnie gassed and sent away. T. McElgunn and Baker gassed and sent out to hospital. Evening out on lines twice. Fairly quiet except for heavies (HEs) gas shells falling during day and night. YMCA at Hdqrs of our Bde. gives biscuits, hot drinks etc to men.

    September 1917
    Thursday 27

    Morning came forward with Sgt Sheppeard. Lay line but could not maintain it for shell fire. Day fairly quiet. Evening terrific barrage fire and German counter attack. Cpl Jones slightly wounded. German attack failed. Davis (of Talbot) and I carried out two drums of cable. Pretty lively shell fire going along Lone Trail and Glencorse Wood.

Expanded writings

Henry Dadswell's papers show that over a number of years, he expanded on what he had written in his original diaries, producing a number of drafts well before his decision to produce a complete story of his Service life.

Most of the expanded writings are hand-written although there is an occasional section produced on a typewriter by an unknown typist. None show the dates they were written but it is apparent Henry Dadswell was expanding on his original diaries long before he eventually decided to produce Diary of a Sapper. The paper and ink suggest these early writings may have been done in the 1930s and 1940s.

    On Monday 24th there was fairly heavy firing and I was out several times on lines. The artillery fire was from steady to very heavy all day. I generally worked with A. Weir and also had a trip out on my own. There were a large number of tanks moving up to the line and all getting ready for the attack. On the 25th there was a heavy barrage fire early in the morning followed by successive barrages, all heavy until midday when the fire became continuous and terribly heavy. I was out on lines all the morning with Cpl Archbold and Jim Davis. We were forced to take shelter in a pill box and the shells fell thick and heavy all around, killing and wounding many of our men.

The final manuscript

In a 1975 letter to a family friend, Henry Dadswell said he wrote Diary of a Sapper "nearly 20 years ago", suggesting that in the 1950s he decided to bring together his writings into a complete manuscript.

He made the decision when a World War Two soldier asked if he had ever had any shells land near him. That a former soldier could ask such a question apparently made him realise that not even later soldiers realised what the World War One diggers had been through.

In the late 1950s/early 1960s, family members became involved, typing up the final draft of the Diary of a Sapper manuscript.

Henry Dadswell hand-wrote the more than 60,000 words that made up the manuscript, and the final draft has been preserved.

    ... Jack Dawes and I raced in without our helmets. We got a mouthful of gas, shot down the stairs and put our helmets on, and went back again, but Drake wasn't there. He had got out. The gas was phosgene and we were all sick, choking, when the QM arrived with rum. We swallowed some and the fumes of rum and gas made us horribly sick and we vomited most of the gas out, and after a couple of hours only had a bad headache and didn't have to go out of action ...

Since 1964, when the first typewritten version of Diary of a Sapper was produced, there have been several more typewritten versions to meet the interest of family members, friends and others.

For many years there had been a wish to do what had been talked about back in the 1960s - to get the writings of Henry Dadswell into a more durable form, so others could read something of the life lived by World War One linesmen.

Early in 2009, work began and more than a year later the research and production resulted in the 144-page book which records not just the story produced by Henry Dadswell but which also publishes photographs which he brought back from the war, more than 90 years ago.

Diary of a Sapper, with the original text, additional background material, photographs and an index, has been published by the family of Henry Dadswell. It is available from Harley Dadswell, PO Box 519, Curtin ACT 2605, for $20 plus $5 postage (within Australia). Enquiries: (02) 6282 3841 or .

Information compiled in August 2010

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