Jack's Dairy 1914-1918

REVIEW: General Jack’s Diary 1914-18 by John Terraine

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Captain James L. Jack was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Cameronians as a staff Captain. The 1st Cameronians of the 19th Infantry Brigade was one of the earliest British regiments to arrive at the front.

From August to November 1914 Captain James Jack took part in many of the early actions, including Mons, Le Cateau, the Retreat to Paris and the battles of the Marne, Aisne and Armentieres. “After Le Cateau, Jack was awarded the Croix de Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. In his diary he remembered that another officer was nominated for the award at the same time: he commented “”But he died, and I lived…. and I always consider that I wear the medal as much for him as for myself””.

In June 1915, Jack was appointed to command a company in the 2nd Cameronians. He took part in the action of Bois-Grenier in September; this coincided with the Battle of Loos in which British forces suffered major losses. Jack’s Battalion moved to the Somme area in April 1916, where preparations were soon taking place for a major assault that was planned for July. The action started on June 24th with a ceaseless bombardment of the German trenches, and on the 28th Jack’s diary entry reads: ”……the air reverberates to the drum of our cannonade, the shells from which we hope are blasting the enemy and his positions into powder”. On June 30th he moved up to the front line where the assault was to be launched early the next day. He did not expect to survive.

Jack was appointed to command a battalion in the West Yorkshire Regiment and while still serving on the Somme front was successful in capturing the village of Villers-Guislain. This involved an advance of nearly a mile into German held territory, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his action.

In May 1917 the Regiment pulled back from the Somme and was moved to the area around Ypres. Jack became involved in the third Battle of Ypres otherwise known as Passchendaele, and in July took part in an assault on an area known as Bellewarde Ridge. He was severely wounded and hospitalized for six months.

Jack returned to the Western Front in July 1918 and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in command of the 1st of Cameronians, his first assignment at the start of the war. He received a telegram requesting his attendance at Buckingham Palace to be presented with his DSO by George V. In the autumn he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General in command of the 28th Infantry Brigade. His involvement in the last series of engagements of the War, near Courtrai in Belgium earned him a Bar for the DSO.

Jack started his diary at the start of the war and kept a detailed account of his time in the line and time in the rear. As a generalization, the British forces did a great job of keeping the soldiers at the front actively engaged at the front lines and complimented this with frequent, much needed, rest and recovery cycles at the rear. This was essential in maintaining the force. One of his telling entries in the diary was January 7, 1915, “The enemy’s snipers are active. This morning one of them put a bullet into the parapet a few inches from the Colonel’s nose and mine. Being chaffingly blamed by the Colonel as the cause of the shot I respectfully suggested that his bald head had caught the German eye.” Although this was a light moment, Jack was witness to the horror and ugliness that happened in the trenches, but also to the bravery and spirit that kept the British soldiers in the line.

Poignantly describing in detail the realities of war on the Western Front, these diaries have been edited with commentaries by the military historian John Terraine.

General Jack died on December 22nd, 1962 a decorated veteran of many wars. Rest in Peace.

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