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Somme survivor's wartime diaries bring history to life

By Leek Post and Times  |  Posted: July 30, 2014

By Belinda Hargreaves

  • Harriet Robinson, aged 12, from Leek, on her New Forest pony.

  • Penny Meakin.

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The atrocities of the First World War are being brought to life in a new book published by Leek College lecturer Penny Meakin.

History leaps from the pages of 'The Meakin Diaries' following a 15-year labour of love that has seen the mother-of-four transcribe the wartime diaries of her husband's grandfather, Frank Meakin, who survived active service in the trenches of the Western Front.

Penny, aged 59, pictured, who lectures in travel and tourism, is a former diarist herself and was always fascinated by the two battered, leather-bound volumes passed down from the late Frank to her husband, Nick Meakin.

She said: "The keeping of diaries was strictly forbidden during active service, but Frank rebelliously and comprehensively kept one throughout – from 1915 when, as a newlywed, he signed up for the Sheffield City Battalion, until his discharge in 1918."

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Her research involved several journeys to France to visit the war cemeteries to find out what had happened to the young men he served with, many of whom were buried where they fell.

Most dramatic are Frank's accounts of the bloody Battle of the Somme.

We read of how, on June 27, 1916, Frank and his comrades had to pack all their personal belongings away as they were going 'over the top'.

A total of 650 men went but only 47 survived, including Frank Meakin. He was able to retrieve his beloved diary on July 18 and fill in the gaps. It said: "There were some ghastly messes... forms in the bottom of the trench and several times, in feeling if they were alive, my hand would be plunged into a gory mess of flesh, once the neck of a headless trunk.

"I encountered loose limbs too. I could get no water that night, except a few drops that I found in bottles lying about."

Penny, from Meir Heath, who has provided a glossary to explain unfamiliar terms, said: "What really drove me on was the fact that these diaries are virtually unique.

"There were many diarists from the Battalion who kept diaries prior to the Battle of the Somme, but very few survived to recount the activities from July 1 onwards.

"Frank's diaries are not only well written, but they include vivid descriptions of the squalid living conditions, being covered in lice and rats, accounts of one-to-one combats with the German army, and the shooting of Germans in self-defence. While I was reading it I thought how wonderful it would be for the relatives of these young men to know how brave they had been in fighting for king and country."

To that end Penny has researched every single name mentioned and, where possible, detailed where they are now buried. She notes that throughout the diary Frank is obsessed with food and details some of his best and worst meals – the obsession was no doubt brought about by the diabetes which he never declared as it would have ruled him out of active service.

Eventually, his diabetes got the better of him and he was discharged just 10 days before his battalion was disbanded, and he was sent to convalesce in Cheltenham.

Frank went back to his wife Doll and to his old job as an architect at Sheffield Town Hall.

The couple went on to have two children. He died aged just 54 from drowning while swimming in the sea at Bridlington.

Following his death, the wartime diaries, along with the letters he wrote to his wife during active service, were locked away in a box for 80 years.

Frank has five surviving grandchildren and his diaries and letters are published in paperback by Austin Macauley Publishers, priced £10.95, from a variety of bookshops and Amazon, which is also offering it as an e-book.

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