For years they lay hidden away in the attic of a house in New Zealand. But now, the missing World War One diaries of Nottingham soldier Billy Richards have been discovered, and are being used as the basis for a new exhibition and play...
A little over a century ago, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. Four years of bitter bloodshed had left forty million dead, and a world in tatters. Amid the ashes, a new world order was forming – Russia’s communist revolution had swept away the former empire, while a shared sense of lost innocence was being felt across the rest of Europe. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the ways we have of connecting with that past are swiftly dissipating – the last veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, passed away in July 2009. But thanks to the discovery of the diaries of one of Nottingham’s sons, there may be one last way to connect with a definitive part of world history.
It’s one thing to discover a diary, intact having been used to prop up a water tank, in the loft of a Sherwood house. It’s another thing entirely for that diary to be the recollections of a dispatch rider of the Royal Engineers who served on the Western Front during the First World War. And even with that in mind, what are the chances of discovering the pre-war diaries of the same person? “I was made aware of the diaries a few years ago and as soon as I read them, I knew I had to do something with them. I couldn’t let them be left forgotten, as they had been for so long,” says Tricia Gardiner, a member of Offshoots, the charity who secured the funding to turn the diaries into something more. So with help from the Heritage Lottery and Arts Council, something is being done with them.
Actress Tanya Myers, playwright Stephen Lowe, researchers Fred Glenister and Alex Smyth and a trio of young writers: Will Tobin, Alissia Di Cosmo and Sophie Bloor are bringing the diaries of Corporal Billy Richards, originally from Nottingham, to life in June 2020 at Fishergate Point Studios. “There are three diaries in total – two from before the war and one written during the year he spent at the frontline,” Tricia explains. “Remarkably we’ve been able to reunite the diaries after the wartime diary was found with extended family in New Zealand.” “It’s an extraordinary privilege to be able to have access to these diaries,” Stephen explains. “They’re observations from the bottom of the pile, among the rank and file rather than from the officers of the time, which is where most First World War accounts come from.”
What’s also exceptional about Billy’s diaries is their perspective due to the specific role he played during the conflict. As a dispatch rider, his time would have been spent relaying messages between different positions along the frontline; his picture of the war is a lot more detailed and observant than a lot of the men who would have been in the trenches at the time. “One of the many things that’s so striking about the diaries is the detail,” researcher Alex Smyth explains. “Billy’s is one of the earliest written accounts of tanks being used in combat for the first time, as well as the use of the word ‘tank’ in that context. He sees things that other diaries may not have done, and the clarity and meticulousness is just incredible.” For the play’s young writers, they’re bringing history to life in a way they’ve not come across before. “It’s immensely detailed, like life playing out on the page in front of you,” Sophie says. “It’s something I feel we have to do right, and do justice to.” Alissia stresses, “We’re writing it to be heard, seen, and listened to.”
He sees things that other diaries may not have done, and the clarity and meticulousness is just incredible
For researchers Alex and Fred, the process has been arduous. “There was no service number, no unit name or branch of service left in the war diary,” Alex explains. “Without those, trying to trace someone becomes so much more difficult. It was only a chance discovery on an ancient forum that we found what branch of service he was, and which division he served in – the 55th (West Lancashire) Division.” The 55th arrived in France in February of 1916, having been earmarked for deployment to Ireland due to the situation there becoming increasingly volatile. Their battle honours would include some of the most talked-about engagements of the entire war, including the Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai and the last large-scale German offensive of the war in April of 1918. The amount of research done has, according to Tanya Myers, “been phenomenal, Alex and Fred have worked immensely hard to give us such a detailed understanding of what Billy’s life was both before and during the war.”
This unique perspective of a life lived in the immediate calm before the maelstrom of the events between 1914 and 1918 is one that we aren’t often afforded. Billy is a perfectly ordinary young man. His diaries talk about being spellbound by colour films, about going on dates, and, despite suffering with rheumatism, playing football and cricket – recording the scores of the latter in outstanding detail. In civilian life he was a teacher, and also a keen cyclist. He was also decorated as a result of his time at the frontline – he was awarded the Military Medal in November 1917, a medal awarded to non-commissioned ranks for bravery in the field, as well as the Victory Medal and British War Medal. His life is one like countless millions of people around that time whose stories will never be told. It’s a sentiment shared by all those involved that this story must be told by any means. For Stephen, whose grandfather was also on the Western Front, it’s an especially poignant experience: “My grandfather worked with horses during the First World War, and was injured by them – badly enough for him to need to return home. The Red Cross ship he was on was the first to be torpedoed by the Germans. It’s been moving, at the very least, to be involved with the process and hear the voice in Billy’s writing speak to us.”
And for Billy’s granddaughter Carolyn, who still lives in Nottingham, it’s been an unbelievable few months watching the process of the play taking shape: “It’s been an explosion, out of absolutely nowhere – and it’s all come from a chance phone call made to Tricia on a live radio show. Members of my family in New Zealand are going to be here when the play debuts, it’s going to be an immensely moving experience seeing my grandfather’s early years being brought to life in a way none of us really expected.”
The Diaries of Billy Richards Facebook page has been set up allowing for stories and memorabilia to be shared – anyone with information either about Billy or life in Nottingham in the early 20th century can contact the project.
Both the exhibition and play created from the diaries of Billy Richards will be taking place at Fishergate Point Studios in June.