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A Mother’s Diary
She began to write down her thoughts each day as her son prepared to go to war. He had suggested they each keep a diary of their activities so he would know what his mother did each day while he was away. She followed the war closely through media reports, writing significant events into a small note book alongside her daily activities, her fears and thoughts. The diary was surprisingly frank about the recurring nightmares which were centred on her son’s inability to help in times of her need. The early entries in the diary focussed on his health and her relationship with him. As an only child and a chronic sufferer of bronchial asthma he was very close to his mother and she protected him as much as she could. She worried about his illness while he was away, yet mailed him cigarettes, and struggled with her own arthritis, nervous condition, nightmares and the fear of her son’s death.
He was born when World War I was not three months old, one week after his uncle of the same name enlisted in the Army to fight in the Middle East and on the Western Front. His mother described his birth:
He came to us in springtime, but with the drought still over the land. There was no whispering of the winds to the grasses. There were no grasses, no gentle winds to blow the roses. There were no roses. He came in unhappy days and in a dust storm, but we loved him just the same…England was at war with a mighty power and our lads were going across to help the old motherland. Good byes and tears to so many who never came back….So tiny John had arrived…looking almost ready to take his part in life….He was and had to be an only child.
Jack (as he was called) grew from a little boy to a man between the two wars and his mother told him about his cousins and uncles who did not return.
Her first diary entry was on the day that war was declared and Jack began to pack his gear to report for active duty. Over the next three months she wrote about his training activities, his constant health problems, her dissatisfaction with the military over her son’s illness and her first nightmare. She wrote:
I had a distressing dream a few nights ago; it was so vivid, so very real I cannot get it out of my mind …. I have tried hard to forget it but there it is and it is not like me to even remember dreams…. (I was) in an enclosure, it seemed to be round and surrounded by strong high posts. I was desperately trying to get out. Sometimes I would get up the wall a few feet, then back I would be and again I would try. There was no gateway, the high wall appeared the same all around and I was frantic. Then I looked around to the centre where Jack was standing dressed in a gray suit, watching me, his hands crossed in front of him and on his face sheer agony, yet standing perfectly still and not attempting to help me whilst neither of us spoke to the other nor did I expect him to help me. The job was apparently all mine….
A month later she caught the train into the city and her entry in the diary said:
Whilst waiting at the Station, troop trains were continually going through and a man sitting near me kept continually repeating “They won’t come home, none of them.” In despair I asked him not to say it as we all hoped so much they would, all of them… I said my son is going, his reply was: “Well I don’t care he won’t come back either.”
On June 11, 1940 she wrote: Italy has at last entered the war. Apparently they think Germany is their best bet. At midday today …. I was at the back when Beccia, all dressed up as if for a meeting at the Italian Consul’s, dashed around imploring help and in tears, gesticulating with his hands. The longer he tried the worse his English became until a couple of security officers told him he had been here long enough…. (before they took him to) the internment camp.
Three days later she wrote:
It is a black Friday for the French folk. Things still are going badly. The Germans entered Paris killing ruthlessly the people where ever possible. Paris is honeycombed with traitors, many proved to be Germans after having lived as French with the French folk for years. At the given time they joined in the slaughter, shooting their peace time friends. Machine guns sweeping through the streets. Killing women and children old or young alike then following up with tanks crushing the life out of all in their way or those lying flat to escape the machine gun bullets.
On June 17, 1940 she wrote:
Surrender of France announced today. General Petain has submitted to the ruthfullness of the Nazis. In Bordeaux General Duval said: … The Germans did not defeat us but the agents of treason who were sent to France.
Three months later while her son was in training camp she wrote:
I asked (Jack) …. What will you do if you get into a tight place, say a bayonet charge or some such thing ….? Jack shook me and said: Why do you say such things. I said: because I am afraid and hated the bayonet. He replied: so do we, we all loath it. I said: Jack, never any decorations. He replied quietly & seriously: No Mother I want to come back.
On Sunday October 20, 1940 Jack sailed with his unit to the Middle East. Two days later his mother received a letter written from the train and thrown out the window as the train passed through a station on the way to the dock. Her son had left to join the war. On November 5, 1940 she wrote in her diary:
In the early hours this morning another peculiar happening. I wasn’t asleep, I had been previously and had wakened and just lay dozing. I heard a few steps in the hall and the floor board creaked at my bedroom door, as it had done for years when trodden on when Jack came in after I was in bed. The steps reached the door and Jack’s voice distinctly said: Mother, are you awake and enquired if I wanted anything…. It was followed by silence and no further steps. I walked through the house, the doors locked as usual…. I felt so very satisfied. …. although I did not go to sleep again I felt sure that Jack was home.
In February 1941 the division trained in the Tel Wadi Zeit and Beersheba area, followed by two days leave in Tel Aviv, before being shipped to Libya, relieving another division in the forward defences near Mersa Brega east of Tripoli. During the month the first German units had arrived at Tripoli to prepare for the Axis desert offensive. These events coincided with the return of the nightmares.
On March 1, 1941, she wrote:
Why do I dream such stupid dreams, I never usually remember them on awaking yet these beastly dreams are real and vivid, and when I awake I sort of live them over again and it haunts me for days…. Last night’s dream is still real and almost seems a happening. Yet I never think such things to make me dream them. I read for hours, yet nothing sordid. I choose happy books. The Doctor lent me a pile and I read until I feel I can sleep…. Those past dreams are still vivid yet I don’t refer to them. I could see Jack in the semi-darkness and when I spoke to him he gave me his usual happy smile…. There appeared a long …. white cat. …. I was really afraid of it…..terrified and screaming…. The animal was getting longer and longer stretching out while I stood helpless and horror stricken and calling more and more for (someone) to come…the cat (was) stretching out (and) slowly turning into a snake…. The dream left me shaken and too upset to go to sleep again and tonight it is still as real and vivid to me as the previous dreams. But why do I dream such things. I never think morbid things to cause it.
After this peculiar happening the entries in her diary became less frequent as her health deteriorated and her apprehension about her son increased.
On April 4 she wrote:
…the Germans attacking as our soldiers are being driven back….they have entered Benghazi….I feel so very fearful as I know how little Jack spares himself….I get the shivers when I think of it and there is no one I can even talk to….
The British forces withdrew from Benghazi to Tobruk. The retreat was referred to as the Benghazi Handicap as they raced across the desert with the German Africa Corps in pursuit.
Two days later she wrote:
I feel there is something going to happen…. (The paper says):…. invasion of Yugoslavia and Belgrade. The Germans seem to pick Sundays for their special atrocities. Heavy drive on Greece…I wonder do other people feel like I do, yet I have never been a coward. On Easter Sunday, April 13, she did not go to church. Instead she stayed home and …did nothing only pray for the day to end….I could simply feel every nerve jangling. On April 14 her sister came to the house to take her out for the day but she refused to go, writing in her diary: I could squeal at people…trying to force me to do things that …are…impossible….I suppose it is my fault (but) I shall never forget today….and to make it worse Stuffy the cat for some reason…came in and simply howled. He never even gives a miaow only when he wants to draw our attention to him. I then let him into the dining room thinking he would settle down but he simply ran from room to room through the house howling such a weird howl. I just could not stand it so I….sat him on a little table outside…. (and) shut the doors. Apparently he went off somewhere….
At Tobruk on April 9 the battalion had moved to a new defensive position within the perimeter in a blinding dust and sand storm to wait for the inevitable attack by the Africa Corps. Rommel’s forces had surrounded Tobruk and a probing attack commenced on April 12 with the Allied forces replying with artillery, anti-tank guns, mortars and small arms fire. It was the first time that Jack had been engaged in combat. At 23:45 hours on the night of April 13 a patrol of seven soldiers was sent out to dislodge about thirty German soldiers who had established themselves inside the perimeter with eight machine guns, two light field guns and mortars. Their mission was to open a bridgehead for the German tanks to get through and into the garrison at Tobruk. The patrol, under covering fire from their own side, was spotted by the Germans who opened fire on the seven soldiers racing towards them. After a 200 yard sprint the patrol went to ground to avoid the incoming machine gun fire, got up again and ran to a point about 50 yards from the Germans. As they lay there they pulled the pins out of their grenades before running the final few yards, shouting and throwing their grenades into the trench. The Germans swung their machine guns around and fired into the patrol until the grenades destroyed their post. Jack was hit in the stomach and neck from a burst from one machine gun but he continued to run towards the enemy trenches. He chased two German soldiers and killed them with his bayonet. The officer leading the patrol was fighting with two Germans, one of whom wrestled him to the ground while the other was running towards him with a pistol. He called for help and Jack turned and ran over to him, killing both Germans with his bayonet. Jack continued fighting until he could no longer stand and was carried back to his post.
On April 14, 1941 Rommel optimistically wrote to his wife (The Rommel Papers):
To-day may well see the end of the Battle of Tobruk. The British were very stubborn and had a great deal of artillery. However, we’ll bring it off. The bulk of my force is now out of the desert….We’ve even got water again.
Rommel’s optimism was misplaced as his first major attack on Tobruk was a failure and the second planned attack was abandoned. Shelling of Tobruk by the German artillery and air raids continued throughout April, and the siege lasted for more than eight months.
On Tuesday April 15 her diary entry said she had taken the bus into the city to mail a package to Jack and was pleased to be left alone. Her sister had gone home and she wrote:
Perhaps my nerves will be more under control when I am by myself. There were no entries in the diary until Friday April 18 when she wrote: Fighting terrific in Greece and North Africa…. I dread the casualty list also the heaviest air raid over London to date. Account …. of heavy fighting and much use of bayonet at Tobruk. Also gives an account of a charge in which a Lieutenant and a Corporal took prominent parts on Easter Sunday night. Of course, no names. When I read it …. I was sure the Corporal was Jack…. It said no casualties but …. I know … that all is not well with Jack. ….. (and) Stuffy ….has not come home yet. On Wednesday April 23 she received a letter from Jack dated March 30 and for the first time he said the conditions were bad. The food short, water one bottle for 48 hours. It worried me terribly so I posted a parcel (of) milk tablets, chocolate milk, biscuits (and) cigarettes.
The following day she returned to the city to visit her doctor and pick up more medication for her nervous condition.
On Friday April 25 she was out of bed early to make two rich fruit cakes for Jack to mail the following day. She wrote:
I was feeling afraid of something while I was working and packing the cake (and) had a couple of brandys to (keep going).
On Saturday April 26, 1941 she wrote in her diary:
Received the following telegram in the mail, the bus man brought it in. “It is with deep regret that I have to inform you that Corporal John Hurst Edmondson was killed in action on the 14th April and desire to convey the profound sympathy of the Ministry for the Army and the Military Board.”
Her diary ended on that day. Only cryptic entries after that date noted the award of the Victoria Cross for his bravery and her son’s grave location in Libya. Her interest in writing about her own feelings and fears had gone, replaced by sorrow and deep depression. Her older sister, my grandmother, said:
She was never the same person again.
A copy of a tribute to her son, placed in a local newspaper, was inserted inside the back cover of her diary. It read:
A memory of love for a young soldier and our dear and only child, Corporal John Hurst Edmondson VC who made the supreme sacrifice at Tobruk on April 14, 1941.
A hero in the mould of other days,
Fearless, and yet so simple in your ways,
We scarcely guessed the greatness of your heart.
- Images/Acknowledgements: The feature image showing the diary collection is from the Australian War Memorial, who hold Maude Edmondson’s diary (fair use) – should you wish to view excerpts of the diary and hear a narration, click this link (via second17battalion); the diagram of Rommel’s Thrust Across Cyrenaica, April 1941 is from The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell Hart; and the painting "Corporal J.H Edmondson" Artist unknown, 1943 is from the The Art of War exhibition of the National Archives (UK) - both are in the public domain.