My father, T.L.C. Heald (far left in the photo), enlisted in August 1914 as a Private in the 5th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (Territorial Force), and left for France as a 2nd Lieutenant on 14 February 1915. Apart from when he was wounded in 1917, he served continuously on the western front until February 1919, ending the war as a Staff Captain. He was awarded the Military Cross, and was twice mentioned in despatches. When he died in 1980, aged 91, I found in the attic a shabby black case fastened with rusty clasps which had formerly been used for holding old 78 records. Attached to the handle was an old luggage label on which was written simply ‘My War’. Inside, there were a number of small khaki clothbound notebooks with squared paper, containing an almost daily account of his experiences at the western front from February 1915 until early 1919. Soldiers were forbidden to keep private diaries, meaning that those who disobeyed this rule left behind much that was valuable.
The diary entries, factual and at times laconic, only occasionally revealed my father’s deep feelings. One such time was when his childhood friend Basil Walker, a tall kindly man with whom my father had volunteered the previous August, was killed at Ypres on 10 May 1915. He wrote: ‘The worst day of my life. Upset me frightfully. […] It does seem hard that poor Basil should be taken. I shall never meet a better man as long as I live. He was hit in the head whilst chatting to the officers in front of their dugout. Suppose his head must have been too high though some say the bullet came through the parapet. He knew nothing about it. He is very much missed by the battalion. Went up the trenches at night to see Hartley and get Basil’s things. We put him in the dressing station for the night.’
As the war drew to its close, and like many others, my father’s mood became deeply depressed. On 16 August 1918, he wrote: ‘My birthday. I am 29. Good heavens nearly 30 and no prospects and no wife. The longer this war goes on the worse it will be for me. What chance has a man of thirty, untrained in business, of getting work at a decent rate of pay when the war is over?’
After the war, my father worked in a cotton business in Egypt, returning to England in 1924. In 1932 he took up the profession of solicitor. Then, in 1937, he was given the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and raised the 6th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment (Territorial Force), which he commanded until 1940. At the age of 50, he became Officer commanding troop ships which transported soldiers to other theatres of war.
In later years, my father hardly mentioned the war, and I always felt that he had tried to bury the remembrance of it in the unconscious as being too painful to recall. For a long time afterwards, he suffered recurring bouts of trench fever and endured vivid nightmares of bombarding shells, dreaming that he was buried beneath the debris. The dreams became particularly acute at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. When he was very old, and the dreams had faded, he once remarked: ‘If you have been through the Somme, nothing is quite the same again.’
Thomas Lane Claypole Heald, b. Southport, 1889, Private, Second Lieutenant, then Staff Captain, Cheshire Regiment, d. 1980, is the relative of Anne Wolff, née Heald, BA Egyptology and Italian (1973), MA (1993).
This story is based closely, with her permission, on material in Anne Wolff’s book Subalterns of the Foot: Three World War I Diaries of Officers of the Cheshire Regiment (Worcester: Square One Publications, 1992). It has been edited by Kay Chadwick. Tom Heald’s diaries are held at the Imperial War Museum, London.