Gorgeously illustrated WWI diary found after 90 years

Lieutenant Kenneth Edwin Wootton, 1/21 Battn London Regt Tank CorpsLieutenant Kenneth Edwin Wootton was a tank operator in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I. He operated the lead tank in his section and was on the front lines of many battles, taking out machine gun emplacements.

He also happened to be an exceptional artist with pen and ink and watercolors who kept a journal of what he experienced and saw in battle between 1915 and 1917. He fought in the notorious third Battle of Ypres (aka the Battle of Passchendaele) which killed half a million soldiers on both sides for a few miles gained by Allied forces.

His writing is as vivid and powerful as his art. Here’s part of his entry on Third Ypres:

My driver Fagg could be seen anxiously peering through the half open window in July 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres. I lit a cigarette as my mouth became quite dry, I lit another, it tasted rotten but I smoked it somehow as we got nearer the lines of burning shells.

We escaped with nothing more than lumps of earth falling around us. The German front line had been smashed almost out of recognition as we passed through shell holes and most were filled with filthy water and bodies.

Up the hill Fagg and I felt we were in for it as the Germans still held Westhoek and Gelncorse wood. I was kept busy dodging from side to side on my tank as a great many shells fell around us. I should have got inside but I hate being boxed up in the stifling heat of a tank. I felt safer in the open.

Christmas Truce 1916 entryHe also records a Christmas Truce in 1916, which is notable because after the first and most famous Christmas Truce of 1914, the commands on both sides did everything they could to discourage such spontaneous eruptions of humanity, including resorting to threats of hard punishment for any soldier engaging in fraternization with the enemy.

Christmas Day 1916, Ypres: Distance between the line was 100 yards. Had an excellent Christmas dinner in a dug out, turkey, Christmas pudding, mine pies, fruit and champagne. Both sides stopped. Did patrol from midnight till 3am and felt very merry.

So there were no twinkling lights, no hanging out, sharing food, cutting each others’ hair like there had been in 1914, but at least they stopped shooting at each other long enough to enjoy a decent Christmas meal.

The last entries in the diary describe his time in a hospital in Rouen after an explosion almost killed him. He was discharged from the military due to the injury, receiving a Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty upon his return. He stashed the diary at that point and it remained incognito until his great granddaughter inherited some old books and papers and found the diary among them.

She’s selling it (sigh) at a Hansons Auctioneers sale at the end of September. The estimated sale price is £3000 ($4700), a steal considering its far greater historical value.

Pen and ink drawing of the ruins of YpresWatercolor of Renault FT17 tank in battle

17 thoughts on “Gorgeously illustrated WWI diary found after 90 years

  1. Wonderful entry and it appears as though the diary is simply beautiful.

    It is a true pity that the great granddaughter is selling it. My family has a few diaries from one of my great, great grandfathers that are similar in quality (though not in subject) and they are priceless family heirlooms. There would be blood and fury if they were ever sold outside of the family.

    In them, they tell the story of the 1845 expulsion of the Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois and subsequent crossing the plains. In them, my (great) grandfather talks about leaving his house in the middle of the night and crossing the frozen Mississippi river. He describes a hellish winter spent in Iowa and subsequent journey across the interior states of America.

    My great grandfather was a stone mason and wood worker, so they also include ink and pencil sketches of his designs and other things that interested him (faces, wildlife and the Indians he met). The diaries span nearly 40 years and include anecdotes of encountering the Indians, building a farm, attending the joining of the railroads, .

    The diaries are a rich source of information about pioneer life and the American west. And there’s all kinds of interesting stuff in there about outlaws, in-laws, law men and other people that my great grandfather supposedly knew and amazing things he accomplished. (Many of which are probably a little embellished.)

    Moreover, the illustrations are simply beautiful. Hopefully, sometime in my lifetime, I’ll be able to photograph and transcribe portions of them. Even if just for my family. They would make a wonderful book or collection, and I think that there may be wider interest in them as well. If only by other people in my community.

    As I read the auction notice, I couldn’t help but think that something similar might be done with this diary. If it were presented correctly, and high quality reproductions of the artwork were created, it could be transformed into an amazing historical narrative. And if properly marketed, it wouldn’t surprise me if it sold very well. In the end, I’d even go so far as to say that it would probably raise much more than $5000, and make the artwork and stories available for a much larger audience.

    I’d buy such a book. In fact, I’ve bought many such reprints of diaries in the past, including accounts of World War I. And those diaries were much less impressive than this one.

    It is a tremendous shame that such a beautiful book will probably be purchased by a collector and end up on a shelf somewhere. Unopened, unread, unloved.

    1. I didn’t read the end of the comment. Thinking about bidding for it but £3000 is a bit too much to invest, anybody else interested in buying with the intention of publishing it?

      1. I read several articles on the diary, but there was no comment on who the bidders are expected to be beyond the auctioneer’s hope that a museum will buy the piece.

        I’m afraid it’s out of my price range, and on principle I also think it best that it remain in England.

      2. I’d be very interested in pursuing such a project and even providing capital toward purchase of the journal. In my offline life, I’ve worked as a production editor (mostly academic stuff, though) and I have some limited experience with reproductions (although it is mostly fine-art related).

        With all that said, I live in America and I wouldn’t feel right about removing the diary from England. There are also practical realities and $5000 is more capital than I could commit to such a project at this time.

        However, if there is a museum/archive/collector who would be interested in partnering, I would be all ears. And as I said above, I would be happy to contribute both capital and time.

    2. I agree on every point. I’ve dreamed of finding an old diary or a trunk full of period clothes in my grandparents’ attic since I was a little girl reading Nancy Drew stories under the covers with a flashlight. I would never, ever sell such a deeply personal treasure, not least because the amount it would sell for wouldn’t even begin to cover its intrinsic value to me.

      You are so fortunate to have such a gem from your own ancestor. Are all the diaries in good condition still? Given the Mormon history element and their famed genealogical archives, I’m sure there would be conservators galore who would love to ensure the diaries’ long-term survival as well as make archival copies.

      I think Lt. Wootton’s diary is certainly publishable. His handwriting is legible enough that it could be archivally scanned and published as a reproduction to convey the full emotion of it. I can’t imagine such a book not making more than 5 grand.

      1. For the most part they are. My grandfather has done an amazing job of caring for them. Many still have the same bindings and they’re been very little deterioration.

        (It’s also fortunate that we live in a desert and at high altitude.)

        I know that my grandfather once spoke with the Mormon church about donating the set to the history library. I’m not really sure about what became of those discussions, but I think it would be a wonderful way to preserve them long term. I’ve also done a bit of work with the University of Utah Marriott Library and I’ve been impressed with their rare books division as well. I’m sure that both groups would be very happy to facilitate the creation of an archival copy.

        I’ve always hoped that I could make a project out of it, but real life and the need to eat and pay bills always seems to intrude. Oh well, at the very least I suppose it could be an awesome retirement project.

        1. Be sure to get your grandfather to write down everything he knows about the diaries, all the research he’s done, all the people he’s contacted, all the family legends, all the dates, names and places, everything he can think of.

          That’ll be a great jumping off point for the retirement project. 🙂

  2. We are very lucky that Wootten stashed the diary away and we are even luckier that it remained safely hidden until his great granddaughter found the diary among the papers she inherited. She could have easily burned the lot, thinking it was a heap of old rubbish.

    If she had inherited precious jewellery or marble sculptures, she would have recognised the value immediately. But papers don’t have the same appeal, at least at face value. Lucky lucky person, whoever buys it at auction.

  3. She must be REALLY desperate to sell this. Why not try and get it published instead? This would make sure it is accessible to the public, she would probably make more money AND keep the family heirloom ( or maybe lending it for free to a museum).

    1. Exactly. I really don’t understand why she would sell at auction given the low estimate. I read recently that there’s a remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front” scheduled to start filming soon. If she held on to the diary and talked to some publishers, I’m sure they could time it to coincide with a revival in interest in WWI, just like “Saving Private Ryan” spurred a WWII revival.

      Even from a purely pecuniary perspective, this is a strange choice to make.

  4. Evening all
    I actually looked over the ‘diary’ today with a view to assess the prospects of it being published. Firstly, the ‘diary’ isn’t a diary but a small collection of accounts in 1917 (without any written dates) regarding a lost dog and various battle experiences. The drawings were first rate but there’s not enough material to consider this to be published. I think there’s been a fair deal of press spin to this item and I don’t think it’s not worth the £2000-£3000 estimate. I’m quite disappointed as I thought this was my next project, I’ll be interested to see how it fairs tomorrow.

    1. Thank you so much for the eye-witness report. I’m disappointed to hear that there was so little writing and none of it dated. The articles were definitely misleading, and probably sufficient to garner the estimate price based on the hype alone. :no:

  5. If you had that much disposable income for a diary, I would imagine you would have enough for a trip to England to take a peek at your purchase, present it to a British museum and a publisher, and make such a project work without the original diary ever having left its home country.

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