I’ve written several articles on Sgt. Thomas Diplock over the past few years but who better to tell his story than the man himself. I would like to thank Sharon Gerbasi and Thomas’s other grandchildren very much for the opportunity to share with you Thomas Diplock’s previously unpublished memoir of his First World War experience.
In October 1978, shortly after the death of his wife Gwen, Thomas wrote a book on his life, a gift to his three daughters and seven grandchildren. The chapter on his First World War experience totals 42 pages and covers his service from the time he joined Vancouver’s 6th Regiment, Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles to his demobilization on his return to Canada in March 1919. Although put together in book form in 1978 the majority of writing took place during and shortly after the war. He composed many of the verses while he was a Prisoner of War, an exercise he says “helped to keep my mind active and get away from the daily grind”.
Thomas’s First World War memoir is divided into three sections, the first of which tells of his joining up in Vancouver, his experience at Valcartier Camp with the 7th Battalion CEF and the long wet winter spent on Salisbury Plain. The battalion departed Britain for France in February 1915, a journey he describes in detail beginning with:
“On leaving the comparative comfort of the third class English railway carriages we embarked on tramp steamers and cattle ships which our sense of smell convinced us had only recently discharged their former passengers.”
The first section also includes his recollection of the Battalion’s first experience in the trenches, their baptism of fire at the Second Battle of Ypres and the events that led to Thomas becoming a Prisoner of War.
The second section, my favourite, focuses on his three years spent at Giessen Prisoner of War camp. Other P.O.W.s published memoirs after the war however many highlighted escapes or escape attempts rather than detail “the daily grind” of life in captivity. Thomas writes of his role as senior NCO in the barracks, duties which included organizing parcel fatigues and how life changed when prisoners below the rank of Corporal were forced to work on farms and mines. Thomas wasn’t forced to work but camp authorities decided they “were having too easy a life” and so began a cat and mouse game between captors and prisoners. A visit by American ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard resulted in a change of tactics by the Germans and the NCO’s soon found themselves responsible for creating a vegetable garden out of a small lake located five or six miles from camp:
“The absurdity of the whole scheme was apparent to everyone as without the use of heavy earth moving equipment the effect of what we could do with our small party using wheelbarrows and shovels would be negligible unless the Germans figured that the war would last at least another ten years.”
The third and final section provides a rare glimpse into the experience of Officers and NCOs who were involved in a prisoner exchange between Britain and Germany. An article I posted in 2015 provided a brief account of Thomas being sent to neutral Holland in early 1918 but here Thomas reveals how he and his comrades adjusted to life outside the wire and how they passed time as internees in Holland during the final months of the war.
I hope you enjoy reading Thomas’s memoir as much as I did. Once again I’d like to thank Sharon Gerbasi and her extended family for sharing it with us.
If you’re interested in reading more about the British (Canadian) First World War P.O.W. experience you may want to check out my review of John Lewis-Stempel’s “The War Behind the Wire”.