Robert Alexander Burnard was born on 21 April 1894. His handwritten 1918 First World War diary from his time in the Royal Flying Corps is transcribed in this blog 100 years to the day later, by his grandson Piers Myers. Lt Burnard also has a Twitter account @RABurnard with links to the blog.
Outline of my service with the forces
[Notes made in 1968 in preparation for a talk to schoolchildren studying the play Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff. The class was taught by RAB’s daughter, Jean Margaret Myers (née Burnard).]
August 1914: 1st attempt to enlist. Honourable Artillery Company. My duty was clear but I went without enthusiasm.—-Spectacles.
Spring 1915: 2nd attempt to enlist. My friends were joining up and I knew in my heart that I had set my sights too high in trying to join the Honourable Artillery Company. After all they went back to Henry VIII’s Archers!
London Irish. Why?
Story of defect in my physique.
Autumn 1915: 3rd attempt to enlist. By this time I was getting tired of seeing Lord Kitchener’s finger pointing at me from every hoarding and saying that England needed ME. Besides talk of conscription was in the air, and to be conscripted was more than I could have borne. I was still determined to join the ranks as a private soldier. London Irish again. Story of defect.
Spring 1916: Sent to France. [With London Irish]
Fought up at Ypres (Wipers).
Was persuaded by my Company Officers to apply for a Commission and did so.
Xmas 1916: I was ordered to report to some unbelievable address in London, entirely remote from the beastliness of war.
After a month’s leave at home I was sent to a Cadet Battalion at the beautiful City of Oxford and quartered (I almost said cloistered) in Keble College of all places.
In due course I passed out as an officer without trouble and, in early summer, was posted again to France, but not alas to my London Irish Battalion. [Instead with 2nd/3rd Battalion, London Regiment]
Late Summer 1917: Spent 2 or 3 months as a platoon officer at Passchendaele, a hellish place about which I’ll tell you more when I come to answering your questions.
During this period I had decided that, whatever I was fitted for, it was not the job of a platoon officer, so I applied for and was soon given a Transfer to the Royal Flying Corps as a Flying Officer, an Observer.
Autumn 1917: Back home again for a course (a very short course indeed) of training as an Observer. Then I was posted to No. 35 Squadron in France, a squadron flying reconnaissance machines. There for 6 months my pilot and I flew daily over an area which undoubtedly included “the British trenches before St. Quentin” where this play is placed.
March 1918: The evening and night of Monday 18 March, 1918, when the play begins, were spent by me at a hotel in Boulogne, on my way back from a few days leave in England. I arrived at Peronne, the nearest station to my squadron, on the Wednesday morning. I phoned for the Squadron tender. When it turned up, in it were Hanna (my pilot) and quite a number from my flight, B flight. I have a note in my diary:- “everyone seemed very glad to see me. Almost as good as going home.” Even after 50 years I find that a little moving.
Everyone knew about the German offensive which was to start next morning.
21 March: And so of course it did. it started with us a couple of hours earlier than with the infantry. About 4a.m. shells from long range guns came screaming over and bursting quite close, messing up the aerodrome. After 6 hours the shelling ceased but it was still impossible for us to fly because of a thick mist.
At last at midday we did get off the ground and from then onwards for ten days it was for all of us one long and depressing grind — three or four sorties a day each, bombing and machine-gunning the advancing Germans, sometimes returning at night to a fresh aerodrome, the old one having been burnt before the Germans occupied it.
It was in doing this job that, on
31 March, which happened to be Easter Sunday, my pilot and I were shot down and taken prisoner.