Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – June 1917

The staggering set of explosions on the 7th under the Messines ridge and a furious artillery bombardment blasted the Boche off the ridge. Four days later they had to withdraw to new lines further east. At the very least, they have little opportunity down south to exploit the insurrections of some French units – the price for Nivelle’s hubris. Petain understands what is needed to bring the troops back into action – food, rest and recuperation. And retribution by firing squad of the worst mutineers to encourage the others.

Orders being implanted within the War Office show our positive response to French woes: our trains are now being concentrated on carrying men and materials to the north. Across the Pond, the Selective Draft Act is bringing Americans to the standard – the sooner these men can arrive at the Western Front the sooner they will make a vital impact. Their General Pershing has visited the King before leaving for France to meet the first contingent of American ‘pioneers’ – to train and equip the later arriving units for battle.

Little positive news from Italy. Peaks are won, then lost, for some 20,000 Italian casualties. A few days later our ally Portugal had her first action in Flanders.

One again London children became the innocent victims of enemy bombs. They numbered among the 150 civilians killed on the 13th in broad daylight, the bombers flying at over ten thousand feet. None were shot down.

Kerensky and Brusilov are valiantly trying to keep their troops fighting, very difficult with the numbers leaving the front to go home. The Germans offered an armistice but the Provisional Government rejected it – for now. I can see little hope of Russia coming out of the chaos. My mother’s latest letter tells of Boris fearing a Bolshevik grab for power.

Of great importance to our household, I fear that Natasha is sinking fast. Dr. Rawlins took me to one side when he came last weekend and said I should prepare for the worst. He is giving her strong medicines to suppress her coughing. So I asked the Roman Catholic priest I know to adminster the Blessed Sacrament to her. Father O’Brien lives in Arundel, so I drove to collect him. Delphine also received it, keeping Natasha company. Father O’Brien did not query my wife’s lapse of faith, saying that nowadays succour is more important than status. I was grateful for that.
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I have written to Rose warning her, a ghastly letter to send, especially I am not emotional – having to be so focused on war work with its horrors. Delphine and Flora recognise what is happening and offer much emotional support to the children. They let me sit quietly by Natasha, when I am down at the weekends. She rests on the chaise-longue in the library, where she can look over the roses in full bloom in the hot sunlight before being carried upstairs to her bed by Flora in the evening.

Natasha is no fool, she knows but is being positive. We recount our memories of courtship, the births of our children, the important moments and the silly events, the life within the family, close and extended. Even to the intimate and erotic feelings that bind us together.