Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – July 1917

Natasha is critical. Her coughing has abated but she is breathing heavily then shallowly. Dr. Rawlins has told me to expect an end in the next few days. Indeed he is amazed at how fiercely she had been fighting the condition for many weeks. We sit with her as she lies semi-conscious. When I sleep, Delphine sits by her. The boys have been very good, also spending time by their mother. Flora keeps up the steady supply of tea, soft drinks and cakes. Mariya has been gentle as well, accepting her mother’s focus is on Natasha.

A fortnight ago, I was ordered to go to the railhead near Poperinge to check on the transfer of shells from the wagons to the lorries and light railways. Geddes knew of my wife’s condition but said it was vital for the coming offensive for him to receive a verbal report. With so many sizes of shells arriving, it was important that the soldiers were delivering the right size of shells to the individual batteries. Fortunately the quartermasters were properly co-ordinating the flow thus within a few days I was able to report back. When I did, I received the message I dreaded, Natasha’s condition was deteriorating. I left to the sound of the bombardment, the first of the over one million shells being fired at the Boche defences in front of Ypres.

Back in London and before entraining to the coast, I was asked about observations reported to me by officers of the conditions at Ypres. The rain was heavy, and the ground was beginning to show signs of becoming glutinous as the land drainage broke down under our and enemy shelling. However the morale of the infantry was good, boosted by having seen the tanks that will give them protection. In my place, Major Jones has been sent to Poperinge to continue monitoring artillery supplies.

I was also told the news from other theatres. Lawrence with his Arabs has captured Aquaba. The French enjoy the sensational spy trial of Mata Hari, the renowned ‘entertainer’. Otherwise, the focus is on Ypres to take pressure off the French on the Aisne. The overall plan is to take the communications centre of Roulers and open up the coast to allow the Belgian forces to recapture swathes of their homeland.

When speaking to Geddes, I asked him if he could use his influence to allow Rose leave. He did more, because two days later there was the sound of a powerful motorcycle coming down the road. When it reached our house, two figures dressed in leathers got off. One was Rose, the other Charles. He said he had been given enough fuel to take his ‘bike’ out of storage, bring Rose and then return to Greenwich. He stayed the night and then drove away.

With the family complete, we wait patiently. I have written short notes to her parents and friends from my desk placed near her bed. I cannot expect them to come, recognising the travel restrictions – but at least they have been informed.

Today John rang from our mansion block. Reports coming in to the War Office tell of the launch of the infantry assaults. Progress is being made, but conditions underfoot are bad compared to the first day of the Somme. It is difficult to take this in when I am so concentrating on Natasha. The War seems far away from her bedroom.