Private Sidney Alfred Cooper

When reading about the battles of the First World War it can be easy to lose sight of the individual soldiers who were actually fighting. Some soldiers kept personal diaries, as Private Sidney Cooper did, and these help us to understand what life and death in the trenches was like for an ordinary soldier.

Sidney Cooper was born in London in 1892 and moved to Ware with his mother, brother and two sisters in his teens. Sidney joined the 1st Herts Regiment Territorial Force and was amongst the first to land in Le Havre in November 1914. Sidney spent two years on the Western Front with the Hertfordshire Regiment until he was hospitalised with trench fever and later pneumonia at the end of 1916, serving the remaining years of the war in England.

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Sidney recorded his experiences in detail after the war and donated his harrowing account and collection of souvenirs to Hertford Museum in 1979, “trusting that they may be of interest to future generations”. Here Sidney describes the Battle of Festubert in May 1915.

“The explosions of Heavies are deafening, and the nervous strain is unbearable. Diving into dugouts if handy; dodging, swearing, as shells drop and explode on the parapet. Trench blown in flat in places, a heap of dead man, dying men, wounded men, and earth all in one unholy jumble. Equipment sticking out here and there, arm and legs, heads, earth and sandbags unable even to distinguish, which is a whole body or not, ...all had been blown to bits, blood saturated earth, groans, cries and confusion. The living one minute, being the dead or dying the next as shell explodes amongst those whose faces betray the terror and tension, written all over them. Hysterical men, crying men, cursing men, shaking men with nerves all gone, floundering men, trying to dig down in the trench, with their hands like moles, anywhere for head cover.

...the third thud as the percussion shells hit the ground, overhead and near, the explosion, the shaking of the ground, rocks like an earthquake, the gassy fumes of the lyddite and the bursting of the shrapnel shells overhead, the drop and thud of shrapnel shell burst casing and the bullets falling. Every bit which means death or a wound, the burst of rapid machine gun fire, the rifle fire as bullets ricochet and go over the sandbag parapet, and the rifle grenades, and trench mortars dropping around in the trench.

...Death and destruction every yard where a shell falls, the alarm of when it seems to die down and not so fierce, as men scramble for the fire step if any left, to repel the Gerries with rapid fire, if they have already left their trench, and making their way over No Man’s Land, with its dead laying out there. Our corpses, soon to be numbered as corpses, as they run towards our trenches hands flung up, a shout or a groan, as dozens seem to fall in all kind of queer attitudes, on backs or faces towards the earth or topple over into shell holes full of mud and water.”