Review of G.A. Burgoyne, The Burgoyne Diaries (London, 1985)

The diary of Gerald Achilles Burgoyne is a fascinating perspective of a pre-war regular officer serving in the early months of the Great War. He served as a company commander in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, and his diary covers his service with the unit around Ypres from November 1914 to May 1915. He kept a comprehensive daily journal which he sent to his wife. His daughter, Claudia Davidson, found his written account after his death and published them in 1985.[1]

Burgoyne was born in 1876 trained originally as a lawyer but was commissioned into 3rd Dragoon Guards and served as a captain during the Boer war but resigned his commission in 1910. He was transferred to the reserve of the Royal Irish Rifles and was recalled to the colours on the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The diary covers the daily routine in rotating in and out of the trenches and the appalling conditions during the winter of 1914/5. He is an example of the attitudes and ethos that existed amongst pre-war regular officers.

On leadership he believed; ‘all men like an officer who compels obedience, and it’s no use punishing a man on Active Service as one does in peacetime; the only thing is to hit him once and hard, and if the men see their officer takes a real personal interest in them, as I think I do, or at least try to do, well these Irishmen of mine will follow me, I am sure’ [sic].[2]

He reported that Second-in-Command, Major Arthur Festing, was loved by the men. He was ‘so cheer and hearty, but he can damn’em too, as they know; but they know he’d never leave them in the lurch, and that the sort of officer men lie to follow, and will always follow’.[3]

A harsh approach to prosecuting and punishing wrong doing by soldiers was justified as ‘It’s the sort of discipline they’re used to in civil life, and which they understand; any appeal to their better feelings they regard as weakness’ [sic].[4]

Burgoyne saw tough approaches as the only way to motivate and persuade fatigued men. Its ‘drive, drive, drive with these overburdened men of mine. We have to get them there [to the trenches] somehow and it is no use saying ‘please’ to a tired man’.[5]

Overall, he saw his working-class soldiers as ‘poor ignorant devils, they’re just like a lot of children’.[6]

He also had a strong hatred of the ‘staff’. On 6th January 1915, he complained ‘but then the whole time I’ve been out I never once saw any of our Brigade or Divisional staff come up to the trenches, and the ground is all the staff terra incognita’.[7] On 21st March, he grumbled that ‘the Staff Officers, never come into the trenches…’.[8] He blamed the failure of the attack on Hill 60 in May 1915 because of ‘Rotten Staff management and all caused by the Staff never coming near the trenches and keep in proper touch with the troops under them’.[9]

In this attack, Burgoyne was wounded and his diary stops abruptly. He did carry on serving during the war and ended it as a Major General.

He was killed in 1936 during an Italian bombing raid on a supply column he was leading in Ethiopia as part of a British Red Cross mission.[10]

[1] G.A. Burgoyne, The Burgoyne Diaries (London, 1985), Preface.

[2] Ibid., p.26.

[3] Ibid., p.26.

[4] Ibid., p.26.

[5] Ibid., p.59.

[6] Ibid., p.123.

[7] Ibid., p.51.

[8] Ibid., p.151.

[9] Ibid., p.218.

[10] Ibid., Preface.