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Brand: David Venner

Dispatch Rider onthe Western Front

by David Venner

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Dispatch Rider On The Western Front

Sergeant Albert Simpkin MM's Great War diary is of unusual scope and exceptional interest. Albert was a First World War motorcycle despatch rider attached to the Headquarters 37th Division throughout the war which he was so fortunate to survive. His wide-ranging role enabled him to witness much more than his fellow men who were restricted to the trenches.

One day he would be dodging shell holes and ammunition limbers to take his despatches to the front, the next commenting on the quaint but often courageous lives of the local populace. As a result his diary entries, and some longer descriptions of the main actions of the Division, provide a graphic record of the war on the Western Front; Fortunately Albert was a gifted observer of the scene and a fluent writer. The fact he was awarded the Military Medal is testimony to his bravery.

Throughout the diary are colourful and amusing anecdotes about his fellow soldiers, and critical comments on the strategies and tactics employed by the officers. Dairy of a Despatch Rider offers a unique opportunity for readers to immerse themselves in a well written and objective first-hand account of life and death on the Western Front.

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Like many soldiers in the Great War, Albert Simpkin kept a diary, although against army regulations. This book is an edited version, introduced and abridged by his great nephew. It is a remarkable account of his lengthy war service in France and Belgium from July 1915 to early 1919. As a despatch rider he had one of the most dangerous jobs, travelling in all sorts of weather and over all sorts of terrain, day and night, to and from the trenches. He and his fellow dispatch riders frequently had to dodge artillery fire in the difficult search for the units to which they were delivering orders. Despite all dangers, he came through without a scratch. It seems that his pre-war experience of motorcycles (he worked as an engineer for Crossley Brothers in Manchester) and maturity served him in good stead. The army soon recognised these qualities by advancing him to the rank of sergeant. Simpkin writes vividly of the horrors he saw on the Western Front. At the same time there is an intriguing emphasis on what he saw of the air war - dogfights over the trenches and German aerial bombing of Allied positions. There seems to have been a strong interest taken by the despatch riders in what they saw in the skies above them. A number of them applied to be transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. Simpkin also describes vividly the extreme dangers of artillery bombardment. The chateaux in which General Staff officers were often quartered, with their dispatch riders in attendance, were as vulnerable to these attacks as those in more forward positions. Unlike many former soldiers, Simpkin made the journey back to the battlefields in the 1930s, which provided a further impetus for editing and reordering the notes he had made during the war. It is fortunate as well as a tribute to his outstanding war service that his well-written account of what he experienced has now seen the light of day. Ian Hay-Campbell Friends of The National Archives http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/get-involved/friends.htm Friends of The National Archives