When tutor Dr Jim Lewis asked his special needs students for wartime stories involving their ancestors, he did not expect to be given a diary dating back to 1917 describing an amazing journey across the desert.
It was courtesy of 52-year-old Alan Mattless, who suffers from Down’s Syndrome and regularly attends Jim’s classes at St John’s Centre in Brewery Hill.
The handwritten journal measuring only 6cm by 10cm belonged to Alan’s grandfather Fred Brown, who it reveals was in charge of leading a team of gun horses from Egypt to Palestine, and helped to conquer Jerusalem and Syria as part of the British Empire’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
Accompanied by his faithful black Canadian horse ‘Old Bill’, Fred was part of the 54th Division which marched from Ismailia in Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula into Palestine.
A historian specialising in the First World War, Dr Lewis said: “On the way they would have encountered many hardships.
“Apart from pulling the guns across the desert, the horses were used to move and withdraw the guns from their battlefield positions, sometimes under an incoming barrage from the enemy positions.”
Fred summarises his epic trek in brief handwritten notes jotted down in the tiny diary, such as one dated March 25, 1917, which reads: “In Palestine now. Very nice country after the desert” before an entry the next day: “On the move to attack Gaza.”
What follows is a fascinating insight into how those on the ground fighting relied on other means to find out the military situation, with Fred writing: “Had it read in orders that we captured Gaza on the 26th but could not consolidate it owing to darkness and had to withdraw on 27th.”
However, undeterred, the British forces struck again in what Fred describes as the ‘big assault on Gaza’, and which Dr Lewis explains was the third battle of Gaza where under the command of General Edmund Allenby they fired 10,000 missiles filled with poisonous gas on enemy positions.
This huge scale attack resulted in the capture of Gaza, and then as Fred relates ‘led to the conquest of Jerusalem and the whole of Syria’.
The diary continues with more descriptions of not only key battles but also the routine day-to-day experiences of a typical soldier, including kit inspections, rations and parades, along with the effect of the weather and inevitable fatigue.
Moreover it tells how Fred and ‘Old Bill’ were together for almost three years, and very much depended on each other to get through the harsh conditions.
As Dr Lewis recognises, the diary’s discovery is an important historical find, giving more information on lesser known events in the war.
To Alan, though, it is very much a personal story of his grandfather’s endeavours, which also reminded him of his father’s experiences in the Second World War.
Alan said: “I am very proud of my grandad and also my dad who fought in Burma during the Second World War. He was wounded by a Japanese grenade.”
After demobilisation in 1920, Fred worked for Grantham’s engineering firm Aveling Barford until 1950.