Poignant WWI photograph in Derbyshire sale

A never-before-seen photo of soldiers leaving Northern Ireland to fight in World War One and a serviceman’s diary from the trenches have been uncovered.

The poignant image shows uniformed soldiers as far as the eye can see walking along a country lane with kit bags on their shoulders. They’re surrounded by women folk, children and well wishers bidding them farewell.

The photo is marked with an X to indicate Sapper Robert (Bob) Phillips and bears a note, ‘Bob leaving Ireland for war’. It was found among his personal collection of WW1 memorabilia.

Robert, of Newtownards, County Down, was born in 1896. He enlisted for service on January 13, 1915 aged 19. He joined the 36th Division Signalling Company Royal Engineers and went on to win the Military Medal for bravery in the 1914-1918 conflict.

The discovery of his 1915 photo and WW1 diary have underlined the importance of Remembrance Day, according to Hansons Auctioneers.

Matt Crowson, Head of Militaria at Hansons, said: “The image of troops leaving for war is original. It marks the start of their journey into the unknown more than a century ago. It reminds me of the WW1 song ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’, which was written the same year this photo was taken. It makes you wonder how many of these men ever saw home or their loved ones again.

“I’ve seen similar photos before of other regiments but this one is likely unique. A local photographer was probably hired to cover the event and mementos of the occasion might have been purchased by the families. The inked ‘X’ on the photo highlights our man, Robert, as he leaves for the front, along with a girl.

“Thanks to the discovery of Robert’s diary we know what happened to him in the years that followed. It documents his movements through Europe from October 1915 to November 11, 1918. On that day he poignantly wrote,‘Armistice accepted 11/11/18 at 11 o’clock’.

1915 image of Irish soldiers leaving for World War One

“Every year people throughout the UK attend services to honour those who have fought and died in wars. Robert’s simple note, together with a picture showing hundreds of men heading to war from rural Ireland, reminds us exactly why the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is so significant. We will always remember them. An entire generation was decimated. Around 750,000 British servicemen never made it home.

“Finds like this enable us to honour them again. Robert’s diary details the trials, tribulations and painful losses of a generation of young men who endured so much. Even if they were fortunate enough to survive, as Robert did, they had to learn how to deal with death and destruction on a daily basis.”

In an entry dated September 29, 1918 Spr Phillips writes: ‘When we were getting our breakfast we heard the bad news of Sgt Jackson and 4 others being killed at Ypres, and Lt Wilson and the others being wounded’.

Another entry reads: ‘We had to shift our office down to a pill box. When that was done the rear party and cook came up and we got dinner, and a wash and shave and dried ourselves. Bert and I then made a cover for ourselves with two sheets of corrugated iron. When we were doing that Fritz sent some new sort of shells over. We did not hear them coming until they burst.’

Also included is a touching letter written by Robert’s friend and brother in arms Bertie Jackson. Bertie wrote to Mrs Phillips, Robert’s mother in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. He movingly revealed to her how he lost his brother during operations, and how Robert’s companionship in the Signal Company had kept him from sinking under his loss. Bertie wrote: ‘Just at the opening of the last offensive operations I lost a brother who was very dear to me, and we had soldiered together ever since the formation of the signal coy. I feel it was Bob’s companionship kept me from sinking under my loss, and inspired me to carry on, although I never told him myself. I felt that although I had lost a brother I had still a good friend left in him.

‘Bob and I have been very close companions for a long time, and I will tell you frankly Mrs Phillips, he is a son which any mother should be proud of. I can’t speak of him too highly, and I congratulate myself upon having such a pal’.

Mr Crowson said: “Spr Phillips entered the conflict in France on October 3, 1915. We don’t have his WW1 medals but he was entitled to the Military Medal, 1915 Star, BWM, and Victory Medal. His Military Medal appears in the London Gazette on June 17, 1919. We believe it was won in October 1918, shortly before the end of the Great War. A newspaper clipping included with the lot seems to confirm Robert served in the military after WW1, and possibly during the Second World War.

“His personal account of a life as a serviceman in World War One is a poignant piece of military history. His diary doubles up as an address and notebook of sorts, with details of the names and addresses of friends and relatives, handwritten Morse code translation and even a French phrase section.

“I can picture him now amid the mud of the trenches quietly penning his thoughts. I am so pleased his diary and that poignant image of young Irishmen going to war have been saved for posterity. They remind us of those who gave their lives to serve their country more than a century ago.”

The WW1 diary and images will be offered in Hansons Auctioneers’ WW1 Auction on November 7, with an estimate of £100-£150.