The further in time we come from the world wars of last century, the closer we seem to get to the terrible experiences of those who fought. The reason for that is the diaries they left, two of which feature today. We read them through the eyes and hearts of their descendants. Olympic gymnast Angela Walker tells a story from of her father's WW2 diaries which she found in a dusty box three years after his death. Herald journalist Jamie Morton writes of his great-grandfather's ordeals in the trenches as described in his diary and his letters home.

The diaries and letters were written by men of generations that did not often share their experiences with those who were not there. Among themselves, they probably did not have to explain very much. They all knew the horror, fear, boredom and drudgery of military service. Bravery was not a quality they claimed. Duty, comradeship, death and survival were the qualities they knew.

The generations that grew up knowing these men sensed all this and did not press them too hard for war stories. Their diaries and letters were treasured but perhaps not often read. Many of them were preserved in official archives and provide much of the material for books that continue to be published for war anniversaries. The letters and diaries have been staple Anzac Day fare for newspapers for a long time but each generation reads them with a fresh perspective.

Today we read them in an age more emotionally open and honest. The gaps in their taciturn accounts can be filled with fellow feeling. This is something that would have been harder to do when they were still alive.


In an extract from a book on her father Ian, Walker describes last two perilous mission as a tail gunner in an RAF bomber in 1941, culminating in a crash landing in Belgium that he survived to be taken prisoner. Morton's story focuses on a chess set his great- grandfather carved from willow in the trenches to help his unit distract themselves during the day between attacks at night.

Contrasting stories that say a great deal about war, one of flying in darkness until the bomber is illuminated by a searchlight for flak or fighter planes, the other whiling the hours playing chess somehow, in between the worst battles of 1917. Harry Bourke survived New Zealand's "darkest day", October 12, on Bellevue Spur when 846 fellow Kiwis died in the attempt to take Passchendaele. His diary simply records, "It was bloody awful and will go down in history that way."

These centenary years of the Great War make it easier to realise how long it lasted. The centenary of the war's outbreak was just before the last election, in 2014, and that seems an eternity. Yet the war had been going on for the best part of three years by this time a century ago, it was to continue for another 18 months, and the terrible toll it was taking was unrelenting. The only consolation for the Allies was that by this time in 1917, America had just come in.

Harry Bourke was right, it was bloody awful and it did go down in history. When their grandchildren and great-grandchildren of go to a cenotaph on Tuesday they will be able to imagine what it was like and be ever grateful they need only read about it.