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War artist

PUBLISHED: 05:14 02 March 2015

One of William Bennett's watercolours of Norwich in the late 1960s

One of William Bennett's watercolours of Norwich in the late 1960s

Archant

William Bennett lived most of his life in Norfolk – apart from the terrible years of the First World War. A century on, his granddaughter has published his diaries, writes Rowan Mantell.

William Bennett in his Norfolk Regiment uniformWilliam Bennett in his Norfolk Regiment uniform

Just two men from his company survived the carnage of the battle – Norfolk boy William Bennett was one of them. Then a sniper killed the man beside him.

Time after time William came desperately close to death as he fought his way through the First World War. He suffered from trench fever, friends were struck down beside him, and he was badly wounded on the Somme and at Passchendale.

William grew up in the Waveney Valley and volunteered for service in the first month of the First World War. Despite seeing countless comrades killed, he survived the entire war and went on write his story, bring up a family and forge a career as a printer and teacher at Norwich Art School. But he did not emerge unscathed. As well as having a leg amputated in 1936 after a war wound failed to heal, he also carried the mental and emotional burden of losing so many comrades.

Now his granddaughter, Maureen Dening, has published the story of his war.

The book, 1914-1919: The War Diaries of a Norfolk Man, by William Bennett, takes his hand-written entries and runs them alongside printed extracts. They tell a shocking and compelling story of ordinary men pitched into almost unimaginable horror. But there are also happier memories. In October 1916 William returned on leave to Norfolk, and married his sweetheart, Elizabeth. They went on live in Woodland Road, Hellesdon, and have three daughters.

William was born in Kenninghall, near Banham, and went to work as a printer in Norwich before enlisting in the Norfolk Regiment at the age of 24.

“He was a brave and stoical – and lucky – man,” says Maureen.

She discovered his diary in notebooks bound together with string and bootlaces, after her mother died. He had been a writer and artist, contributing essays and illustrations to local booklets.

The book of his war diaries contains the earliest known picture of William. It is a fine watercolour, painted at the end of the war by his brother-in-law, Ernest Faircloth. As an apprentice at Page Bros printers of Norwich, Ernest sat at the desk the artist Munnings had used a few years earlier. More than a century later Page Bros printed William’s war diaries.

William was an artist too, and Maureen and Jim treasure several of his paintings, including a view of Cromer Pier they found at a Keys’ art sale in Aylsham.

William died, aged 90, in 1981. In his diary he confides: “We never really gave it much thought, but I cannot recall ever hating the Germans. Privately, I often felt that the war could have been avoided, if everyone had tried a little harder.”

An extract from 1914-1919: The War Diaries of a Norfolk Man

The Somme. July 1916.

Then came the order to “go over”. Everything had been planned, but things did not go according to plan – mines timed to blow-up one minute before our troops went over the top, did not explode until our men were on the top of the mined area so that numerous men were killed and wounded before the advance really began . . . Two or three days later we had to go back and retake Delville Wood . . . After a briefing we went over the top at 6.30am, having to climb over a large number of dead bodies to advance. The Corporal and Sergeant were killed at the moment of entry into the wood, the victims of some Jerry snipers in the treetops. They were soon brought down and we advanced in the face of heavy fire from artillery and small arms . . . I was suddenly conscious that all rifle fire had ceased . . . Pressing on to the edge of the wood, we tried to dig ourselves in, but there were too many tree roots and no other cover at all, so we were in a very exposed position, holding on, as we had been told reinforcements would arrive. None ever did, until by 6pm, there were just the two of us left out of 70 men. We were faint and hungry and thought we would have some food (biscuits and cheese) from our haversacks. That was the last thing we ever did in that situation. A sniper blew my companion’s brains out and I had a bullet through my nose . . .”

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