Herbert ‘Bert’ Frank Boxer was born in Penge, Surrey, in 1898, the son of Thomas and Alice Boxer. In December 1915, Herbert enlisted with the East Surrey Regiment and, by 1917, he was serving with the 9th Battalion on the Western Front.
Herbert Boxer wrote his account, ‘My Nineteenth Year, 1917-1918’, in Poplar Hospital, London, while recovering from wounds inflicted at Vermand, France, in March 1918. Herbert’s diary begins in July 1917 with his battalion returning to the Ypres front. It gives a detailed and matter-of-fact account of the skirmishes and fatalities, his duties as a signaller, and of the horrendous conditions he and his comrades endured. There is a particularly chilling account of a soldier who had been stuck in the mud for 24 hours and had to be shot by another soldier (who had been plied with rum) to put him out of his misery.
Herbert also pays tribute to his commanding officer, Colonel De La Fontaine: ‘Our Colonel came up as soon as the attack started and he was killed. He was one of the bravest men I have ever met, he was everywhere where there was danger, and it was through being so careless of danger that he was killed.’
Remarkably, Herbert writes that, during fourteen days’ leave at home, he ‘had a grand time, although I missed the boys of the Battalion. London seemed very strange, I felt as if I had come back to another world, and strange to say I felt unsettled, I could not understand it. When my fourteen days had passed, I was quite ready to go back…’ His diary concludes, ‘Do I regret those years in the Army, in particular my Nineteenth Year. No, the memory, those wonderful memories will live with me always.’
Yet, according to his family, Herbert did not glorify war; like many of his contemporaries, he hardly ever spoke of it, probably because of the horrors he saw and experienced.
After the war, Herbert worked as a builder and decorator in Enfield. He used his demob money to invest in a barrow and paint, starting by decorating local houses and quickly building it into a very successful building and decorating company with about 40 employees. He married Doris Winnifred Baker in 1936 and they had four children. During the Second World War, he was a fire marshal in London. As a master builder, he helped in the rebuilding of the capital and was granted the Freedom of the City of London. Herbert died in 1970.
A transcript of Herbert’s diary has been kindly presented to Surrey History Centre by his granddaughter, Jo Harman, of Turramurra, Australia (SHC ref Z/704).