yeovil at War

The War Diary of Samuel Freke

Survived the Great War and left a rare and exceptional record of his time at the Front


Samuel George Freke, known as Sam, was born in Yeovil on 9 February 1895. He was the son of house furnisher and upholsterer Samuel Walter Stephen Freke (1864-1947) - originally from Bristol - and Elizabeth née Gould (1865-1942). Samuel and Elizabeth were to have six children, all born in Yeovil; Mable Beatrice (1888-1983), Nellie Elizabeth (1892-1980), William (b1895), Samuel George, Wilfred (b1899) and Claud Stephen (1909-2001).

In the 1901 census the family were living above Samuel Snr's furniture shop in Middle Street, opposite Bond Street. Samuel gave his occupation as a house furnisher. By the time of the 1911 census Samuel had moved his family to 38 The Avenue. Samuel Snr gave his occupation as an upholsterer, Elizabeth stated that she assisted in the business while 16-year old Sam was an upholsterer's apprentice.

On 12 May 1916, at Taunton, Sam enlisted in the 4th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment with the Service Number 59112. He gave his occupation as an upholsterer. He was, however, quickly transferred to the newly-reorganised Machine Gun Corps. He joined the 61st Machine Gun Company and his new Service Number was 45924. He landed in France on 13 September 1916.

In 1914, all infantry battalions were equipped with a machine gun section of two guns, which was increased to four in February 1915. The sections were equipped with Maxim guns, served by a subaltern and 12 men. The obsolescent Maxim had a maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds, so was the equivalent of around 40 well-trained riflemen.

The experience of fighting in the early clashes and in the First Battle of Ypres had proved that the machine guns required special tactics and organisation. On 22 November 1914 the BEF established a Machine Gun School at Wisques in France to train new regimental officers and machine gunners, both to replace those lost in the fighting to date and to increase the number of men with MG skills. A Machine Gun Training Centre was also established at Grantham in England.

On 2 September 1915 a definite proposal was made to the War Office for the formation of a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the guns and gun teams from the battalions. They would be replaced at battalion level by the light Lewis machine guns and thus the firepower of each brigade would be substantially increased. The Machine Gun Corps was created by Royal Warrant on October 14 followed by an Army Order on 22 October 1915. The companies formed in each brigade would transfer to the new Corps. The MGC would eventually consist of infantry Machine Gun Companies, cavalry Machine Gun Squadrons and Motor Machine Gun Batteries. The pace of reorganisation depended largely on the rate of supply of the Lewis guns but it was completed before the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The reason for this page is that Sam left us a rare and exceptional record of his time spent in France, from 1916 to 1918, in the form of a small sketch book. The sketch book, a poignant reminder of life on the Western Front, contains twenty-seven pencil sketch vignettes that vividly bring to life the actions in which Sam took part, as well as some of the down time. It truly is a remarkable series of images, reproduced below without comment. I am most grateful to the current owners of Sam's War Diary for giving me permission to reproduce it, in full, here.

Fortunately, Sam survived the Great War and returned to live in Yeovil. He died in Yeovil in 1990 aged 95.


Sam Freke's War Diary