THE diary entries of a Second World War driver and prisoner of war, who lived in Wooler in his later life, are being revealed day-by-day on the social micro-blogging site Twitter over the course of 2012. BEN O’CONNELL finds out from the soldier’s grandson about this early user of Twitter and how his diary came to be published in this way.
USERS of Twitter are limited to 140 characters for each message but keeping a small pocket diary in 1940 forced Ross Selkirk Taylor to limit the length of his entries too.
After he passed away in September last year, his grandson, journalist Chris Ayres, read the diary in full for the first time and realised not just how remarkable his grandfather’s tale was, but also that it would be perfect on Twitter.
And that’s just what he has done, with @driverross opening his story on January 1 this year.
Last week, the Gazette reported the launch of the account, which gained nearly 3,000 followers in three days, and Chris has been shocked by its ‘incredible’success .
“I was hoping to get a few dozen followers – I never thought we’d get 3,200 in the first week,” he said. “It was also great to see it covered by The Telegraph, The Sunday Times and GQ.
“I honestly thought this would be something of interest only to my immediate family and those who knew my grandfather when he was alive.
“The comments from other Twitter uses have been particularly encouraging. Everyone seems to be very taken with the almost sci-fi-ish idea of a young soldier tweeting from 72 years ago.
“What really makes it work, I think, is the fact that we’re not editing the tweets. In their original form, they were exactly the right length.”
His grandfather, who moved to Wooler with his wife Florence in the early 1990s, started 1940 training as a driver of a three-ton Bedford truck in the Royal Army Service Corps and at the end of February he was sent to France to deliver ‘beans, bullets and bandages’ to Allied troops.
When the Germans invaded in May, his duties changed to transporting men to the front lines. He was transporting the Royal West Kents north from Le Mans when he was captured.
Chris said: “They were ambushed by a Nazi Panzer division in Albert, France.
“The Germans basically hid, and jumped out after my grandfather and the West Kents rolled up into the town square and stopped for a cigarette break.
“Luckily, my grandfather hadn’t got out of his truck when they opened fire, so he stomped on the accelerator – some of the West Kents jumping into the back – and tried to leave town, but of course he didn’t know where he was going, and when he made a turn, the Germans had set up a machine gun at the end of the street.
“My grandfather threw himself out of the truck before the gunner had a chance to open fire.
“After that, he tried to escape on foot, joining a line of French refugees.
“But the refugees obviously didn’t want anything to do with British soliders – they put them at risk – so my grandfather and two others broke away, climbing a hill to a farm.
“This gave them a perfect view – the weather was beautiful that day – of the Luftwaffe needlessly massacring the French women and children.
“This image obviously haunted my grandfather for a long time to come.
“A few minutes later, an English-speaking German dispatch rider apprehended my grandfather at gunpoint.
“He thought he’d be shot right there. Instead he became a prisoner of war, spending the next five years in various stalags and work camps throughout Poland the Czech Republic.
“Probably the worst part of it all, however, was his two-week, 200 mile ‘death march’ from Albert to Germany, during which time he was fed nothing by the Germans whatsoever, and had to rely on begging for scraps from locals to survive.
“In Germany, he was locked in a railway cattle truck for three days while being taken to Poland.
“And then of course he was put to work in labour camps, his first job being to dismantle the zoo at Poznan, to make way for an airfield.
“Amazingly, he recorded all this in his diary. Even more amazingly, the diary survived the war.”
Chris first saw the diary about seven years ago, but said his grandfather wasn’t that keen on him seeing it.
“And I don’t blame him,” he said. “It’s very intense during his captivity.
“He was only 21, so these were the private thoughts of a very young man who not only had been forced to confront the horrors of the battlefield, but who was also terribly homesick and worried that his girlfriend back in Newcastle (my grandmother, Florence) might leave him.”
But after his grandfather’s funeral, reading it through properly, Chris realised that none of the entries was more than 140 characters.
“In his own way, and without knowing it, my grandfather had tweeted the Second World War.
“That’s when I got the idea to retweet the entries, day-by-day, so he’s telling his story in real time – only on a 72-year delay.
“I also just really wanted to honour his incredible life and service to this country, and the service of his fellow soldiers who didn’t make it out of Albert alive.
“It’s a very stark reminder of how lucky we are today.
“We owe my grandfather’s generation a huge debt of gratitude.”