In November 1916, digger James Leslie Robinson was a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver during the chaotic and bloody Battle of the Somme.

At just 20 years old, he was a long way from his home in Brunswick in Melbourne’s north.

The diary of James Robinson offers a vivid insight into life on the western front.Credit:Justin McManus

In his diary, which has been discovered in a Melbourne warehouse 107 years later, Robinson writes of watching mates being maimed and killed, and of seeing dugouts strewn with skulls.

Near the town of Flers, which came under heavy attack in battle, he describes being up to his neck in mud and under fire for four hours. And then the Germans start lobbing deadly gas canisters.

Robinson was 19 years old when he enlisted in 1915.

“Very thankful I’m still going,” he scribbles later.

The small, leather-bound World War I diary was found among items donated to Brotherhood Books, the online second-hand bookstore of charity Brotherhood of St Laurence.

The store’s manager, Greg Simpson, says the diary is “one of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve seen”.

“It pretty much gave me shivers. I don’t think any of the young bucks who signed up to fight in the war had any clue what they were in for,” he said.

Simpson is looking for Robinson’s relatives so he can return the diary. “It’s not something we’d consider selling – that wouldn’t feel right.”

He says the diary may have been inadvertently given to the charity when relatives were spring-cleaning.

“It gave me shivers”: Brotherhood Books store manager Greg Simpson with the diary.Credit:Justin McManus

“I can’t imagine any family member would give something like that away knowingly,” Simpson said.

“It’s irreplaceable, it’s deeply personal and historical, and I would think from a sentimental point of view, you couldn’t put a price on it.

“I would imagine any family member would be beyond thrilled to get it back.”

Robinson joined the army in 1915, listing his address as De Carle Street, Brunswick, his occupation as schoolteacher and his father as James Robinson. He married after the war but it’s believed he did not have children. He died in Oakleigh in 1967.

While some of his diary entries are brief, others are vivid and expansive. One entry from March 22, 1918, says: “We came thro’ Bailleul on our way home. Fritz [the Germans] had just left off shelling and had landed a shell in the main square and one in the shops facing it. The soldiers and people were still digging for the unfortunates who were buried while in the shelter of their cellars. Bailleul is wearing the appearance of a dead deserted town.”

The next day, he writes: “Fritz started shelling at about 3am and knocked the spire off the church and put a shell into the mairie [town hall] where 30 people were waiting to get passports to leave the area. The shell smashed the water control and with the result that half the town is under water.”

In the French town of Amiens, Robinson describes a beautiful cathedral. And on leave, he documents in detail a dizzying array of sights such as Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, and the Arc de Triomphe, Palais-Royal and Palace of Versailles in France.

Between battles, troops go swimming, play football and cricket, and write and receive letters from loved ones at home.

There are hand-drawn maps in the diary and names and addresses, perhaps of friends or patients.

Neil Sharkey, a curator at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, says war diaries can play an important role painting a picture for researchers and descendants who are reconstructing their forebears’ experiences.

He says a member of the public seeks advice at the Shrine about a war diary about once a month.

If there’s no succession plan in place or relatives do not recognise their value, war diaries are sometimes thrown out or given to op shops, Sharkey says.

Robinson’s diary was not on the premises when Brotherhood Books’ warehouse in Kensington was flooded last October, destroying thousands of books.

Simpson says if no one comes forward, the diary will be donated to an institution such as the Australian War Memorial or the Shrine of Remembrance. Anyone related to Robinson can email [email protected]

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