Experience of War Recorded in John Binder’s Diary

binder1Oundle’s war memorial in the centre of town is familiar to everyone and yet, over the years its significance has become less personal. Families move on, and the memorial becomes less relevant. The events of the Great War are retold in history textbooks that often do not include the experiences of people in local communities.

It is fortunate that one valuable source that documents Oundle’s experience has survived and is now available to the public. Historian Alice Thomas has meticulously transcribed nine volumes of the diary of an Oundle grocer, baker, corn dealer and town councilor, John Coleman Binder. The diary faithfully records the course of the Great War from the build-up in late July of 1914 to Armistice Day, 52 months later.

Mrs Thomas, who is a local history author and a member of the Oundle Museum, was told about the diaries by a family member of the late Percy Clark. Percy had known the Binders as a teenager, and was presented with the diaries by Mrs Binder after her husband’s death. The project took Mrs Thomas almost five years to transcribe.

John Coleman Binder was born in Oundle in 1863, the youngest of nine children. He eventually took over his father’s shop on Benefield Road. His last known address was at 8 Stoke Hill where he lived with his wife. He was 51 years old when war broke out in 1914.

Binder’s diary is the work of an eagle-eyed observer. Astute observations and marked attention to detail create not only a clear picture of the First World War from a rural perspective, but also a portrait of a well-informed and educated man. The broad sweep of the war’s progress weaves comprehensive accounts of events of national significance with the impact of war at a local level.

It is fitting that the diary’s transcription coincides with the Great War centenary, serving as a necessary reminder that even this countryside town could not escape the cold reach of war.

Of the 2700 residents in the Oundle and Ashton parish, 355 went to war. Back on the home front, the war stirred anxieties, patriotism and paranoia. Binder records zeppelin air raid alerts, a suspicious German schoolmaster and an atmosphere of ‘gloom and depression’ following a new conscription bill.

He is not over-zealously patriotic, yet he is loyal, and objects to the ‘carping remarks’ found in some of the national newspapers about the support of the home front. ‘We, as a nation, are continually being taunted by them for having done or doing so little in the war. This is absolutely untrue. When one considers our position to-day and what we have done since last August 4 it is marvellous’.

He highlights the generosity of the public to the government’s request for blankets: ‘The response has been amazing. Blankets are being sent in by the hundreds and thousands’.

Binder’s observations are wide-ranging, with details about the daily weather mixed with his responses to reports in the newspapers about the concerns of the nation, battle strategies and other ‘outstanding features’ in the news. Binder was both a baker and grocer, and it is unsurprising that his diary documents rising food prices. With authority, he writes: ‘The man in the street is beginning to see that the food problem is the problem that most concerns us’.

As the war approached its last year, Binder was unusually despondent, writing in late 1917: “If Germany comes on top then goodbye to all hope of making life worth living in this world.”

The diary is both a chronicle of daily events and a portrait of a man engaged with his times. Triple exclamation marks capture his excitement or disbelief about the progress of the war, while his comments sometimes reveal weariness with the war and a wryness that suggests captions for Punch cartoons: ‘America and Germany are still squabbling about the sinking of their ships’. On the rumoured abdication of the Kaiser, he writes: ‘Kings have an awkward knack of tumbling off their thrones in these days’.
Finally, on November 11, 1918 he wrote: ‘At Last!!!’

At 11.30am a telegram was posted on a shop window in town that declared, ‘Armistice signed at five o’clock this morning. Fighting ceased on all fronts at eleven. Official.’ In London, the Commons and Lords immediately adjourned for a service of thanksgiving, ‘and I believe this is what we all feel,’ he wrote.

After one further entry the next day, John Binder closed the ninth volume of his diary, and wrote nothing more.

Binder died in 1933. He and his wife had no children. Did Binder keep his diary for himself or for posterity? He wrote: ‘I am quite aware that these rough notes are fragmentary and disjointed, but still they may be of interest to someone in after years’.

He realised he was living in an historic era, but it is unlikely that he imagined that his diary would be read a hundred years on. It is fortunate that his wife passed them on to the Clarke family, who has proved a careful custodian. His diary is a rare document, and Alice Thomas’ publication provides an invaluable chapter in Oundle’s history.

Day by day through the Great War in a Northamptonshire market town : the diary of John Coleman Binder, Grocer, Baker and Town Councillor in Oundle, July 25 1914 to November 12 1918
Published by Oundle Museum Trust and available at The Oundle Museum £9.90. Tel: 01832 272741

By Anna Trafford