Long before daybreak
The rediscovered WW1 memoir of an art student’s survival in the trenches
by Albert Clayton
edited by Micah Duckworth
published independently by M J Duckworth
paperback, 218 pages, illustrated, no index
In 1969, George Coppard published his memoir “With a machine gun to Cambrai”. It has rightly come to be regarded as a classic. He was very proud of having served in the 12th (Eastern) Division, the “Ace of Spades”, up until his wounding in the Battle of Arras in 1917. The final chapter covers his return to the old battlefields in the 1960s and is a very touching piece of work. In later editions, he included a number of letters he had received from old comrades of his division, but said he had met very few of them since the war. How he would have loved to have yarned with Albert Clayton, for they would have known the same villages, the same billets, the same trenches.
I was sent this book by Micah Duckworth, who has produced this edition of Albert’s memoir. Albert was his father’s cousin, and the memoir lay untouched for many years until it was found when clearing out some old papers. What a find. “Long before daybreak” turned out to be right up there with George Coppard’s work. I could not praise it more highly.
Albert Clayton, born in Accrington in 1895, was educated at the Leeds School of Art. He was enlisted in January 1916 into the 29th (Reserve) (Public Schools) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, but once in France served with the regiment’s 8th (Service) Battalion. This was a unit of the “Ace of Spades” Division.
He may not have written it with a view to publication, but Clayton’s writing is most engaging. He arrived in France in time to take part in the Battle of the Somme, and ultimately would be wounded and taken prisoner in the Third Battle of the Scarpe, part of the Battle of Arras, in early May 1917. Albert went “over the top” and into attacks of varying degrees of success on several occasions. But it was his time in the safer rear areas, his tasks as a company orderly, on exhausting carrying parties, and his interactions with his close comrades, that I found most fascinating. It lies in the detail. The food they ate, the billets they occupied, getting his photograph taken, the alcoholics and the steady men. The memoir ends when he arrives at the POW camp at Ingolstadt. It is a brilliant piece of work. For anyone with an interest in the battalion or division, it simply has to be read.
The book includes a useful introduction and a postscript on Albert’s life after he was captured.
Contact the publisher at email longbeforedaybreak @ duckworth.plus.com (remove spaces)