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Captain Hepper's Great War Diary:



About this book:

  • ISBN 9781904524816

  • Published 2011

  • Price £15.00 + postage

  • Hardback

  • 185 pages

  • Illustrated with 68 photographs, drawings and maps.



About this Book:

This book follows the story of a Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment on the Somme during the First World War. Captain Raymond Hepper, from Leeds, served as a Captain of snipers and, later as Brigade Intelligence Officer. The diaries have been copied from the original by his son, F. Nigel Hepper, who has also drawn some of the maps and illustrations.


Horror and banalities in captain's Great War chronicles
Today the battlefields of the First World War are relatively green and tranquil rather than desolate and covered in mud. Comprehending the horror of those in the trenches may not be easy, but one Yorkshireman has left behind a lasting impression of his war in a diary that gives an insight into everyday life on the Somme.
Captain Hepper's Great War Diary covers the period from January 1916 to January 1919 and deals mainly with his experiences of trench warfare with the 17th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment.
The personal account of Captain Raymond Hepper's war details daily routines as well as times of fear and killing...
Captain Hepper was in the family business of Hepper and Sons – chartered surveyors and auctioneers – in Leeds, until he enlisted in 1914 and again when he was demobbed at the end of the war.
After a year's training in Ilkley as a junior officer, he was sent to France. Despite the millions who died during the conflict Captain Hepper survived uninjured. He went on to become a captain of snipers and later a brigade intelligence officer. The diaries have been copied from his original manuscripts by his son, Nigel Hepper.
At the end of July 1916, after a day in the thick of battle, he wrote: 'Horror on horror... the barrage continues to fall all along the trench. God this is awful. Shall we ever get out alive?'
The entry concludes: ' It is useless putting into writing the sights I have seen today for they will ever be in my mind as a memento of July 30.'
Despite all the horrors Captain Hepper kept a sense of humour. He was always trying to find places for the men to have a bath to get rid of the mud. At one point he found one in a brewery and commented: 'There should be a good beer later, plenty of body.
' Yorkshire Post, December 2011


Captain Hepper's Great War Diary is edited by the author's son. This is a much more conventional war diary - and it's none the worse for it. Hepper has no intention of becoming a soldier, but as a public-school educated chartered surveyor in Leeds, he volunteers for and is commissioned into the West Yorkshires in 1914. He arrives in France in 1916, but while we are told that 'we have been in the battle area for nearly three weeks and lost half our men,' such trials are hardly mentioned. Instead, in a series of almost lyrically written letters and diary entries, he concentrates on the beauty of the land and the bird life and, with a gifted hand, illustrates many flowers and plants, all with their Latin names attached. The casualties that his company inflicts are never discussed whilst only once or twice is the same stoical mask that the Elmhirst wear allowed to slip. Hepper reveals so much when he writes, 'The barrage continues to fall all along the trench. God, this is awful. Shall we ever get out alive?'
A lot has been said about the Great War but very little of it with the delicacy and humanity of this book. It neither dramatises nor trivialises ware and there's not a shred of self pity. Rather, it is an account of good and steadfast people enduring Britain's gravest test without complaint.
Patrick Mercer, review in 'The Oldie', July 2011.


One of the best things about this fascinating diary is that the acquired familiarity of the routine and "normality" of life in the trenches with occasions of fearful, tragic, personal drama are so well-recorded by a perceptive and quite evidently likeable observer, an officer in the 17th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment. Captain Hepper fulfils all the responsibilities one might expect from billeting, artillery observation, sniping, Lewis Gun and intelligence before becoming a Brigade Intelligence Officer.
Unusually in such published works the diary continues beyond the Armistice to great advantage as Hepper's battalion marches into Germany for the Occupation but the essence of his experience is wonderfully expressed on the date he lost an especial friend: "Those who read this diary, if any there be, will know how we lived together not only in France but throughout our training in England, have known our faults, likes and dislikes and have been true friends."
Peter Liddle, First World War Historian.


Raymond Hepper's diary is a fine example of the kind of personal war record that the Imperial War Museum is most keen to preserve. The account of his experiences with the 17th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment continues to be of considerable interest to historians studying the life of a regimental officer on the Western Front during the First World War, and remains an important part of our ever-expanding holdings on the conflict. This publication of Hepper's war diary makes the account even more valuable by its inclusion of biographical information, historical notes and a most useful index. It will undoubtedly prove of great benefit to future historians. Anthony Richards, Imperial War Museum


I have no record of a published history of the 17th West Yorks, which makes this diary of considerable interest... it is a worthwhile addition to the history of two battalions of the West Yorks. Lt Col. R. J. Wyatt, MBE, TD, writing in 'Stand To' the magazine of the Western Front Association

About the Author:

Nigel Hepper was a botanist and specialist in the African flora. He was principal scientific officer and assistant keeper of the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Hepper liked to be known as Nigel – and seldom used his first name, Frank. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and King’s College Newcastle (then part of Durham University), where he received an honours degree in botany.

I first met Hepper in 1962 when I was a postgraduate student making weekly visits to the Kew herbarium to study African plants. He was extremely helpful and gave much time to me, a young student – but this was typical of the way that Hepper conducted himself throughout his career. When, much later, I worked at Kew, I observed that Hepper still went to all the student activities and often entertained students in his family home, especially lonely ones from overseas. He was a gentle, friendly and hospitable man. He was also a Renaissance man, since he had many academic interests other than botany – especially Egyptology, Bible plants and history.

He began work at Kew in 1950 and continued there until his retirement in 1990, a period interrupted only by two years of national service with the RAF (1950-52). He carried out extensive botanical fieldwork and took part in botanical expeditions in West Africa to British Cameroon and later, on board a hovercraft, from Senegal to Lake Chad. He also joined Kew expeditions to Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi and travelled to Yemen and Sri Lanka.

From his experiences in Yemen he wrote Plants of the Yemen (1976). He also authored many scientific papers and several books about his work on African botany, and worked on the second edition of the landmark Flora of West Tropical Africa, later becoming the editor who saw it through to completion in 1972. He described and named 73 new species of plants from Africa – and has had six other species named by other botanists to honour him, for example, as recently as 2010, Cercestis hepperi.

He also compiled, in 1971, a useful book on all the plant collectors who worked in West Africa. In 1986 Hepper initiated the Rain Forest Genetic Resources Project based at Limbe (formerly Victoria) Botanical Garden in Cameroon.

From a very young age growing up in Leeds, he began to note the first flowering of all the garden life around him. When he moved to Kew, he continued this study of plant phenology. These long-term observations showed a considerable change in the times of first flowering – and proved to be an important demonstration of the effects of climate change on plants. When he first showed me these records, Hepper, a humble man, was reluctant to publish them and stated that this was just a hobby. I was able to convince him that these were an important record of biological changes and fortunately, 20 years of these observations were published in 1973 in his paper Commencement of Flowering: Phenological Records at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Hepper continued making these meticulous observations in his garden almost to the day he died.

Emanating from his strong Christian faith were his scholarly publications about Bible plants: Bible Plants at Kew (1980), Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants (1993) and Planting a Bible Garden (1998). He was also co-author of Lands of the Bible (1995). He put his knowledge into practice by helping to establish a biblical garden at St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem. When Kew received plants from the tomb of Tutankhamun, it was Hepper, already interested in Egyptology, who studied them, and the result was his book Pharaoh’s Flowers: the Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun (1990).

His interest in history was broad ranging – from his family, to Kew, to the history of African botany. He edited and contributed to the book Royal Botanic Gardens Kew: Gardens for Science and Pleasure (1982); three editions of Wakehurst Place: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; and, together with Ray Desmond, A Century of Kew Plantsmen: A Celebration of the Kew Guild (1993).

He co-authored a book about Luigi Balugani’s drawings of African plants (1991) which were based on the collections of James Bruce of Kinnaird on his travels to discover the source of the Nile. With the Swedish botanist Ib Friis he wrote Plants of Pehr Forsskal’s Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica (2000).

Hepper’s father kept a diary of his experiences in the Great War which Hepper edited and recently published. Captain Hepper’s Great War Diary, 1916-1919: A Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment on the Somme During the Great War (2011) gives an interesting insight into life in the trenches. His most recent book, Life on a Lake District Smallholding (2012), recounts his own experience of the Second World War, when his family evacuated to the Lake District and formed a market garden with livestock to aid the war effort.

Hepper was a humble man, but he was proud of his publications and of his family. At the celebration of his 80th birthday at Kew he produced an impressive display of all his publications up to that date, and I am glad that he produced at least two more books since that event. Hepper was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a Fellow of the Society of Biology. He was the 1991-1992 President of the Kew Guild and received the Kew Medal in 1989.

This obituary is courtesy of The Independent.


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