Digger’s family thrilled by return of WWI diary accidentally donated to charity

The niece of a Digger whose World War I diary was found among tens of thousands of donated books in a charity warehouse says she is thrilled and relieved it’s back in the family.

After years of fearing the journal of James Leslie Robinson – known as Les – was lost forever, his relatives were overjoyed when they read in The Age that it had turned up.

Greg Simpson of Brotherhood Books hands Les Robinson’s World War I diary to Les’ niece Jenny Robinson and great-nephew Michael Robinson.Credit:Justin McManus

Brotherhood Books manager Greg Simpson gave the diary to Jenny Robinson on Tuesday, who had driven 200 kilometres from Apollo Bay to the warehouse in Kensington in Melbourne’s inner west.

“It’s amazing the diary has been found,” Jenny, who is Les’ niece, said. “It’s very emotional.”

In the article in The Age last Thursday, Simpson said the diary may have been accidentally placed among donations made during spring cleaning.

Jenny says it seems to have been the case. After Les died in 1967, the diary had been kept by Jenny’s sister Marg Katilius at her house in Glen Iris in Melbourne’s south-east.

A Robinson family photo taken in 1916 the day before Les left to serve overseas in World War I. Standing: Les, centre, and his sisters Jean, left, and Ada, right. Seated: father James, siblings Joe, Gwen and Harold and mother Ada.Credit:Robinson family

When Katilius died three years ago, relatives donated her books to Brotherhood Books, an online secondhand bookstore of the Brotherhood of St Laurence charity.

“I can only imagine that the small diary was somehow hidden among large books,” Jenny said.

“We have been searching for it ever since.

“The Robinson family are thrilled beyond words to have Uncle Les’s war diary return home.”

It was Margaret Robinson, Jenny’s sister-in-law in Deniliquin, NSW, who spotted the article.

Les Robinson in uniform in Brussels, Belgium, in 1918.Credit:Robinson family

“I was pretty stunned and very excited so I rang Jenny straight away and told her,” Margaret said. “I probably was shaking a bit with surprise.”

In July 1915, Les was 19 – one of six siblings and living with parents James and Ada in De Carle Street, Brunswick – when he enlisted.

Jenny marvelled at the diary’s good condition considering his four years as a stretcher bearer in the 12th Field Ambulance.

He was often under fire, stood in muddy trenches and saw friends killed, maimed and gassed in battlefields in France and Belgium.

Family gem: a close-up photo of the diary.Credit:Justin McManus

Jenny, 80, says he never spoke of the war.

“I recall my father telling me that when Les returned all he wanted to do was to plant roses in their garden,” Jenny said.

Les graduated in Arts at the University of Melbourne and met his wife Edith while working as a teacher at Swifts Creek in Gippsland. Later he taught in Glen Huntly in Melbourne’s south-east.

After Edith died in 1954, Les lived for a year with his brother Harold and his family, including Jenny, in Swan Hill in the state’s north-west. Les later lived in Glen Iris and Mont Albert.

Jenny said Les loved reading, music and the outdoors.

Les’s great-nephew Michael Robinson, 67, who came to the diary handover, has fond memories of Les at holidays at Somers near Western Port Bay.

Jenny said Les was quiet and reserved, which may explain the diary’s unemotional tone. She said perhaps this approach enabled him to keep going during the war.

She said the diary would be looked after for future generations “to understand their heritage”.

Simpson said that from the Brotherhood’s perspective, “the diary has gone back to the best place it could be. I think it’s the best possible result we could have hoped for”.

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