Children's Book of the Month: A Secret Diary of the First World War

Book:  A Secret Diary of the First World War by Gill Arbuthnott, illustrated by Darren Gate | Age category: 8-11 years

A Secret Diary of the First World War mixes fact, fiction and real-life experiences to bring stories from Scotland’s past alive for young readers. The story is inspired by the real diary of James Marchbank, who was born in Edinburgh in 1900, joined the 1/8th Royal Scots Territorial Battalion, and served throughout the war despite being just 14 when he enlisted. James kept a diary throughout the First World War, even though it was forbidden (for fear that diaries might give secrets away to the enemy if they were found) and Gill used this diary as the inspiration for her book.

A Secret Diary of the First World War follows James from the beginning of the war to its end in 1918. James' story is interspersed with interesting facts and information on life during WW1, both at the front and back home in Scotland. For example, did you know that Flora Sandes was the only woman to serve as a soldier in the First World War? Or that Marie Curie invented a mobile x-ray machine to treat soldiers on the Western Front?

Gill cleverly weaves fact and fiction together, and beautiful illustrations by Darren Gate bring the details to life. There are quotes from other real-life stories and newspaper cuttings, maps and code breaking activities for young readers to enjoy. You can have a go code breaking in this worksheet.  Any history buff will love A Secret Diary of the First World War!

Q&A with Gill Arbuthnott

You draw upon the original diary of James Marchbank. Do you have any top tips for writing fiction based on real-life events?

1) Get your facts correct when you write about real people, unless you’re writing some sort of alternative history or fantasy book, or someone out there will take great delight in pointing out your mistakes... Fortunately, there are usually enough gaps in the historical record to leave plenty of room for fiction to creep in!

2) Find/invent a character who can give you a personal view of what happened, but whose role isn’t too important. It could be a servant at the court of Mary Queen of Scots, or a cleaner at Bletchley Park during WWII, or the boy who looks after Robert the Bruce’s armour, or a young stowaway on the first European ship to reach Japan….The possibilities are limitless. Finding a way to make the history personal is the key – your reader needs a character to worry about.

3) Get the technology right! No mobile phones in 1960, or television during WW1, or Victorian aircraft…

4) Try to visit some of the places you are writing about, even if they are only ruins now. It helps to unlock your imagination. If you can listen to music from the period, that’s also a great way to get ‘in the zone’.

5) Do lots of research on the period you’re writing about. Then leave out at least 90% of it.

My book is a bit different, in that it’s basically non-fiction. I have used extracts from James’ diary, but to fit the framework of the book, I’ve had to trim and reshape them at times, while staying as true as possible to the original.


How did you find James’ story, and what was about his story that made you want to write A Secret Diary of the First World War?

I was extremely lucky to be put in touch with the staff of the Royal Scots Museum at Edinburgh Castle, and they pointed me towards James’ diary and a recorded interview with him from 1976. As soon as I read the diary I knew I wanted it to be the backbone of this book. His account of his experiences, the fact that he was so young and that he was on the Western Front for almost the entire war… everything about it made it perfect. There are so many fascinating anecdotes in the diary that it really helps brings the war to life for readers. When I contacted James’ family for permission to use the diary I had my fingers, toes and eyes crossed that they would say yes and gave a great sigh of relief when they did. They have been very generous with their time and personal stories about James.


You must have done a lot of research for this book! Did you enjoy the research?

Research is always great fun, but you have to be careful not to get pulled too far down the ‘rabbit holes’ that open up, fascinating though they are. You also have to be very aware that not every source is equally reliable… I found some great stories online that I ultimately had to leave out because I couldn’t find enough confirmation that they were genuine. My favourite was one about some soldiers keeping a cow in the trenches to provide milk for their tea!

Once you’ve done the research, you have to resist the temptation to try to cram everything in, otherwise the book would become very stodgy indeed. If I’ve encouraged readers to find out more for themselves, that’s perfect!

Resources to accompaby A Secret Diary of the First World War are also available for teachers or librarians on Kelpies website.


We have five copies of A Secret Diary of the First World War to be won - just answer the question below. The competition closes on Friday 31 August 2018 at 5pm. All entrants must reside in the UK. 

Subscribe to our monthly e-updates for book lovers