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How I Exorcised the Ghost of Olive's Diary From 1914

16/01/2014 08:28 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 09:59 GMT

I have been dipping into the first tranche of diaries written by British soldiers in World War I that are being published online by the National Archives. They are powerfully moving accounts that take you right to the fear and horrors of the battlefield in a few sparse sentences.

These are the "war unit diaries" collated from the very first divisions of cavalry and infantry to fight in France and Flanders. As this centenary year of The Great War progresses a total of 1.5 million pages of such diaries will become accessible online that will hopefully provide valuable new insight in what happened and where.

When it comes to the publishing genre, nothing beats the immediacy and distilled beauty of a diary. A mighty history book will give you detail and socio-political context, while a sumptuous period novel will provide colour, dialogue and drama to the characters. But the contemporaneous first person narrative of a diary holds something unmatchable: unembroidered truth frozen in time.

For me, a diary from 1914 is a familiar and comfortable place. For the past 13 years I have been quietly obsessed with one written by a 16-year-old English girl called Olive Higgins. She was the much-loved daughter of Thomas Higgins, a pioneering hotelier who owned a leading "health hotel" called The Hydro in Margate.

At the dawn of 1914, Olive went to school in Paris, but eight weeks later her grand adventure turned to tragedy. She became gravely ill and died. There was considerable drama in her last days, with a doctor to the British Royal Family dashing to Paris to try and save her. Through research, I have discovered that she died in a convent on Ash Wednesday. The medical reasons for her death are commonplace, but its timing is endlessly thought-provoking.

Olive's diary was given to me in what seemed providential circumstances in March 2001 when my life and career were at a crossroads. For too long, I had been searching for something to write about beyond celebrities and then the diary was given to me by a builder who had renovated my flat in London. "This'll break yer heart, Rob," he said, thrusting it into my hands.

The diary ends after just 42 days and contains little more than 6,000 words, but inside, within the blank pages of mid-June, were two immaculately preserved newspaper cuttings. One, which is clearly stained by teardrops, announces Olive's death, and the other gives a detailed report of her heavily-attended funeral.

The news clippings revealed an incredible coincidence: Olive was buried in a cemetery in the same South London street where I was born, and the same cemetery I used to stare at in bemusement as a boy years later when my grandfather moved into a flat overlooking the gravestones.

That startling connection ignited a quest in me to write about Olive's long-forgotten life that has lasted to this day. I spent many maddening years trying to write a book, in varying genres, but all I achieved was aching finger joints and a collection of polite rejection notes from publishers.

But, rather like the National Archives and its war diaries, I have recently found an outlet for Olive's tender story: an online blog and Twitter.

Each morning for the past two weeks, I have uploaded a diary entry in "real time" exactly a century on. In just a few words, Olive takes you to Paris during what were to be the last throes of La Belle Epoque, the golden era. You hear her thoughts on the Mona Lisa, Père Lachaise, the Champs-Élysées, and the wretched French piano teacher she calls "old beery nose".

After all this time, Olive's voice is being heard again and, for me at least, it is proving to be quite cathartic. Her story has been a very real ghost in my life, although it has been a benevolent haunting that has brought a lot of good. If, like me, you have a writing venture gathering dust somewhere, I wholly recommend a bit of ghost busting by self-publishing online.

Olive's story is probably the earliest tragic diary of 1914, but it clearly won't be the last, or the most dramatic. However, there is a shocking poignancy when you read her thoughts and longing for home, knowing that these will be her last days.

There will be countless commemorations for The Great War this year and much will be made of diaries telling stories of heartbreaking loss and heroism. In comparison, the death of Olive Higgins will pale into insignificance. Yet, her story still moves me deeply. Maybe it will touch you, too.

Read Olive's diary at olivesdiary1914.com or follow on Twitter at @olivesdiary1914.

Rob McGibbon is a freelance journalist who writes the weekly interview column called The Definite Article for the Daily Mail. Follow Rob on Twitter @robmcgibbon.