Discovering the Dude

Fans of the classic Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski, will remember Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as the Dude. However, let me introduce you to a much earlier – and very different! – Dude. Our Dude is called John (or Jack) Pulman and served in the British Navy during the First World War.

Photograph of Jack Pulman, 1917

Jack Pulman, 1917

Thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery, we are currently undertaking a project, called Diary of a Dude, revolving around Jack’s incredible First World War diary and the many photographs he took during the War. Having been a merchant seaman, Liverpool-born Jack signed up for the Navy in October 1914 whilst working in the Hong Kong area, which is when his journal entries begin. His first two entries read:

“October 30th,1914. Hong Kong. Volunteers wanted for Royal Navy to complete various ships company. Enquired terms of service and finding them satisfactory, volunteered. October  31st, accepted and signed on for the period of the war.”

All very interesting, you may be thinking, but why the ‘Diary of a Dude’ title? As we first looked through the diary, we were delighted to find that – as well as a seriously talented photographer – Jack was a musician and he formed a band with a few fellow sailors, calling themselves the Deolali Dudes and performing at various entertainment concerts the men would put on for each other. The Deolali part of their name comes from one of the army camps that Jack and some his fellow sailors went to for rest and recuperation. The Deolali transit camp was in the Nashik district of Maharashtra, India and had been a British camp since 1849. It continued to be used by the British during the First and Second World Wars and became a camp notorious for both being unpleasant and for the psychological problems of the many service personnel that passed through it. This latter part of its reputation gave birth to the phrase ‘gone doolally’ (a derivation of Deolali). Whatever Jack made of the camp, he and his friends performed under the band name at various social events there and elsewhere. Included in the diary are copies of hand-drawn (possibly by Jack) programmes for concerts, where we can find out exactly what tunes the Dudes played and what other entertainment the evening offered.

Photograph of Jack Pulman and the rest of the Deolali Dudes, circa 1916

The Deolali Dudes, c. 1916, with Jack back row, far right

As you can imagine, whenever we have something like Jack’s diary donated to the archive, we’re desperate to look inside and find out more about the people associated with the document. However, the first priority has to be making sure we can preserve the document as well as possible and make it available to the public for research and study. In the case of Jack’s diary, it was clear that a lot of work was needed before making it available for research.

An example of a badly damaged photograph from the diary with parts of the image ripped away

An example of a badly damaged photograph from the diary

The journal was in a poor state, with extensive water damage (appropriately for a naval diary!) and the spine of the volume was very weak, meaning that the diary could not be opened fully without causing further damage. Included with the diary are almost 150 photographs and images. The majority of these have been glued directly onto pages of the diary and many of these were also in poor condition. Over time, most adhesives cause damage to paper and, combined with water damage, this had added to the condition problems we now faced. Where photographs had been glued to opposite pages, many of them had stuck to each other and then someone had tried to prise them apart, leaving images with portions missing or torn.

We knew that we needed to bring in a professional conservator to make sure that the diary and its remarkable contents could be repaired as best as possible. Thanks to the Heritage Lottery funding we were able to do this and it was a joy to have the diary return looking fantastic and to be able to open it (thanks to a new spine!) and discover more about Jack and his experiences during the War.

Jack also seems to have played a role in inventing a new sport to keep people entertained during shore leave: donkey football! The diary comes with a set of rules for the sport that include: “donkeys must not charge the goalkeeper” and “should one donkey mount another, a foul is given against the mounting donkey”! Who knows what the donkeys made of this, although the rules do state that “no sticks [are] to be used against donkeys, or cruelty of any kind.”

Photograph of a game of donkey football, circa 1917

A game of donkey football underway! c. 1917

As we’re into the Christmas season, it’s worth highlighting Christmas 1915 on board Jack’s ship, as what Jack calls a “catastrophe” had happened: they’d run out of spuds. “Pity our Christmas dinner,” Jack writes. The dinner ended up being:

“a proper scrape up…a little bit of tough mutton and a few half cooked marrowfat peas…while the sweets consisted of a bit of workhouse duff that we had managed to knock up. The wines (don’t skit): one whole bottle of bulldog beer per man.” 

Of course, the majority of the diary is concerned with Jack’s time on board ship and is filled with descriptions of skirmishes and battles, as well as their daily routine of stopping and searching local shipping traffic in the Red Sea and off the east coast of Africa. His photographs include images of enemy ships, prisoners and local boats being searched, as well as weaponry and serious-looking officers. Jack also demonstrates that his artistic skills extended to watercolours and he includes a couple of paintings in the diary. One of these is a map showing the North Africa and the Suez Canal area, with ports Jack visited, and another shows how a skirmish with enemy forces played out, with the positions of the combatants marked on a painting of the coastline.

A watercolour map of the North African coast and Suez Canal, painted by Jack Pulman, circa 1915

A watercolour map of the North African coast and the Suez Canal, painted by Jack Pulman, c. 1915

As the diary continues through the War, Jack’s descriptions of daily activity become more and more brief, perhaps reflecting how normal and mundane these extraordinary circumstances were becoming to him. The emphasis in his entries shifts from describing naval activity to taking more pleasure in describing places they pass through or the free time that he and his colleagues clearly relished. His photographs also begin to reflect this, with some beautiful landscape and architecture photography, images of local people he encounters on his travels, and an increasing number of images showing colleagues relaxing and enjoying themselves. Jack even shares his camera with colleagues, resulting in his friend Kerrison providing an early example of the selfie: photographing himself looking in a mirror!

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Of course, as much as we find Jack’s descriptions of the War fascinating, he will have spent much of his time wanting to get home to his wife and young child. This sense of frustration is made plain by an entry that reflects on the three years he has been with the Navy:

“October 31st 1914 to November 14th 1917: 3 years of wasted time.”

If you would like to read more extracts from the Diary and follow Jack’s journeys, we have a dedicated Twitter page where we are posting extracts and images on a regular basis: Diary of the Dude

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2 thoughts on “Discovering the Dude

  1. I’ve added links to this post and the Twitter account on Jack’s profile on the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War project website. It would be great if some more detail could be filled in before that project closes for data entry in March next year.

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