AS the First World War took hold in Europe, the war effort back home in England also got underway. Responding to a need for Red Cross armbands, Mabel Goode recorded in her diary: “I bought the material and we all set to work. I cut them out, Evans stitched them on her machine, Nancy made the button holes, Mother sewed the buttons on, and by 10pm we had our ten complete.”

Mabel was the daughter of a York doctor and surgeon. Evans was the household’s general servant while Nancy was one of three maids. Of course the war shattered the world of domestic service. The due retirement of the long-serving Evans shortly after Mabel recorded that armband task force was followed by the departure of a maid, and Mabel was soon writing: “I am dusting the drawing room every morning to try and do with only two maids.”

Not that she was afraid of work. She served in a railway canteen and worked in hayfields, making up for the lack of men, whose roles were often filled by former female servants. She also stitched gloves and sandbags and endlessly baked cakes to send out to her two brothers in France.

These insights into the home front during World War I have emerged through the recent discovery of Mabel’s wartime diary. Found in an envelope at the bottom of a dusty trunk it is now the focus of a fascinating book by her great, great nephew, Michael Goode, a Cambridge graduate and history tutor. A former senior historian at the Imperial War Museum hails it as “a superb contemporary portrait of a nation coming to terms with the demands of total war.”

Aged 42 when the war started, Mabel had lost both her parents when young. ‘Mother’ was her step-mother, with whom she lived, at York, along with an elder brother, Henry, who was also a surgeon and GP. What her diary charts most impressively is the dawning awareness of the horrors of the war and its likely length. This contrasted with the excitement, even exultation, initially felt at what was expected to be a short, sharp campaign.

“What a time!” Mabel declares in her diary’s opening words - August 11, 2014. “Never has there been anything so tremendous in the History of Europe…A week ago last Saturday Henry and I were enjoying ourselves at the Archbishop’s Garden Party at Bishopthorpe…Now, War has been declared…the long-expected war, and two million soldiers are facing each other for 300 miles along the dividing frontier of France & Germany.”

Mabel shared the common belief in a swift, easy victory for England and her allies. She quotes “the French” saying the war would be over by Christmas. “That seems quite likely.” As she explains, brother Henry, a reservist in the Medical Corps, hoped not: “It seems his Brigade is quite likely to go to the front and he is anxious for the war to last, or rather [for him] to get out before it ends.” Mabel’s first war effort was to buy enamel paint for Henry - to paint his initials on a tin mug.

In November Mabel noted that the war “has been going on for nearly three months and seems likely to be longer than ever.” By the following February the realities of the trenches were becoming clear. “Many of our men get their feet frostbitten with the ice cold water they have to stand in.” Eventually getting his wish to serve at the front, Henry confirmed the appalling conditions in a letter. Mabel quoted…“terrible mud, something awful, ankle deep wherever you go & a foot deep in places.”

At the war’s outset she questioned the need for £1.2m raised by a War Relief Fund. “One wonders a little, will it really all be wanted, & all the hospitals that are being prepared…” But by July 1915 the Government was appealing for £900 million. Of Prime Minister Lloyd George Mabel wrote: “It is to be hoped he will produce the necessary high explosives before all our brave lads are killed for want to them.”

Several events in her diary remain firmly-fixed highlights of the war in the North-East and Yorkshire. The “terrible wreck” of the hospital ship Rohilla at Whitby, for example: “The last we heard there were still many survivors on board.” The shelling of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby prompted several diary entries. The first, on the day of the bombardment, December 16, 1914, noted: “The inhabitants fled and are still fleeing to York and Leeds, many of them in their night attire.” Eleven days later she reported a second exodus, triggered by a rumour of a repeat attack. A train on which she was travelling was packed with fearful Scarborians: “We were 15 and a parrot in large cage in our carriage.”

Mabel’s diary ends in December 1916. Its final words state: “I shall spend Xmas alone. I have made Xmas puddings and sent one each to Stuart [another soldier brother] and Henry.” The entries had become less frequent and Michael Goode speculates that they ended because “the lengthening war extended beyond Mabel’s desire to record it.”

Brother Henry’s war service earned him the Military Cross and Bar, and when he married soon after returning, Mabel for a time lived with him and his wife. But she moved to the Lake District where she made a living as an artist – a watercolourist whose subjects included places she had visited on many trips abroad. But, though family photographs suggest she was good looking, she never married.

Disappointingly, Michael Goode offers no detail on the discovery of the diary. But found with it was Mabel’s account of her unrequited love for a Cotswolds farmer. She thought of him constantly, and early on he invited her to tea. “My heart nearly failed me – tea with a man I barely knew. How shocked Mother would have been. ” Once, walking together in darkness, they bumped into each other and she had an impulse to take his arm.

But she didn’t. Nothing happened then, or ever. And her manuscript concludes with her weeping “bitter tears of mortification.” It would make a poignant film, and for not a few readers it might well upstage the diary. Either way, it’s an endearing spotlight that falls on Mabel Goode.

The Lengthening War by Michael Goode (Pen & Sword £19.99)