Archive | September 2014

The Indian Army arrives in France

100 years ago today, the first Indian Army troops had landed in France and would soon be thrown into the fighting on the Western Front.  They had arrived in Marseilles dressed in khaki drill uniforms – clothing not suited to the European climate. They wouldn’t be equipped with standard British Army battledress until the end of 1914.

Image © IWM (Q 28789) - Band of the 40th Pathans playing in a meadow beside a French village watched by men of the regiment and French civilians.

Image © IWM (Q 28789) – Band of the 40th Pathans playing in a meadow beside a French village watched by men of the regiment and French civilians.

Perhaps within that context, it’s no great surprise that the Indian soldiers were only issued the Lee Enfield rifle – the standard British Army infantry weapon – once they’d arrived in the Ypres Salient.

Image © IWM (Q 4070) - Men of Indian Hotchkiss Gun Team practising near Querrieu, 29 July 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 4070) – Men of Indian Hotchkiss Gun Team practising near Querrieu, 29 July 1916.

The Indian troops fought at Wytschaete and Messines, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Givenchy. They suffered terribly in the cold and muddy conditions. The Germans also attempted to take advantage of their relative inexperience, sometimes falsely flying white flags to make the Indian soldiers believe they were surrendering. This led to a command being issued that all white flags should be fired upon. Eventually, conditions became so bad that a retreat was ordered. At the same time, the Germans fired a mine they had dug beneath the Indian positions. An entire company – 200 men – were lost without trace.

In just a matter of weeks, the Indian troops had lost well over 2,000 men killed, along with numerous casualties.

Image © IWM (Q 53348) - A group of wounded Indian soldiers walk across the cobbles of a French village.

Image © IWM (Q 53348) – A group of wounded Indian soldiers walk across the cobbles of a French village.

The Indian soldiers continued to fight bravely on during 1915, with further heavy losses. Morale declined dramatically. Replacement officers did not speak the language of their troops and often had no understanding of the traditional Indian Army culture. Reinforcements to the ranks were also drafted from any regiment and had no cultural affiliation to their new units. The structures the soldiers operated within broke down.

Finally, during the latter months of 1915, the Indian regiments were withdrawn from the Western Front and went on to serve with great distinction in other theatres. Two Indian cavalry brigades did remain, fighting until the end of the war with great bravery.

You will shortly be able to follow the stories of these troops – the National Archives have finished digitising a number of the Indian Army war diaries and we look forward to loading them into Operation War Diary for tagging in the very near future.

Faces of the War Diaries – Stars of the Silver Screen

1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment’s war diary entry for the 13th of September, 1917 was fairly routine. The battalion was behind the lines at Liencourt, roughly 18 miles west of Arras. They undertook training as per their programme. Lieutenant G. R. Simpson joined them. They record the weather as being fine during the morning, but dull and windy in the afternoon and night.

Something else happened that day, however, and for Marie, one of our Citizen Historians, it really stood out from the crowd:

Cinematograph film taken of Battalion defiling past the Commanding Officer, etc.

Some quick detective work established that not only does a copy of this film still exist, it’s held in the Imperial War Museum’s collection and is available to view online. Thanks to Marie, words written down just over ninety-seven years ago have come to life – we can look into the faces of the men who fill the diary’s pages, get a sense of the bonds between them, the tight-knit spirit which sustained them during the bad times and the good.

We see them on parade and at rest. We also see Private Thomas Alfred ‘Todger’ Jones, awarded the Victoria Cross for actions during the Battle of Morval, just under a year before the film was made. He appears to be quite shy, a little bashful in front of the lens. It’s humbling to think that this unassuming man advanced alone across no-man’s land to kill an enemy sniper, bullets passing through his helmet and coat. He killed another two enemy soldiers who were firing at him, before single-handedly disarming another 102.

Image © IWM (Q 5240) - British troops embussing in Arras to go back for a rest, May 1917.

Image © IWM (Q 5240) – British troops embussing in Arras to go back for a rest, May 1917.

You can watch the film here: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060022854

And you can see the diary page here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0001ibw

For Marie, who made the connection in the first place, this is fantastic news:

When I tagged this and asked if maybe there was a record of the film in the Archives, I never thought that the search would be so successful. This certainly brings ‘History Back to Life’ after 100 years!

The film was so emotive. The men so smart marching, gathering around and looking happy distributing their food, relaxing and smiling for the camera. After tagging that Private 11000, T A Jones, had been awarded the Victoria Cross for killing 3 snipers, and capturing 102 Germans at Morval, to see him on this film was so surprising.

Mapping Operation War Diary – Bringing the Battlefields of Yesterday to Life

Recently, Steve Hirschorn at the National Archives has been looking at ways to visualise the information being generated by Operation War Diary Citizen Historians. As part of this work, he has taken maps found in the pages of the war diaries and, using the known coordinates of certain features contained within them, has fitted them to current satellite images using Google Earth. This process is known as georectifying and can help us assess how much the landscapes described in the war diaries have changed in the 100 years since they were written.

Image © IWM (Q 4957) - Officers of one of the Teritorial Force (TF) battalions studying maps in Peronne, which the British troops entered on 18 March 1917.

Image © IWM (Q 4957) – Officers of one of the Teritorial Force (TF) battalions studying maps in Peronne, which the British troops entered on 18 March 1917.

Over to Steve, who can tell you exactly how he’s done this…

Thanks to the efforts of volunteers using the #map hash-tag in the talk forum, it’s been easy for me to find georeference-able content.  By geo-rectifying maps, it would be possible to use a GPS device to find the exact co-ordinates of anything that is documented in the maps, such as trench locations and routes, and machine gun emplacements.

Four KMZ (Google Earth/Google Maps) files are linked below. If you have Google Earth (free download available), you can use these files to view First World War maps overlaid on a recent satellite image.  The KMZ files can also be imported into Google Maps, but the functionality via the website is more limited compared to the full Google Earth client.

After you have downloaded a KMZ file, you’ll see the war diary maps overlaid on the satellite view, but completely opaque.  Look in the left-hand menu on Google Earth and by right-clicking an individual map item, you can select Properties and in the properties dialog box that appears, you can adjust the transparency from 0% to 100% and anywhere in between.  I’ve tried to identify evidence in the current-day satellite images and street view photos of trench locations, but haven’t had much luck so far.

I’m amazed how well the most of the maps fit the current day landscape features.  The odd road has disappeared here and there, but there are always enough reference points to fit the map, and they usually fit with just a bit of stretching and rotating, all of which functionality is also available in the free Google Earth client. A couple of them show trench locations (the map of Bullecourt) and machine gun placements (Ypres).

If you missed the link the first time, Google Earth can be downloaded here: http://www.google.co.uk/intl/en_uk/earth/

Steve’s map files can be downloaded using the following links:

Lastly, as this is a new area of exploration for us here at Operation War Diary, and because none of us are experts on it, we have some questions which we hope you might be able to help us with:

  • Is KMZ the best, most open format for sharing geo-rectified maps?  Is there a better format?
  • A bit of researching on the Internet suggests that there are ways of loading KMZ files onto a SatNav.  Again, are KMZ files the best way of supporting this?
  • Are there any web-based applications that enable geo-rectification of maps, and also provide a method of sharing geo-rectified maps?
  • Do you have any geo-rectified maps you’ve created that you’d like to share?
  • Are there any other ideas for things that we can do with the maps?

Post your answers in the comments here, or get involved on our forums at: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/boards