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@UnitWarDiaries: live-tweeting the First World War

Today (August 7th) marks the centenary of the first embarkations of ‘advanced parties’ of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. The Expeditionary Force would constitute Britain’s military involvement in the fields of France and Flanders in the early months of the First World War, and despite its relatively small size (before the war it was made up of around six divisions of all arms and one cavalry division) was seen as ‘incomparably the best trained, best organised, and best equipped British army which ever went to war’. [ref] 1. ‘History of the Great War based on official documents’: Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, Vol.1’ (Imperial War Museum, 1933), p.10. [/ref]

In an attempt to show the daily activities of these forces, and subsequently those of other regiments across the Western Front and other theatres of war around the world, The National Archives has launched the @UnitWarDiaries Twitter feed. The feed is, as the title suggests, based on the unit war diaries available in the record series WO 95, which are in the process of being transcribed thanks to the excellent work of our citizen historians via Operation War Diary.

A commanding officer writes a report in April, 1918

A commanding officer writes a report in April, 1918. © IWM (Q 6534)

The efforts of the citizen historians on Operation War Diary have made the stories in the war diaries far more accessible, and have also highlighted some interesting trends and entries that we will look to explore during the lifetime of the feed. By only using war diaries that have been fully tagged on Operation War Diary, we will be able to base the feed on the work of the citizen historians and more widely share the stories they have helped uncover.

By tweeting the content of these war diaries via an as-live feed, we have the opportunity to better understand the experiences of soldiers at war, whether that is the transportation across the Channel in unsanitary conditions, breaks for bully beef and tea, or engagement with the enemy. Each tweet will link to a digitised page of the war diary on the Operation War Diary website, so that followers can understand the context of the message, and see the entry as written first-hand.

Initially, the feed will follow a small selection of units as they travel to France and have their first engagements with the enemy. Up to now the tweets have described the units’ mobilisation but following the order to ‘Embark Expeditionary Force’ (as received by the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders early in the morning of August 7th 1914) their journeys appear to be about to begin.

If you have any questions, ideas or suggestions for the @UnitWarDiaries feed, please add a comment below or reply to the feed itself.

To become a citizen historian and help us with the tagging, sign up for Operation War Diary.

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Operation War Diary advances!

In the first eight weeks since the launch of Operation War Diary, over 10,000 citizen historians worldwide have tagged names, places and other details in over 200 unit war diaries.

Initial reports reveal some amazing statistics:

  • Over 260,000 tags relating to named individuals
  • Over 332,000 tags relating to places
  • Almost 300,000 tags relating to activities
  • The amount of volunteer effort put in so far is equivalent to one person working 40 hours a week for four years.

With your help we’re going one step further than traditional transcription by using the data to digitally map and analyse patterns and trends in the unit war diaries, offering new perspectives on the First World War. Our developers and academic advisory group are hard at work crunching the numbers from the first two months of the project – we’ll blog about their plans soon.

In addition, much of the data – particularly names and places – will be integrated into The National Archives’ catalogue (Discovery), allowing researchers and family historians to search the diaries for named individuals mentioned in the diaries. Making the data freely available to researchers in this way is hugely important to all of the project partners, and we want everyone to be able to benefit from the amazing efforts put in by citizen historians. The data will be published in this way under the Open Government Licence.

The data will also be available to users of Lives of the First World War, which we’ll tell you more about soon.

Find out more about the unit war diaries                                

Today The National Archives has published another 3,987 digitised First World War unit war diaries from France and Flanders online, which means that around 6,000 diaries are now available on The National Archives’ website to search free of charge (and download for a small fee). These will in time be added to Operation War Diary for tagging.

If you’d never encountered a unit war diary before tagging them for Operation War Diary, you may have been wondering what all the fuss is about and why they’re so important to researchers and historians. They contain a wealth of information of far greater interest than the army could ever have predicted, providing insight into daily events on the front line, and are full of fascinating detail about the decisions that were made and the activities that resulted from them.

If tagging the unit war diaries has inspired you to find out more, whether about a particular unit or an individual, The National Archives has many useful online resources that should help you. Our First World War 100 portal gives an overview of the millions of records that we hold relating to the war, from war diaries to conscription appeals via service records and Cabinet papers. It’s an essential starting point for anyone researching a First World War ancestor, with step-by-step guidance to help you on your way. We also have a wealth of multimedia resources, including podcasts and the popular My Tommy’s War blog series. We send out a free monthly enewsletter with news and updates relating to our work and collection – sign up today to receive your own copy!

Sarah Leggett
The National Archives