Nowadays, it’s widely believed that the first British soldier to fire a shot in anger on the Western Front was Drummer Edward Thomas, of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who at 7am on the 22nd of August, 1914 spotted an enemy cavalryman ahead and opened fire on him.
The picture was not always so clear, however.
Eleanor Broaders, one of our eagle-eyed Citizen Historians, found an intriguing entry in the diary of the 3rd Division’s Cyclist Company, dated 12th of November, 1915. In it, the commanding officer, Captain Eric Swaine, writes:
In the Field Almanac 1915 (Official Copy) it states that “First shot fired between German and British Forces took place at 12.40pm August 23rd, 1915.”
This Company exchanged shots with German Cavalry before noon on August 22nd, 1915. One German Uhlan was wounded and his lance captured.
There are some obvious errors in Captain Swaine’s account. He records the year as 1915, for example, rather than 1914 and by 12.40pm on August the 23rd, the Battle of Mons was already well underway. However, if you allow for the fact that this entry was probably written in haste over a year after the events by a man in the midst of war, it still makes for some very interesting reading.
Whatever really happened, it’s true that, 100 years ago today, Captain Swaine’s Cyclist Company would have been amongst the first British units in action on continental Europe since the Napoleonic Wars of the previous century. Lightweight and mobile, the cyclists made excellent reconnaissance troops and would have been amongst the first units to encounter the enemy. In fact, another cyclist, Private John Parr, became the first British soldier to be killed on the Western Front the day before Captain Swaine’s Company captured their German lance, after he and a companion encountered a German cavalry patrol in the village of Obourg, north-east of Mons. It’s believed Private Parr stayed behind to hold the enemy unit off, while his comrade withdrew to warn the rest of the British troops that Germans were in the area.
With 100 years of history between us and the events of the 22nd of August, 1914, it’s easy to forget how confused things were in those early days of the war, when the armies were still mobile and the deadlock of trench warfare had yet to emerge. Why not get involved at Operation War Diary and uncover history as it was written.
You can read Captain Swaine’s diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00014ea
Today’s guest blogger is Heather Collins, a volunteer moderator on Operation War Diary and also one of the Citizen Historians involved in tagging the diaries. She first became interested in WW1 through researching her own family’s contribution to the conflict and has been fascinated by it ever since.
The 2011 film War Horse brought the role of horses in 20th Century warfare back into the public focus and reminded us how much we relied upon them in an age where motor transport was not yet able to go everywhere. On the Western Front in World War 1, horses were used for moving all types of supplies and equipment as well as providing the fast moving fighting arm of the Cavalry. But even knowing how important the horse was, some of the figures relating to their use are still staggering to read:
- Over 1 million horses were sent overseas to war from the USA
- By 1917, 1000 horses per day were arriving in France as remounts for the British Army
- Casualties amounted to about 1 horse lost for every 2 men throughout the war
- Horse fodder was the largest single commodity shipped to the front by Britain – with a higher tonnage even than ammunition!
At the start of Operation War Diary, there was no way to track information about horses at all and pretty much from the first few days of tagging, users were asking why and wanting to be able to follow the story of the horses as well as that of the men. Early on we suggested that people use the hashtag #horses but it soon became obvious that as horses get a mention in just about every page of some diaries, this wasn’t really going to bring out much useful information! A rethink was needed if we wanted to make best use of the obvious desire of Citizen Historians to follow the fate of the horses.
Following some discussion on the project’s talk forum pages, which shows one of the strengths of a crowd-sourcing project like OWD, where users can get involved and have a real influence, we decided to try to define some more specific hashtags to follow particular aspects of the life of the horse on the Western Front.
Two months later we now have hashtags telling us about the condition of the horses, their food, their ailments, horse casualties and their evacuation into the veterinary chain. We have also developed hashtags to look at the condition of the roads and the problems with water supplies as a direct result of these initial ideas.
We already knew how important the horse was in the appalling front line conditions in France and Belgium. Even though motor transport existed, it was often completely incapable of even moving in the quagmire that developed close to the front lines and horses were sometimes literally the only way of getting the heavy equipment and supplies forward. For example in 1914 a single battery of the Royal Horse Artillery with 6 x 13 pounder field guns required over 200 horses to provide the motive power to move men and equipment quickly. So having these additional hashtags has enabled us to look at everyday details that the Units were recording in their War Diaries regarding their horses.
Here are a few snippets of the kind of information we have found:
Water: Units seem to have been constantly struggling to find an adequate water supply for their horses. In September 1916, the 2nd Divisional Ammunition Column sent 1000 horses to the rear area due to water difficulties.
Food : An Artillery battery describes the ration being cut in February 1917 to 9 pounds of oats and 10 pounds of hay as a result of which “horses lost condition during the cold owing to short food”. This was apparently due to increased German U-Boat activity in the Atlantic having reduced the amount of oats coming in from the USA.
Equipment: An ASC Company in the 2nd Divisional Supply Train talks about having “rough shod” their horses in the snowy weather. This is a process whereby shoes with protruding spikes or nails are fitted to enhance grip and it is the origin of the phrase “to ride roughshod over”, The diary goes on to describe the difficulty of fitting the attachments, which they call “cogs”, to the shoes where the existing shoes were already worn thin.
Fatigue: A Cavalry unit in August 1914 describes how the long marches (27 miles on this particular day) are taking their toll on the horses “Some were under saddle 20 hours and water was scarce. Most would neither eat nor drink when they got into bivouac” Most cavalry units already had a number of dismounted men due to the strain on the horses and the Veterinary Corps units were struggling to keep up with the numbers, many of whom simply required rest and food.
Casualties: Mobile Veterinary Sections (MVS) often talk about “horse floats”. This turns out not to be some sort of boat, but actually to be another name for a horse trailer or horsebox. These were being developed so horses that might otherwise have to be shot or abandoned could be recovered to their unit or to the MVS. In February 1915, 7 MVS report having visited a horse left by its Unit on a farm and they suggest it might be collected in a week’s time by another MVS “who have the use of a horse float”. The tone of the diary makes it clear the writer thinks all MVS Units should have such a modern innovation!
Why not join us at Operation War Diary and help us to find out more?
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!
The National Archives