When Operation War Diary launched earlier this year, we aimed to produce a structured data set covering the daily activities of all the diverse units which operated on the Western Front. Three hundred and twenty nine diaries in and the project is not just fulfilling this initial aim, but is also building up a rich resource of hashtags, covering areas from the condition and treatment of horses to the emergence of aerial warfare over the trenches.
One thing that hasn’t changed from the project’s inception is the importance of names. Names are central to Operation War Diary – they are what makes all the other information we’re collecting real, the visual reminder that it relates to the daily experiences of people just like us.
So far, we’ve identified over 50,000 unique names. Many of these belong to officers, but there are a great number of Other Ranks too, many of them only ever mentioned once in all the millions of pages we have to tag. That’s what makes the work of our Citizen Historians so important – if that person isn’t tagged, we may never find the reference to them again, yet by tagging it we can make it visible and accessible to others who come after us. We can ensure their legacy is preserved.
Tagging names can be extremely time-consuming, especially when we encounter long lists of them, and yet there’s nothing more important. If you find you can’t tag the names for any reason, please use our #nominalroll hashtag to mark the page, to ensure that we can find it again later. We’ll keep track of all these pages and, if necessary, we’ll re-open them for tagging later.
It’s an opportune moment to pause and look back at how many names we’ve tagged – the 11th of November is fast approaching, anniversary of the Armistice and the UK and Commonweath’s Remembrance Day. This year, the Imperial War Museum is encouraging everybody to take an active part in Remembrance through its Let’s Remember Together campaign.
In partnership with the National Archives and the Lives of the First World War community of over 44,000 people, IWM would like to work with you to share the Life Stories that are your connection to the First World War. Your connection could be a relative who served, someone who shares your surname or a person listed on your local war memorial. In the case of Operation War Diary Citizen Historians, it might also be a name you have uncovered in one of the war diaries.
Whoever they are, we encourage you to share their story on Lives of the First World War, the permanent digital memorial to over 8 million men and women from across Britain and the Commonwealth who made a contribution during the First World War. Here at Operation War Diary headquarters, we’ll be blogging again about the connections we’ve uncovered.
Many battalion war diaries make mention of raiding parties – groups of men sent out into no-man’s land to disrupt the enemy, or gather intelligence. They were obviously dangerous undertakings – most mention of them is accompanied by a list of casualties – but we don’t hear much about what actually went on. Not anymore – one of our Citizen Historians has found a set of incredibly detailed pages in the diary of 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, which lays out exactly what happened, including all the men involved and their jobs during the operation.
The pages begin with a description: ‘Report on the Minor Enterprise carried out…on the night of the 14th/15th March, 1916.’
As you’ll soon see, the enterprise was anything but minor!
Two officers, five sergeants and thirty nine other ranks made up the raiding party. Captain Smith, RNR (probably Royal Navy Reserve, who provided troops for the Royal Naval Division) was also attached. His job was to breach the German wire, so the DLI party could rush their trenches. A Forward Observation Officer from the 42nd Battery was present in the DLI front-line trenches, in order to call down an artillery barrage if the raiding party needed it.
The main aim of the raid was to capture a prisoner, who would be interrogated in order to find out vital intelligence about the enemy’s disposition. The group was split into three. Captain Smith had a small party of torpedo men (a Bangalore torpedo was a series of long tubes, some filled with explosives) to help him breach the wire. There were scouts and then the main raiding party itself.
The raiding party was further divided into two groups, each of which would enter the enemy’s trench at a different point. Second Lieutenant W.L.P. Griffith-Jones was in overall command of both groups. The men under him were assigned very specific jobs: bayonet men, grenadiers and men for removing prisoners.
The scouts’ job was to move out ahead of the raiding party and report back on enemy movements. Once they had done this and returned, Captain Smith and his torpedo men would take up their positions and make the torpedo ready to breach the enemy wire.
Behind them, the raiding parties under Second Lieutenant Griffith-Jones would move forward. Sergeant Lowe was in charge of the group tasked with entering the German trenches on the left, while Sergeant Tighe led the party entering on the right. Each had with them three bayonet men, three grenadiers and two men for removing prisoners. The order these men would advance in was worked out to ensure maximum offensive capability at the front and protection for the removal of the prisoners.
An additional Sergeant and four men stayed behind to guard the communications trench.
Two further bayonet men acted as a personal escort for Second Lieutenant Griffith-Jones, while he coordinated the action.
The password to be used was NEWCASTLE. This would ensure the raiders could identify one another and get back into their own trenches safely.
All men wore fatigue dress, but replaced their helmets with soft cloth caps, so as not to risk the moonlight catching any metal and giving away their presence. Each man had a rifle and bayonet, along with two grenades in his pocket. NCOs carried revolvers. In addition, each man had a knob-kerrie – essentially a club, for close-quarters fighting.
Thanks to Operation War Diary’s Citizen Historians this information, recorded so assiduously almost 100 years ago, is now visible again. It’s incredible to feel this close to events which happened before any of us were even born, and yet in reading the words in the diarist’s own hand it feels as if the operation is being planned for tomorrow.
A later report tells us that the raiding party made it back to their own trenches relatively unscathed, but that they failed to get the intelligence they were after when a German bomb killed the prisoner they were bringing back. They were highly commended for their bravery.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the short time I’ve been working on Operation War Diary, I’ve been privileged to go behind the anonymity of our onscreen usernames and get to know some of our Citizen Historians a little better. There are people from all walks of life and backgrounds giving up their time to help preserve the legacy of the men who fought and died 100 years ago. For all of us, reading the war diaries can be a humbling, often deeply saddening experience, but many of our volunteers have served in the military themselves, and I’ve often wondered how their own experiences affected them as they worked on the project.
Kris Bancroft, a former U.S. Army Artilleryman and veteran of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, was kind enough to tell me what it means to him.
I always wanted to be a soldier, so much that I joined the U.S. Army National Guard shortly after I turned 17 years old. A few days after I graduated from High School in 1989, I made the decision to go on active duty, and my life has never been the same since. Not long ago, I came across Operation War Diary. As a combat veteran with severe PTSD, I must admit that my first thought after reading and tagging a few war diary pages was that I was making a mistake. Instead, I discovered a connection that has kept me coming back night after night. I read about the harsh winter weather, and the hot summer days. I tag the names of soldiers who come and go, and even more who will never leave the fields and trenches. In short, I find that I relate to soldiers mentioned in the war diaries and all they have gone through. Thanks to Operation War Diary, I have been given a chance to do something meaningful to honor the soldiers of “The Great War”.
As well as the time and energy Kris invests in Operation War Diary, he also runs a popular YouTube channel, IKINA WANA (also known as Warfighters), which he created to honour all soldiers from all countries. In the past he’s used the profits from the channel to support veterans’ causes across the United States, including the creation of memorials to comrades who didn’t come home. Kris has also very generously offered to donate profits from the channel to the Imperial War Museum to help us preserve the past and we’re incredibly grateful for his support.
You can visit IKINA WANA here: https://www.youtube.com/user/justmekkb
Why not get in touch and tell us what Operation War Diary means to you? You can get involved at http://www.operationwardiary.org/
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
Imagine the Western Front – planes wheeling overhead in dogfights, artillery barrages whistling in to pulverise the trenches, infantry waiting for the whistle blast that would send them over the top and into the teeth of the waiting machine guns.
The war that went on beneath their feet is often forgotten, although it has left some of the deepest scars on the old battlegrounds. From the Somme to the Messines Ridge, and all points in between, the presence of the Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies can still be seen in the massive craters their mines left behind.
Manned mainly by coal and tin miners and men with experience of civilian tunnelling work, ‘the Moles’ came into their own during February of 1915, when Major John Norton-Griffiths, a civil engineer by trade, shut down a tunnelling scheme eighteen of his employees were working on in Liverpool. The very next day, these same men arrived at the Royal Engineer’s HQ in Chatham and, a mere four days after their civilian employment ended, found themselves working underground on the Western Front.
The first major engagement for the newly formed companies came during the Battle for Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient. Tunnellers laid six mines, packed with thousands of pounds of explosives. When detonated, a mini-earthquake ruptured the hill, causing immense casualties amongst the German defenders.
Tunnelling was a dangerous business. The entrance to the workings was always a closely guarded secret, to prevent enemy attack. Miners had to work by candlelight in cramped, cold and often extremely wet conditions. Gas was a major risk, the tunnellers living under the constant fear of explosion, poisoning or asphyxiation. As if that weren’t enough, they had to operate as silently as possible, to avoid detection by the enemy. Incursions by both sides into the others’ tunnels was frequent, and these meetings were brutal in the extreme, men dying in vicious hand-to-hand combat in the dark, beaten and hacked by pick handles and shovel blades. British tunnelling companies kept emergency charges permanently primed, to be blown in the event of an enemy breakthrough.
A new memorial to these men who fought beneath the ground was unveiled on the 19th of June, 2010. Its dimensions were designed to be exactly the same as those of a standard British tunnel. Looking at it is perhaps the best way to truly understand just how terrible the environment was in which these men had to operate – you can find images here: http://www.tunnellersmemorial.com/the-unveiling-ceremony/
Keep an eye out for mention of the tunnelling companies in the unit war diaries. If you find them, use the hashtag #mine and help us ensure their story is told.
100 years ago, in the summer of 1914, the British Regular Army of just under 250,000 men was scattered around the Empire, with nearly half deployed overseas. On 4th August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany after its rejection of the British ultimatum over the neutrality of Belgium. Mobilisation orders were issued and the war diaries were officially started. Day 1 of mobilisation was 5th August.
Some Units made an even earlier start on their war diary. The 1st Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment’s starts on 29 July, for example, with the entry “Precautionary Period. Det left for Sheerness, 10.45 pm, 9 officers, 340 R&F” (rank and file). Part of the plan for this precautionary period was for some units to be sent to key coastal areas in case of immediate invasion and this move was probably part of that plan. In succeeding days the battalion diary entries include “all officers & men recalled from leave” and “all men pending transfer to Army Reserve recalled”.
Most units had to recall reservists, men who had had some full time service and now retained an obligation for call-up if their country decided it needed them. The speed with which reservists returned to units, considering the limitations of the times, is impressive. 1 Berkshires were in Aldershot and their war diary records 103 reservists arrived on day 1 of mobilisation, 438 on day 2 and 33 on day 3. By 11.30 p.m. on day 3 (7th August) they reported that their mobilisation was complete and on 11th August the Battalion was inspected by the King and Queen which must have been a shock for returning reservists who might have been away from the spit and polish of the Army for nearly 5 years in some cases.
The war diary of 8th Brigade Royal Field Artillery shows them in Kildare, Ireland in early August when the order to mobilise is received. Equipment is issued and reservists recalled to the Colours begin to arrive. The author comments that the reservist gunners are good but that the drivers are “indifferent .. unaccustomed to riding and driving for some years”. Presumably many had returned after service to civilian occupations that involved neither! 50 horses arrived, described as “soft and straight from grass .. and will probably gall easily” This Unit seems also to have lost a number of their NCOs who were promoted to fill gaps in other units and the diarist notes rather sarcastically that “In future the various grades of NCO for the Ammunition Column should be maintained in place”.
Units also did their best to carry out training for their newly arrived men. The war diary of 16 Field Ambulance RAMC describes an incident on a training exercise while the Battalion were still in Cork waiting for orders to move, where “two teams took fright and bolted .. due to the inexperience of the drivers and the untrained horses”. Damage was caused both to the Unit’s equipment and to a civilian cart (for which they had to pay £15) and one man was seriously injured jumping off a wagon.
Some reservists could have been out of the regular army for years and there was a degree of effort made to at least get them all to shoot a rifle before they went to France. Some didn’t get much chance. For example, 2nd Battalion the Welsh Regiment’s diary describes 5th August as their first day of mobilisation. By 7 August all personnel are present and over the next few days the rejoined reservists get to shoot just 20 rounds each on the ranges. They left by train for Southampton on August 12th and embarked for France the same evening.
Others were a bit luckier with their musketry training. 1st Battalion Royal West Surrey Regiment reported that by 7th August they’d had 580 reservists rejoin then at Borden and that “Half the Battalion at a time proceeded to the range where the following practices were fired by every man, 100 yards (grouping) and 300 yards slow and rapid”.
Some Units which were already in England found they still had to transport their reservists the length of the country to join them. Trains were requisitioned under Emergency War Orders and individual reservists could show their ID at any Post Office to get 5 shillings travel expenses or go to any station to get a rail warrant. 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders were in Plymouth on 4th August when at 5.20 p.m. the war diary notes “Order to mobilise received by telephone and acknowledged”. By 13th August they had received 547 reservists from their depot in Aberdeen and they then proceeded by train to Southampton and embarked for Boulogne where they arrived early on the morning of the 14th and proceeded straight to a rest camp.
During the mobilisation process there was of course a great deal of equipment to be issued both to the regulars and to the returning reservists. One of the most problematic issues, which would prove to be all too serious in the days of the retreat from Mons that would follow, was getting boots to fit the returning reservists and getting the boots broken in before they left for France. The diary of the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment complains on 8th August about the “very inadequate allowance of boot oil allowed by the Regulations in the Mobilisation Stores” and says they have had to “purchase large stocks of castor and neatsfoot oil to ensure the reservists’ boots could be well dressed and softened” after getting reports from the Companies of problems on the short training marches they had been undertaking.
There seems to have been almost a holiday feel in the departure of some Units. The war diary of 1 Irish Guards, describes a parade in barracks on August 11th where they were inspected by their Colonel, Field Marshall Roberts who gave a farewell speech. Then on the following day they left on two trains from Nine Elms Station, one half of the Battalion at 7.15 and the other half at 8.30 and “The Band played the right half of the Battalion as far as Vauxhall Bridge and then returned to play the left half Battalion to the station”.
In the next few weeks, the roughly 80,000 men making up the first wave of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would take part in the Battle of Mons and become forever immortalised as the “Old Contemptibles”. Most of them expected the war to be over by Christmas and sadly for many of them it would be – although they would manage to stop the German advance at the Marne, losses would be so great that the pre-war Regular Army would effectively cease to exist and things would never be quite the same again.
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?
Names are perhaps the most important set of information being produced by Operation War Diary. We’re able to place named individuals in a rich context of place and time, as well as linking them to particular activities and events. Names that have long remained hidden in the diaries are becoming searchable and peoples’ stories are once again being told. Some names, however, are already well known to us, chief among them King George V, first monarch of the House of Windsor, which he created in 1917 after deciding the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded a little too German.
Previously a professional Royal Navy officer, George visited the Western Front on several occasions and was even injured during one visit after his horse rolled on top of him and broke his pelvis. These visits feature prominently in a great many Operation War Diary diaries, and it’s notable how enthusiastic the authors generally are about them – they seem to have been a genuine morale booster for the troops.
During the early months of the war, the 3rd of December 1914 to be exact, the diary of the 1st Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, describes how they were “drawn up on either side of the street, and gave three cheers for the King as he passed through.”
On the 28th of October, 1915, the 1st Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment “were inspected by H.M. the King, who was most heartily cheered by all ranks. He unfortunately was hurt by his horse falling after he left our part of the line…”
The 5th Division’s Ammunition Column also joined in with some hearty cheering of their own, while 142 Field Ambulance’s men cheered “spontaneously”.
George was keen to distance himself from his German roots – the Kaiser was actually his cousin – and famously remarked after H. G. Wells wrote of his “alien and uninspiring court” that “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien.” Judging by these mentions of him in the diaries, it looks like he may have succeeded.