How satellite and aerial photography brings the war diaries to life
by Cynthia Gast
Most people, and especially the volunteers working on Operation War Diary, will recognize the names of the locations that played the biggest roles in World War I. Cities such as Ypres and Passchendaele along with regions such as the Somme were the sites of horrific fighting. Poperinghe was known to the soldiers as a place where they could have a break behind the lines, and the unfortunate mademoiselle from Armentieres is immortalized in song.
There are countless other towns, villages, farms, and forests that appear in the diaries. Each one is a place where the men of that unit fought, marched, or slept. To me, an important part of the story of the men on the Western Front is where they were. Where did they spend Christmas? What did they see in the villages behind the lines where they spent their rest periods? Where was that hill that caused so much trouble for the transport on a dark rainy night? I’ve spent a lot of hours searching for some of these locations.
The first step, even before filling in the Place tag, is to search for the name on Google Maps. I’ve learned that not all diary authors had a good grasp of the intricacies of spelling French place names and the search function in Google Maps helps with this problem by supplying several suggestions before I’ve even finished typing in the entire name.
Google Maps has a couple of other helpful features as well. I’ve learned that clicking on the town’s name on the map puts that name in the tab at the top of my browser. This is quite handy for spelling when I return to the diary page to type it into the Place tag. Another interesting detail is that while many of the very tiny hamlets are not labeled on the basic Google map, they do show up on the Google Earth view. An example of this that I came across recently involved the 1 st Division Trench Mortar Batteries. Their diary said they were in the village of Berthaucourt and I knew they were somewhere near Saint-Quentin. A search on Google Maps told me that Berthaucourt is now part of Pontru, but no matter how closely I zoomed in, there was no indication of its exact location. However, when I switched the view to Google Earth, I learned that it is just to the east of the crossroads that form the heart of Pontru.
As I’ve moved through the diaries, I’m less content with locating just the villages and towns mentioned by the author. These days, I’m digging deeper and looking for the farms and chateaus used as billets and bivouacs. I’m amazed at how many of the farms mentioned in the war diaries are still in existence today.
When I want to find a farm, I start on Google Maps, where search results are more likely to show me a road rather than the farm itself. However, when I zoom in on Google Earth view there’s often a cluster of farm buildings along that road. Sometimes I hunt using Google’s basic search function, which is particularly useful for chateaus.
Many World War I trench maps are now available online. Some sites offer sets for purchase but, along with IWM’s map collection, there are at least two sites that allow users to examine them at no charge. The National Library of Scotland and McMaster University in Canada both offer collections covering the areas where most of the fighting occurred. They both also offer information and links that cover how to read the maps, including the grid references. As an added plus, McMaster University also has a collection of aerial photographs of the Western Front.
Trench maps are fascinating. They reveal the complexity of the trench systems and show just how the features of the landscape fit into the systems. They also show the sometimes dark sense of humor possessed by the men who named the trenches. Whole sections of trenches are named for weapons, animals, or birds, as well as places back home, commanding officers, and the units occupying them. One system near Delville Wood featured trench names relating to beer, such as Pint Trench, Hop Alley, Ale Alley, Beer Trench, and Lager Lane.
Trench maps also often include farms, chateaus, villages, and anything else of importance to the men in that area, such as quarries and brickstacks. They also indicate the roads existing at the time the maps were drawn, many of which still exist today. When I want to find a farm or chateau, I compare the trench map with the modern map or Google Earth view using the roads as a guide. The National Library of Scotland also offers side-by-side and overlay features to help compare the old and present-day maps.
When I began as a volunteer at OWD, I had no idea of the things I would learn. The geography of the Western Front and how to read trench maps are just two of the amazing aspects of World War I that I now know. There are still many diaries to read and men to get to know through the official diaries they kept, and lots of spaces for more volunteers.
Operation War Diary has been running for over two years now. Together, we have placed hundreds of thousands of tags, made similar numbers of comments, and followed the journeys of hundreds of units through the conflict at the Western Front.
And, like all things, we have evolved over that time.
When we began, we followed in the footsteps of other great crowd-sourced digital humanities projects like Old Weather. But the content we are dealing with at Operation War Diary is unique in its depth, breadth and richness. It meant we had to make certain assumptions when we started out.
Mainly, this was around what should and shouldn’t be tagged, which in turn was based on what we thought the data we would produce might look like and how it would be used. In part, we were led by the transcription mantra, which is that only what is there should be written down. However, tagging is a very different activity to transcription, with a quite different set of applications.
Under our initial guidance, volunteers tagged only what was explicitly mentioned on a diary page, and we also told them not to tag certain everyday activities for units like ammunition columns, mobile veterinary sections and engineers – the movements, collections and checking of infrastructure which might be considered the bread and butter of the units in question.
In part, this was to make the process less onerous for our taggers. We have 1.5 million pages to get through, after all! But, as I said before, it was also partly because we hadn’t quite left the transcription mindset behind.
However, we now have our first real use of Operation War Diary data to refer to, courtesy of Professor Richard Grayson, and it makes for very interesting reading. If you haven’t read the article already, you can find it here.
To some extent, the quality and richness of the data which can be used to support studies like this is limited by what was included in a diary in the first place – some are much sparser than others. However, by following the transcription-oriented method of only tagging what we can see, are we also unnecessarily reducing the coverage of the data we produce?
What about the case of a unit which we know to be in the line, because the author tells us so on one day, but over the course of the next four or five day’s worth of entries, that fact isn’t explicitly mentioned again? Very often, it’s clear that the unit is still in the line, but that information is then lost because there’s nothing for us to drop a tag on.
Or the Mobile Veterinary Section who spend a week travelling from place to place, picking up sick horses to take back to the depot? Again, under our starting assumptions, that detail would also have been lost, because we felt it wasn’t necessary to tag activities we already knew certain units spent much of their time doing.
That’s fine from the standpoint of our knowledge and common-sense understanding of these units and the functions they carried out during the war. But if we shift the perspective to one of providing evidence, quantitative facts which we can use to illustrate our understanding, then by not tagging certain things we know to be true, we aren’t realising the full potential of Operation War Diary.
Of course, there’s a line between inferring what to fill the blanks with and making things up, but as our understanding of the project evolves, so too does the knowledge and experience of our long-term taggers, who may have started off knowing very little about the war diaries, but who have now read and tagged hundreds, if not thousands of pages and are very well placed to see patterns in the information and extrapolate from what is written down to what is only implied.
That will mean making judgement calls at times, but the Talk forums provide a great environment for testing out any inferences before we press the ‘Finish’ button. The whole concept of Operation War Diary is that it is built on consensus, so why not extend that to these situations too?
There are practical issues to overcome – where to place a tag for an inferred activity, for example, or which tag to use. For the former, I would suggest dropping inferred tags close to the date to which they should be linked – our clustering algorithm will then group them together and ensure the information is recorded in the way it was intended. For the latter, we may have to recourse more frequently to the unsatisfactory ‘Other’ option for activities which do not fit neatly into the standard list, but that at least will still allow us to build up a comprehensive timeline for each unit and will clearly indicate what they were not doing, even if we can’t provide specifics beyond that.
With our first published use of Operation War Diary’s data, I believe we now have a clear and compelling case for tagging as much information as we can as accurately as we can. And that is the beauty of Operation War Diary – we can evolve and improve what we do and, in doing so, can tell the stories of the Western Front in the most effective way we know how.
During the early years of the war, Germany captured many more prisoners than Britain (see here for an account of a group of Scots Guards being surrounded and taken prisoner). By 1915, there were estimated to be over 1 million prisoners of war in Germany, far more than the authorities had anticipated. These men often had to sleep in fields, suffering from exposure while camps were built to house them. Often they built the camps themselves.
In contrast, significant numbers of military prisoners did not begin arriving in Britain until 1917 (although others had already been interned in France). Although this necessitated the opening of many more internment camps, the British already had a relatively organised system in place for dealing with their prisoners, having already engaged in the wholesale incarceration of the German civilians of military age living in Britain at the outbreak of war.
The conditions endured by prisoners varied widely, depending on who they had been captured by and where. For some men, being held captive was actually more dangerous than serving at the front. Italian and Romanian soldiers seem to have had a particularly bad time of it. British prisoners taken by the Turks suffered similarly. Some men captured on the Western Front were used as forced labour in front line areas, but for many conditions were generally better. The main danger came from illness and disease: during the later war years, several hundred prisoners of war held in Britain died as a result of influenza outbreaks. Typhus was a particular problem in many of the German camps and, after several severe outbreaks, vaccination and hygiene programmes were established to try to control it.
Less obvious, but equally dangerous, were the psychological effects of incarceration. Prisoners had to be active in combating the effects of having little or no privacy, no idea of how long they would be imprisoned for and at best intermittent contact with loved ones back home. Prisoners in many camps did all they could to alleviate boredom and keep their minds occupied, including programmes of education, theatre productions and even camp orchestras.
Conditions in the main camps were monitored by the Red Cross, who also kept extensive records on prisoners’ whereabouts and attempted to establish contact between them and their families. These records have recently been digitised and are available to search at http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/.
While some prisoners attempted to escape (one of the best known escapes was from the Holzminden camp, when 29 British officers escaped through a tunnel they had dug over the course of nine months) the vast majority had to wait for the Armistice before being repatriated. Over 185,000 British soldiers had been captured by that point. Their return home was relatively speedy – the first arrived at Calais on the 15th of November, 1918 on their way back to Dover. The French took longer to bring all their citizens home, partly because there were a great many more of them to deal with. It was the Russian prisoners, though, who had it worse. Many are recorded as still being in Germany as later as 1922.
Today’s post is the third and final in our Let’s Remember Together series. Three days, three names chosen at random from the diary pages, the beginnings of three Life Stories. Today, I’ve been researching Private A. Morrall, mentioned in the diary of the 1st Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. You can see the diary entry by clicking here.
Private Morrall is included in a list of NCOs and men recommended for the Military Medal for gallantry. His service number is 8196. Further research on Lives of the First World War tells us he was Alfred Edward, a career soldier. He enlisted in the Army on the 30th of August, 1906. The 1st Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry deployed to France at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 and remained on the Western Front all the way through the conflict, making Private Morrall one of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently derided by the Kaiser. He was discharged on the 28th of May, 1917 because of illness.
Beyond that, details are sparse. Why not have a look at his Life Story and see if you can add to it?
I hope this series has shown how Operation War Diary and Lives of the First World War can be used together to breathe life back into the names we uncover on the diary pages. We hope eventually to feed the data generated by Operation War Diary into Lives, to allow evidence from the diary pages to be attached directly to Life Story pages. I’m looking forward to building up a more detailed picture of the names I’ve encountered over the last few months – Captain Swaine, who thought his Cyclist Company might have fired the first shot on the Western Front, Sergeant Lowe, who led a party of the Durham Light Infantry into enemy trenches and Rifleman Bajbir Rana, of the 1/1st Battalion Gurkha Rifles, who volunteered to go out into no-man’s land on the 16th of February, 1915, to scout enemy positions.
I can’t pretend that doing this work makes me any more capable of understanding the hardships and horrors they must have endured, but I feel it’s valuable nonetheless. In tagging their names, our Citizen Historians are ensuring that they do not become lost in the pages of history. In building up details around them, we can see them as real people once again, people just like us, who because of time and situation were thrown into a conflict that devastated a generation. So many of them were lost on the journey through, and yet in some small way we can now make sure that loss is not forgotten.
Ninety-six years ago today, the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front. The first full day of peace had begun. I can only imagine the relief of the men who survived to witness it, and yesterday we came together to remember the tragic loss of those who did not.
Thankfully, the name I picked to research today belongs to the former group – Regimental Sergeant Major T.V. Roberts, mentioned on the 31st of October, 1915 on this page of the 2nd Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment’s diary.
Number 4918 RSM Talbot Vivian W. Roberts was born in 1881 in Warrington. The 1891 census lists him as still being there, age 10. He appears in the return for Orford Barracks, where he lived with his father, a Paymaster Sergeant with the Infantry, his mother, three younger brothers and three younger sisters.
He doesn’t appear in any other census returns, but we know the 2nd Battalion of the South Lancashires served overseas from 1881 until the outbreak of the First World War. Given his rank, we might assume he enlisted with them at some point after the 1891 census and so was stationed outside of the UK when the censuses were carried out.
Sadly, like so many others, his Army service record has been lost. However, from his Medal Index Cards (he has two), we can see he was Mentioned in Despatches, although not when or why. We also see that he transferred from the South Lancashires at some point into the Labour Corps, where he retained his rank, but was assigned a new service number, 314641. There is no record of why this happened, but the Labour Corps was manned by men who had been medically rated below the ‘A1′ condition needed for front line service. Many of them had been wounded and returned to duty – I wonder whether this has anything to do with RSM Roberts’ Mention in Despatches.
Beyond that, details are sparse. We know he survived the war and died in 1940, aged 59, in Winchester.
Take a look at his Life Story – perhaps you can add to it. Join us on the blog tomorrow, when we’ll post the next installment of our Let’s Remember Together series. In the meantime, let us know if you’re researching names from the diaries too – we’d love to help ensure the legacies of the men mentioned in their pages are preserved.
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 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