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.
The Royal Welsh Fusiliers were a poetic bunch. Among their number, they could count both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, whose poetry shattered the jingoistic messages of 1914 and exposed the truth of war in all its grim horror. Neither escaped unscathed.
Siegfried Sassoon had enlisted in the army even before the outbreak of war. He joined the Sussex Yeomanry, but broke his arm so badly in a riding accident that he spent most of 1915 convalescing and only arrived in France in November of that year, as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (who would later become the Royal Welch Fusiliers). A few days later Robert Graves arrived. He had been with the 3rd Battalion since enlisting with the Fusiliers just after the outbreak of war.
With poetry in common, the two men became close friends.
Graves published his first volume of poetry, Over the Brazier, in 1916, but almost didn’t live long enough to see it in print. At the battle of the Somme, he took a shell splinter through the lung and was so badly wounded that he wasn’t expected to survive and was even listed in the official reports as having died of his wounds. There’s a letter in the Imperial War Museum’s collections from the poet and author John Drinkwater to Graves’ father, offering his congratulations for finding out his son’s reported death was not in fact true. His recovery was long and arduous, and although he did go back to France for a brief spell, most of the rest of his war was spent in England.
Sassoon’s poetry, meanwhile, grew darker and darker. He opened up the dark underbelly of the war, writing of rotting corpses, horrific injuries and men driven to suicide by the horror of what they endured. Paradoxically, he himself was a great favourite with the men under his command, and proved himself an extremely able and daring company commander. In July, 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross. Later he was recommended for the Victoria Cross (although it was never awarded).
Graves described Sassoon’s bravery as ‘suicidal’, and it does seem that as Sassoon’s despair at the horrors he witnessed increased, he drove himself to ever greater levels of self-sacrifice. In 1917, after a spell in hospital in England, he decided to make a stand. In Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration – a letter to his commanding officer, which was also published in newspapers and read out in parliament – he refused to return to duty. Some saw his stance as treasonous, but his sympathisers, Graves among them, helped ensure that instead of a court martial, he was officially diagnosed as suffering from shell shock.
He eventually returned to the Western Front, and was even promoted, but in July 1918 he was badly wounded, shot in the head by fellow British soldiers, who had mistaken him for a German. His war was over.
Although both Graves and Sassoon carried the physical scars of their time in the trenches their whole lives, perhaps the more enduring legacy was the effect it had on their work. It’s through that that so many others have been able to get a glimpse of the horrors they lived through and survived, but which claimed so many of their contemporaries.
Tagging of the diary of the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers is still at an early stage. Why not join us at Operation War Diary and follow the journey of these two remarkable men?
The fabled football match of Christmas 1914 might never have happened, but there were certainly truces between British troops and the German units they faced. Often they began with competitive carol-singing, followed by shouted greetings and festive wishes. In places, men even met in no-man’s land and swapped small gifts and souvenirs.
The diaries are full of references to that first Christmas of the war. The 39th Garhwal Rifles recorded in detail the moment they came face to face with the enemy:
About 3 o’clock the Germans, who had since the morning been shouting and singing in their trenches, made signs to our trenches that they wished to communicate with us, and eventually they began to climb out of their trenches. We did the same, as did also the regiments on our right and left. Both sides fraternised for about an hour, several Germans coming over to our trench and talking and conversing by signs with officers and men. They gave our men tobacco cigarettes and newspapers, and for about an hour both sides walked about freely outside their trenches and in the open space between the 2 lines.
This moment of peace was not without its reminders of the violence and bloodshed which had preceded it. The Garhwalis took the opportunity to search for the bodies of the officers and men missing after a night attack made the month before.
Captain Burton found Captain Robertson Glasgow’s body lying on the parapet of the enemy’s trench. The bodies of several men were also found near the trench, but the situation did not admit of a careful search sufficient to identify them.
You can read their full diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0002yt7
While truces of this nature were widespread in 1914, they did not happen everywhere. The Christmas day entry in the diary of the 2nd Grenadier Guards says simply:
Considerable sniping, and lit up by star shells during early morning.
You can read the original entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00023p1
This is the situation commanders would have preferred and they were quick to communicate this to the troops. After their friendly encounter with the enemy, the 39th Garhwal Rifles recieved orders that such mutual armistices must not happen in the future. The 1st Royal Fusiliers were sent notice that any man associating with the enemy would be court martialled. You can see the order here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000ryb
Despite this, some truces lasted well into the New Year. The 1st Somerset Light Infantry reported on the 11th of January, 1915 that their:
…truce came to an abrupt end, sniping resumed. “Presumption is that our “friendly” enemy of the last fortnight has been relieved.
Have a read of their diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0002fy4
By Christmas 1915 there were signs that the British attitude to the enemy had hardened. Perhaps the dire warnings from on high had had the desired effect, or maybe by then the men had suffered too much to be able to set it aside. Either way, the 1/16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) reported that there was no repeat of the previous year’s truce.
The Germans shouted across to our men this morning, but recieving no encouragement the conversation ceased. [A shell] hit the corner of [a] dug-out and knocked a bottle of whisky off the table on to the floor, but by the grace of God it did not break.
At least they still got their own little Christmas miracle! Read the full diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000s9u
By 1916, there was even greater determination to avoid human contact with the Germans. On Christmas Eve, the 1st East Surrey Regiment recieved notice from their HQ that:
There are already signs that the enemy intends to fraternise during Christmas as he did in the winter of 1914 and 1915.
An artillery and trench mortar bombardment was ordered to prevent this. Commanders feared that it would be very difficult for young and inexperienced officers and NCOs to stop their men going out to meet the enemy if they were seen to leave their trenches in peaceable fashion.
Read the full account here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000r2i
Sadly, the widespread coming together of opposing units during the winter of 1914 was an anomaly, a brief respite before the full, brutal horrors of trench warfare became the norm. Yet in that moment, we see the spark of humanity which binds us all together, the ability to find common ground in even the darkest of places. Who knows what friendships could have sprung from those handshakes made 100 years ago, how different things might have been if the two sides had not returned to their lines. Perhaps that would have been the greatest Christmas gift of all.
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.
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/