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.
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.
Today is Remembrance Day in the UK, although for those of us tagging the war diaries, I think every day is one of Remembrance. That’s one of the most important things about the project – it’s far more than a data-generation exercise. Every time we read somebody’s name, we connect with the life they lived 100 years ago, even if only with a brief snapshot of it. What better way to remember them and their actions?
If you’re anything like me, you can’t help but wonder, though…what became of them, where did they come from? Lives of the First World War, IWM’s permanent digital memorial, allows us to begin building up details around those brief snippets we uncover in the diary pages.
As part of the Let’s Remember Together campaign, I picked three names from random diary pages and went searching through the records to see what details I could uncover. Happily, all the names I chose survived the war, although so many countless others did not.
The first name I found was Second Lieutenant H.B. Lomas, mentioned here in the diary of the 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment as a Lewis Gun Officer. Searching through the record sets available in Lives of the First World War, I was able to discover that he was Harold Baldwin, and that he later became a Captain in a Tank Battalion. Perhaps this was because of his background as a machine gun officer. The Tank Corps started out life as the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps.
Census records show the was born in 1890 in Toxteth Park, then in Lancashire. His father, Joseph, was a geology teacher. By 1901, the family had moved to Birkenhead, where Harold’s mother, Sylvia, had given birth to Olga, his sister. Things seemed to have been reasonably comfortable for them – there is a servant listed on the census return.
The 1911 census shows the family at the same address in Birkenhead. Harold’s mother is now listed as a widow. Harold is 20. He works as an apprentice engineer in the shipyards. Sadly, his military service record no longer survives, so we can only guess at his enlistment date.
He made it home from the war and died in Rugby, in 1947. Can you add to his Life Story on Lives of the First World War?
I’ll post about the other names I researched over the next couple of days. In the meantime, join us for two minute’s silence at 11am and let’s remember together the names of the war diaries.
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/
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