For anyone with even a passing interest in the First World War here is an unparalleled opportunity: Operation War Diary.
The National Archive (UK) has digitized 1.5 million pages of British Army unit diaries, signals, operations orders and messages from the war. They are releasing them to an army of citizen historians to read, classify, and tag.
Moving through the diary entries of the quiet times has a rather mind-numbing and mesmerizing quality. The daily litany of routine army life. You can feel the tension rise as a battle date and zero hour loom - the increased activity, the inspections and the training in new techniques and weaponry, the issuing of final orders for piling greatcoats and all the other minutia of an army on the move – and the pages take on new energy and urgency.
And it’s all absolutely gripping.
There in front of you – yellowed with the age, in the handwriting of the army unit diarist are the day-to-day events, people and observations of a war as it unfolds.
The handwriting is often hard to read and it’s a real relief to find a series of entries typewritten or in a clear and unfaded hand.
Here it all is: The tedium of army routine of parades, inspections, patrols and trench maintenance; the build up to an attack – the order of battle and the intention and objectives; and the frenzied chaos of battle and the aftermath – calculating the losses and the regrouping.
Some are signals written in haste - urgent messages from the Battle of Bazentin Ridge and the assault on High Wood on the Somme for example. The contrast between the official orders for the attack and the reality of July 14th 1916 could not be starker.
These are the daily reports - the war as it happened in one particular place, for one particular unit unfolding as you move through the diary pages interspersed with official messages, orders and reports.
Others have sketches of bridges to be blown and trench design. There are the ink smudges, the rusted marks of paperclips and the torn edges of notebooks and official paper.
As you stay with a unit through a period of time you come to know the names of those who report for duty, are promoted, go on patrols, return from leave and are wounded, sick, killed, missing, disciplined, commended. And to find out what happens to them you complete the tagging and turn to the next page. And as you get to see this tiny glimpse of their lives you find yourself wanting to know more and wondering whether they survived the war.
So far I have been with the Royal Engineers blowing bridges on the retreat from Mons and building trenches in the defensive lines around Ypres. I’ve followed a Sanitary Section on routine inspections of middens and manure heaps; recording cases of measles, dysentery, influenza and typhoid; sending plaintive pleas for commanding officers to insist on leaving billets clean and then serving as stretcher bearers running relays in the summer heat of the Somme.
I’ve been on the assault on High Wood with the 2 Battalion Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) and the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment.
Meanwhile, behind the lines the cavalry of the 9th Queens Royal Lancers were preparing for the breakthrough on the Somme where I found a favorite line: They conducted “training for backward men and awkward horses.”
I’ve been skipping about from diary to diary and year to year in typical non-gritty fashion but have found myself drawn deeply into the race to the sea and first battle of Ypres.
And that I saving for Operation War Diary: Part Two