Operation War Diary: Backward men and awkward horses

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.

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6.10am We have taken village and about 50 prisoners so far. Am mopping up.
Advancing up on village. All going well.

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6.25 I have now reached the village but our own barrage has not yet lifted. I could go thro easily. All enemy encountered surrendered.

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Barrage has not lifted from north end of … village. We are in the village cannot proceed.

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7am I hold the cemetery and wood.

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7.10am We have just taken the cemetery ….Casualties are very light.

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Will you kindly say why you are retiring and if you have left any troops to hold Bazentin-le-Petit wood?

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7.50am I have been through the village which is now evacuated but our Artillery is still shelling it (I fancy 21st Div.Artillery). I am now on Bazentin Le Petit Road awaiting orders.

The Coys. in the village are very hard pressed I have only a handful of men and no ammunition. I can cover a retreat but cannot reinforce.

The Coys. in the village are very hard pressed I have only a handful of men and no ammunition. I can cover a retreat but cannot reinforce.

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To O.C. Royal Irish, Will you please phone through to Brigade that one of our Field Batteries is firing short and is dropping into Circus Trench. Urgent

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1st Div. are going to make a bombing attack with two companies along VILLA and ASTON trenches commencing from S.W corner of Bazentin Wood. They ask permission to move to starting position via N.W. corner of Mametz Wood. Please give them every assistance. T.M. Bty. is available as support.

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Germans advancing in some force from High Wood.

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11.45 am Enemy are reported to be advancing from High Wood. Get at them with Lewis guns and rifle fire. Warwicks are sending up a company to support A Coy on the left.

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Noon. … send help if possible. we are being outflanked by a large force from W. of Bazentin-le-Petit

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12.50pm Are you in touch with 21st Division any where? Division want to know urgently as 21st report they hold whole wood. No support will be sent till this is definitely known.

12.55pm Am holding S.W of Bazentin-le-Grand village with a mixed force of about 50. Can you reinforce as we are hard-pressed? 12.55pm ...they are working round on the left. Can you reinforce

12.55pm Am holding S.W of Bazentin-le-Grand village with a mixed force of about 50. Can you reinforce as we are hard-pressed?
12.55pm …they are working round on the left. Can you reinforce?

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1.30 pm I am going to attack the village through the wood. I have got about 50 men of all regiments with me and C.S.M. Hendy.

Have just received note that the R.W.F. are going to counter attack in force. Will you please warn me if my left flank gets exposed.

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I have reconnoitered the village of Bazentin. The left of the road at the Northern end of the village was held by the Leicesters in small numbers. They have retired to the ? which they still hold but in very small numbers.
I could not get in touch with Royal Irish on the right.
I am command of 20 men of different companies together with one Lewis gun and have consolidated a position within the wood in conjunction with the Manchesters.

6.20pm. Yes. I ought to be holding the cemetery and thought I was doing so. The Welsh Fusiliers and two companies of ours are holding the whole line as follows ....I'm awfully sorry about your casualties. We've had a lot too.

6.20pm. Yes. I ought to be holding the cemetery and thought I was doing so.
The Welsh Fusiliers and two companies of ours are holding the whole line as follows ….I’m awfully sorry about your casualties. We’ve had a lot too.

Send and search dugout of Colonel you captured today. Reason to believe important papers are hidden there.

Send and search dugout of Colonel you captured today. Reason to believe important papers are hidden there.

You will not send patrols out as cavalry are moving.

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

Comments

  1. Memento Mori says:

    Hi! I too have been working on these fascinating diaries. I have completed 263 pages, and was on one diary from start to finish.
    It is deeply moving and humbling to read events written in someone’s hand a hundred years ago.
    Every time I record a name as killed, my heart sinks a little. One hundred years ago, a loved ones worst fears came true. A telegram; a visit bringing the dreadful news. That person’s pain and loss feels very immediate and present today in 2014. It’s like looking in the past and seeing the future. It is all incredibly poignant.
    What an age we live in that can google these places and see the things they saw. The buildings, the fields; the ancient churches, and dilapidated castles. Sometimes there is a small war memorial. A weathered stone cross, or a bronze plaque engraved with names and battles.
    This has been quite an experience, and I am so appreciative of the opportunity. I am so pleased to have happened across your article!

  2. Nice piece. One minor comment which may help in transcription, you have “T.M. Btl. is available as support.” this is probably T.M. Bty. ie Trench Mortar Battery.

  3. Thanks for noticing the type David. Now fixed.

What do you think?

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