Published today, from records held at The National Archives in Kew, the UK, WWI War Diaries 1914-1920 document operations by British and colonial units serving in France, Belgium, Germany, Gallipoli and the Dardanelles over a six year period. Of these, the records pertaining to Gallipoli and the Dardanelles have been digitised for the very first time.
Each diary entry includes a mixture of tactics, maps, intelligence summaries, reports on casualties and fatalities and general observations. Written up daily by a junior officer and approved by the commander on duty, regiment/unit, sub unit, date and location are also all recorded. Their detail makes the records an invaluable resource for family historians looking to trace the footsteps of a WWI ancestor.
The purpose of the diaries was to create a permanent record of the movements of each unit on active service. Each entry holds a vast amount of military information, which was used by senior officers to locate patterns, plan attacks and build intelligence against enemy forces.
The records also offer a unique first hand perspective on some of WWI’s most infamous battles. This includes the Battle of the Somme, which saw more than one million men wounded or killed in 1916 and has since been described as one of the bloodiest clashes in military history. Diary entries relating to this brutal five-month conflict recall “hurricane bombardments of the German front line” and “mass casualties from prolonged attacks on German trenches”.
Records relating to the Battle of Sari Bair in which Britain tried to seize control of the Gallipoli peninsular, go on to highlight how soldiers were fighting around the clock. An entry for the
East Lancashire Regiment describes how they “received information that the enemy had broken through to the right…we dug trenches as quickly as possible but suffered a few casualties from their fire.” The time was recorded as 5.30am.
Further reports from Gallipoli reveal the terrible conditions facing soldiers from the British Army Corps noting how “there had been heavy rain all over the forward trenches during the afternoon and they were mostly knee deep in mud and water. The Gully Ravine Road was turned into a breast high torrent and cut about by the water.”
Another entry pertains to the actions of The Royal Welsh Fusiliers and notes how “the enemy retaliated from our previous bombardments with heavy shelling of our own front line.” This regiment contained acclaimed WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon. As well as a way with words, Sassoon was a courageous commander – once single-handedly capturing a German trench in the Hindenburg Line.
The battalion of Victoria Cross recipient Reverend Theodore Hardy also appears in the records. Part of The Lincolnshire Regiment, Hardy was killed after crossing into no-man’s land under heavy fire whilst attempting to rescue his wounded comrades. Just 17 days before his death, diary entries note early morning clashes with “the battalion arming up for attack at 4.30am.”
Whilst the majority of officers recorded the brutalities of war succinctly, others were more descriptive with their entries, providing a more personal take on life on the front line. One note relating to the Battle of Le Cateu details how, “battle continued all day but was fiercest between 10am and 3pm” and that wagons sent to drop off much needed ammunition “could not be traced and in some cases had to be abandoned to carry the wounded men who were very tired.”
In a similar vein, some of these records confirm the horrors facing soldiers off the battlefield with regards to sickness and disease. A diary entry recorded by the 102nd Field Ambulance Service states how several soldiers had experienced “prevailing disease for a month, temp for up to three to four days, chilly sensation, pulse acceleration and soreness of the whole body.”
As well as providing insight into what life was really like on the front line, the War Diaries present people with the perfect opportunity to locate their ancestors and trace their wartime movements with military precision.
To search the UK, WWI War Diaries, 1914-1920 click here.