Tag Archive | Western Front

Viewing the Past with the Technology of the Future

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.


Image © Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50717) – Armentieres, Grande Place and Hotel de Ville, December 1914.

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.


Image © IWM (Q 53135) – Dickebusch, 1915

Google Maps

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.


Image © IWM (Q 57347) – Farm used as a billet by the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards at Meteren, November 1914.

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.

Trench Maps

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.


Image © IWM (Q 61622) – The badly damaged Hooge Chateau near Ypres, May 1915.

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.


Image © IWM (Q 78112) – A column of Scottish troops marching along the road at Magenta near Mareuil-sur-Ay, 1 August 1918.

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.

The Evolution of Operation War Diary

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.


Image © IWM (Q 11811) – Encirclement and liberation of Lille by the British 57th and 59th Divisions. Crowd in the Grande Place, many of whom carry Allied flags, 17 October 1918.

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.


Image © IWM (Q 61585) – Troops of the Motor Machine Gun Corps unit reading the “Illustrated Sunday Herald” by their dugout, 1915.

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?


Image © IWM (Q 8802) – Military traffic control signal post at Blendecques, 6 May 1918. Note signboard pointing way to No. 7 General Hospital.

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.


A very Western Front Christmas

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.

Image © IWM (Q 11745) – British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914. Possibly Riflemen Andrew (middle) and Grigg (second from the right, background) of the London Rifle Brigade with troops of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments.

Image © IWM (Q 11745) – British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914. Possibly Riflemen Andrew (middle) and Grigg (second from the right, background) of the London Rifle Brigade with troops of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments.

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

Image © IWM (Q 51524) – Sergeant Major Malins and 2nd Lieutenant Nicholl of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) checking for snipers from 'Cabbage Patch Trench' in the Rouges Bancs - La Boutillerie sector of the front line, 5 November 1914.

Image © IWM (Q 51524) – Sergeant Major Malins and 2nd Lieutenant Nicholl of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) checking for snipers from ‘Cabbage Patch Trench’ in the Rouges Bancs – La Boutillerie sector of the front line, 5 November 1914.

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.

Let’s Remember Together – Three Life Stories from the War Diaries

Today’s post is the third and final in our Let’s Remember Together series. Three days, three names chosen at random from the diary pages, the beginnings of three Life Stories. Today, I’ve been researching Private A. Morrall, mentioned in the diary of the 1st Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. You can see the diary entry by clicking here.

Image © IWM (Q 1684) – Officers inspecting chunks of ice broken up by shell fire on the battlefield at Beaumont Hamel, December 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 1684) – Officers inspecting chunks of ice broken up by shell fire on the battlefield at Beaumont Hamel, December 1916.

Private Morrall is included in a list of NCOs and men recommended for the Military Medal for gallantry. His service number is 8196. Further research on Lives of the First World War tells us he was Alfred Edward, a career soldier. He enlisted in the Army on the 30th of August, 1906. The 1st Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry deployed to France at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 and remained on the Western Front all the way through the conflict, making Private Morrall one of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently derided by the Kaiser. He was discharged on the 28th of May, 1917 because of illness.

Beyond that, details are sparse. Why not have a look at his Life Story and see if you can add to it?

I hope this series has shown how Operation War Diary and Lives of the First World War can be used together to breathe life back into the names we uncover on the diary pages. We hope eventually to feed the data generated by Operation War Diary into Lives, to allow evidence from the diary pages to be attached directly to Life Story pages. I’m looking forward to building up a more detailed picture of the names I’ve encountered over the last few months – Captain Swaine, who thought his Cyclist Company might have fired the first shot on the Western Front, Sergeant Lowe, who led a party of the Durham Light Infantry into enemy trenches and Rifleman Bajbir Rana, of the 1/1st Battalion Gurkha Rifles, who volunteered to go out into no-man’s land on the 16th of February, 1915, to scout enemy positions.

I can’t pretend that doing this work makes me any more capable of understanding the hardships and horrors they must have endured, but I feel it’s valuable nonetheless. In tagging their names, our Citizen Historians are ensuring that they do not become lost in the pages of history. In building up details around them, we can see them as real people once again, people just like us, who because of time and situation were thrown into a conflict that devastated a generation. So many of them were lost on the journey through, and yet in some small way we can now make sure that loss is not forgotten.


Let’s Remember Together – The second part of our Life Stories series

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.

Image © IWM (Q 9650) – Troops of the 1/4th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (Pioneer Battalion of the 55th Division) crossing a pontoon bridge over the Scheldt river at Tournai, 9 November 1918.

Image © IWM (Q 9650) – Troops of the 1/4th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (Pioneer Battalion of the 55th Division) crossing a pontoon bridge over the Scheldt river at Tournai, 9 November 1918.

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.

Who fired the first shot of World War 1?

Nowadays, it’s widely believed that the first British soldier to fire a shot in anger on the Western Front was Drummer Edward Thomas, of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who at 7am on the 22nd of August, 1914 spotted an enemy cavalryman ahead and opened fire on him.

The picture was not always so clear, however.

Eleanor Broaders, one of our eagle-eyed Citizen Historians, found an intriguing entry in the diary of the 3rd Division’s Cyclist Company, dated 12th of November, 1915. In it, the commanding officer, Captain Eric Swaine, writes:

In the Field Almanac 1915 (Official Copy) it states that “First shot fired between German and British Forces took place at 12.40pm August 23rd, 1915.”

This Company exchanged shots with German Cavalry before noon on August 22nd, 1915. One German Uhlan was wounded and his lance captured.

There are some obvious errors in Captain Swaine’s account. He records the year as 1915, for example, rather than 1914 and by 12.40pm on August the 23rd, the Battle of Mons was already well underway. However, if you allow for the fact that this entry was probably written in haste over a year after the events by a man in the midst of war, it still makes for some very interesting reading.

Image © IWM (Q 2103) - Cyclists moving up to the forward area

Image © IWM (Q 2103) – Cyclists moving up to the forward area

Whatever really happened, it’s true that, 100 years ago today, Captain Swaine’s Cyclist Company would have been amongst the first British units in action on continental Europe since the Napoleonic Wars of the previous century. Lightweight and mobile, the cyclists made excellent reconnaissance troops and would have been amongst the first units to encounter the enemy. In fact, another cyclist, Private John Parr, became the first British soldier to be killed on the Western Front the day before Captain Swaine’s Company captured their German lance, after he and a companion encountered a German cavalry patrol in the village of Obourg, north-east of Mons. It’s believed Private Parr stayed behind to hold the enemy unit off, while his comrade withdrew to warn the rest of the British troops that Germans were in the area.

With 100 years of history between us and the events of the 22nd of August, 1914, it’s easy to forget how confused things were in those early days of the war, when the armies were still mobile and the deadlock of trench warfare had yet to emerge. Why not get involved at Operation War Diary and uncover history as it was written.

You can read Captain Swaine’s diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00014ea

War Horses – the power of hashtags in Operation War Diary

Today’s guest blogger is Heather Collins, a volunteer moderator on Operation War Diary and also one of the Citizen Historians involved in tagging the diaries.  She first became interested in WW1 through researching her own family’s contribution to the conflict and has been fascinated by it ever since.

The 2011 film War Horse brought the role of horses in 20th Century warfare back into the public focus and reminded us how much we relied upon them in an age where motor transport was not yet able to go everywhere.  On the Western Front in World War 1, horses were used for moving all types of  supplies and equipment as well as providing the fast moving fighting arm of the Cavalry.  But even knowing how important the horse was, some of the figures relating to their use are still staggering to read:

  • Over 1 million horses were sent overseas to war from the USA
  • By 1917, 1000 horses per day were arriving in France as remounts for the British Army
  • Casualties amounted to about 1 horse lost for every 2 men throughout the war
  • Horse fodder was the largest single commodity shipped to the front by Britain – with a higher tonnage even than ammunition!

At the start of Operation War Diary, there was no way to track information about horses at all and pretty much from the first few days of tagging, users were asking why and wanting to be able to follow the story of the horses as well as that of the men.  Early on we suggested that people use the hashtag #horses but it soon became obvious that as horses get a mention in just about every page of some diaries, this wasn’t really going to bring out much useful information!  A rethink was needed if we wanted to make best use of the obvious desire of Citizen Historians to follow the fate of the horses.

Following some discussion on the project’s talk forum pages, which shows one of the strengths of a crowd-sourcing project like OWD, where users can get involved and have a real influence, we decided to try to define some more specific hashtags to follow particular aspects of the life of the horse on the Western Front.

Two months later we now have hashtags telling us about the condition of the horses, their food, their ailments, horse casualties and their evacuation into the veterinary chain.  We have also developed hashtags to look at the condition of the roads and the problems with water supplies as a direct result of these initial ideas.

We already knew how important the horse was in the appalling front line conditions in France and Belgium.  Even though motor transport existed, it was often completely incapable of even moving in the quagmire that developed close to the front lines and horses were sometimes literally the only way of getting the heavy equipment and supplies forward.  For example in 1914 a single battery of the Royal Horse Artillery with 6 x 13 pounder field guns required over 200 horses to provide the motive power to move men and equipment quickly.  So having these additional hashtags has enabled us to look at everyday details that the Units were recording in their War Diaries regarding their horses.

Image © IWM (Q 2981)

Image © IWM (Q 2981)

Here are a few snippets of the kind of information we have found:

Water:  Units seem to have been constantly struggling to find an adequate water supply for their horses.  In September 1916, the 2nd Divisional Ammunition Column sent 1000 horses to the rear area due to water difficulties.

Food :  An Artillery battery describes the ration being cut in February 1917 to 9 pounds of oats and 10 pounds of hay as a result of which “horses lost condition during the cold owing to short food”.  This was apparently due to increased German U-Boat activity in the Atlantic having reduced the amount of oats coming in from the USA.

Equipment:  An ASC Company in the 2nd Divisional Supply Train talks about having “rough shod” their horses in the snowy weather.  This is a process whereby shoes with protruding spikes or nails are fitted to enhance grip and it is the origin of the phrase “to ride roughshod over”, The diary goes on to describe the difficulty of fitting the attachments, which they call “cogs”, to the shoes where the existing shoes were already worn thin.

Fatigue:  A Cavalry unit in August 1914 describes how the long marches (27 miles on this particular day) are taking their toll on the horses “Some were under saddle 20 hours and water was scarce. Most would neither eat nor drink when they got into bivouac”  Most cavalry units already had a number of dismounted men due to the strain on the horses and the Veterinary Corps units were struggling to keep up with the numbers, many of whom simply required rest and food.

Casualties:  Mobile Veterinary Sections (MVS) often talk about “horse floats”.  This turns out not to be some sort of boat, but actually to be another name for a horse trailer or horsebox.  These were being developed so horses that might otherwise have to be shot or abandoned could be recovered to their unit or to the MVS.  In February 1915, 7 MVS report having visited a horse left by its Unit on a farm and they suggest it might be collected in a week’s time by another MVS “who have the use of a horse float”.  The tone of the diary makes it clear the writer thinks all MVS Units should have such a modern innovation!

Why not join us at Operation War Diary and help us to find out more?