Tuesday 29 April 2014

Operation War Diary ...

Would you like to become a Citizen Historian?

If so, the good folk at National Archives down in Kew need you now. They're crowd sourcing a project to map out one and a half million pages of war diaries from the First World War. The idea is to mark up dates, names and important details, so that they can be searched more easily by historians and interested amateurs.  You don't need any special qualifications, other than an ability to read and use a computer. You don't need to go along in person; they want your help on-line.

So what are these war diaries anyway? Well, the War Diary or Intelligence Summary, was a diary kept by each unit during operations with a view to compiling an official history of the campaign, and allowing the Top Brass to learn from any mistakes that might have been made for the benefit of doing it all better in future campaigns. They chronicle what took place on a daily basis, and give an immediate and dynamic window into the world of the regular Tommy fighting in the trenches of the Western Front. Life and death is chronicled. Sometimes individuals are named, but mostly it's kept on a general business-of-the-unit level.

Yesterday I volunteered an hour or two of my time to help out.

Recruitment poster for the Seaforths, which I strongly suspect post-dates WWI

After a ten minute on-line tutorial I was let loose on the war diary of the 4th Division, 10th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. My boys had been mobilised on 23rd August, 1914 and sent out as part of the British Expeditionary Force to lead the charge.

Cap badge of the Seaforth Highlanders
(Their motto translates as "Aid the King")

I was hooked from the start. This was history recorded first hand by an eye-witness as it unfolded. In my mind's eye I could see the movie reel playing as I followed what they were doing, where they were (I was immediately off for my big road atlas of France to understand exactly where they were), who they were with and what the weather and conditions on the ground were like.

Moreover, it was humbling to read such a matter-of-fact account of what took place. There was no self-pity, no hyperbole, just a sense of honest, decent men trying to do their workaday best and get the job done.

Their War Diary was written in a neat, easy-to-read hand. I did not learn the name of the man that it belonged to, but he was evidently a compassionate, well-educated person. I dearly hope that he made it through the war.

Before I got started, I googled around to find out a bit more about the Seaforths. As it turns out they were involved in the retreat from Le Cateau, which was a tactical retreat in late August 1914 by the British to a more strongly defended front further West, where they could make a better stand against the Germans. This became known as the Battle of the Frontiers, and I'm pretty sure it's the background to the War Diary pages that I read.

I took up their story on 25th August, 1914 when they were pulling back from Viesly. They marched "a very tiresome and wearisome march" of nine and a quarter miles through the night to the village of Haucourt, which was serving as Divisional Head Quarters for the tenth and twelfth Brigades of the Highlanders. It was a cold, wet night. The roads were "greasy", and because there weren't any ambulances they were forced to leave the dead and wounded in a cottage near Viesly. When they arrived at half past four in the morning they discovered that their transport supplies hadn't made it, so they weren't able to have breakfast or draw their food rations. I can imagine they must have been cold, wet, exhausted, hungry and demoralised to have lost the comrades who had been left behind.

By this time the village was packed with soldiers. There was hardly room to move. Their supplies eventually showed up at six a.m., but before they could settle down to eat they came under enemy attack. There was some confusion as they had thought the French were watching the front. The enemy moved into position, occupying a ridge to the north of the village. My boys in the second battalion were held in reserve as their comrades came under heavy fire.

"The rest of the Brigade and the 12th Brigade were very heavily engaged in front and lost fairly heavily from shrapnel and machine gun fire - Tremendous artillery duels took place at intervals throughout the day, our gunners behaving splendidly and never ceasing their fire though far outnumbered."

At about 4:30 p.m. they were joined in their trench by 3 French cavalry divisions, who had come to relieve them. Then at 6:00 p.m. they were ordered to retire through the valley between Caullery and Selvigny with orders that the Brigade would assemble at Selvigny. However, in pulling out of the trench, they came under heavy shrapnel fire and were forced to cross ground that had already been blown to bits by the enemy artillery. One officer, Captain KDM Machlachlan and twenty men were wounded in the withdrawal. This was the first time that they had come under heavy enemy fire, but "the movement was accomplished in perfect order and with great steadiness".

C company "with whom were the stretcher bearers" had received orders to withdraw via another route, and as a consequence they were unable to take four of their seriously injured colleagues, who were left behind.

I only completed four pages as I was terrified of missing something. I felt  responsible for ensuring that their tale was told properly, even though each page is checked by seven volunteers to make sure that any mistakes are spotted. Later today I'm going to go back to find out what happened next.

Wherever you are, and however little you think you know about the conflict, I'm sure you'd find the war diaries totally gripping.  If you'd like to help out you can log on here: Operation War Diary.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

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