In January, The National Archives announced that it had digitised a first batch of First World War unit diaries from France and Flanders, and made these available online as part of its centenary programme - First World War 100. It says these diaries contain ‘a wealth of information of far greater interest than the army could ever have predicted. . . unrivalled insight into daily events on the front line.’ Now, two months later, The National Archives had announced that a further 4,000 unit diaries have been made available, records relating to the last of the Cavalry and numbers 8-33 Infantry Divisions deployed to the Western Front.
William Spencer, author and military records specialist at The National Archives said: ‘This second batch of unit war diaries . . . show the advances in technology that made it the world’s first industrialised war with many mounted troops going into battle at first with swords on horseback and ending the war with machine guns and tanks.’
Personally, I found the website rather tricky to navigate, and I was not able to access any actual unit diaries - not without paying! The only search tool available requires the name of a regiment, battalion, brigade or division, so, if you don’t know any names, it’s not possible to just browse sample diaries. And then, if you persevere through the catalogue hierarchy, and choose a record to view, the only option appears to be to download it, at a cost. Indeed, looking back at a paragraph called ‘How do I search the records?’, I found this: ‘Searching is free, but there may be a charge to download documents.’ Hmmm, all the publicity - and there has been a lot for this project - seems a bit misleading to me.
Unlike myself, a Guardian writer has managed to mine a few nuggets. Here’s one paragraph from Richard Norton-Taylor’s article: ‘Some of the war diaries are almost swashbuckling in tone. An account of an attack by the Indian army's Mhow Cavalry Brigade, on 1 December 1917 in northern France after promised tanks had failed to arrive, records: “Lieut Broadway had already killed two Germans with the sword when he was treacherously killed by a revolver shot by a German officer who raised one hand in token of surrender keeping the other behind his back. This German officer was immediately killed by a lance thrust from a man following Lieut Broadway.” ’
The National Archives mid-March news release also announced that in the first two months of Operation War Diary - a joint project with Imperial War Museums and Zooniverse - more than 10,000 individuals across the globe had volunteered to tag names, places and other details in the diaries. It said: ‘With over 200 diaries already tagged and verified, this innovative crowdsourcing project goes one step further than traditional transcription by using the data to digitally map and analyse patterns and trends in the unit war diaries, offering new perspectives on the First World War.’
The project organisers say that data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes: ‘to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries; to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project; to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought.’ They also promise that all of the data produced by Operation War Diary will eventually be available to everyone free of charge.