(W)Archives: Rescuing Tommy

March 27, 2015

To mark the centenary of World War I, the United Kingdom’s National Archives has, since last year, been running a fascinating, and addictive (you’ve been warned), website that allows any member of the public to read and contribute to the study of long-neglected records from the Great War.

I refer to “Operation War Diary.” The Archives have digitized and put online an enormous number of war diaries from British tactical units recording the minutiae of their activities in World War I. If you create a free account and go through a ten-minute tutorial, you can then contribute to a crowd-sourced project to tag the records, allowing them to be digitally searchable by future historians.

I spent much of Monday night immersed in the late October 1915 operations of a regiment called the 39th Garhwal Rifles of the British Indian Army. In the days that I reviewed, much of the unit suffered from dysentery. Then some 54 soldiers who were slow to board the train that would take them to the front were left on a platform in France due to the “railway authorities refusing to keep the train waiting a minute over time.” After an overnight trip passing through Rouen, Abbeville, Boulogne, and Hazebrouk, they detrained “at the small country town of Lillers,” near the Belgian border. It is easy to imagine the apprehension of the men when the diary notes that “the sound of firing could be heard quite distinctly from the direction of Béthune.” They saw airplanes overhead, one of which was German. Between 1:15 and 5:30 the following morning, the unit relieved an English infantry battalion in the front lines. As the relief was under way, the Germans dumped artillery fire on the unit and at one point the fire became “very severe.” And to add insult to injury, “there was a very heavy downpour of rain during the darkness and the trenches were consequently rendered very uncomfortable and men got chilled.”

Tactical war diaries are among the best sources for really understanding what happened at the low levels of war. Usually, they were written immediately after the events they recount. They rarely contain stories of individual soldiers, so the natural tendency of individuals to misremember precisely what happened to them and when it happened is largely abstracted out. Nevertheless, as my time with the 39th Garhwal Rifles indicates, these diaries represent the real experience of tactical operations where privates (or sepoys) and sergeants (or havildars) and lieutenants live and struggle. Also, it is very hard to understand the big picture while reading these diaries just as it must have been for the people involved. The documents do not show us a world of big red and blow arrows on brand new maps, but one of cold, sickness, fear, fatigue, and blood.

Until recently, these war diaries have been enormous piles of paper with handwritten entries, often in fading pencil. As a practical matter, they were scarcely accessible to researchers. Participate in Operation War Diary, however, and you can help rescue Tommy Atkins from oblivion and in the process deepen your understanding of what millions of soldiers went through a hundred years ago in France and Belgium.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.