Remembering the Great War with Operation War Diary

Contributed by Bryan J. Dickerson

In the summer of 1914, the Great Powers of Europe plunged into the first of two calamitous world wars.   This year, as part of the efforts to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Great War, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse have teamed up for Operation War Diary.  The goal of this online archival project is to open up greater access to records of the Great War for historians and the general public.

Launched earlier this year, Operation War Diary provides a unique opportunity for historians, archivists and interested members of the public to assist in making military history records available for online research.  For this project, war diaries of British Army units were digitized and entered into an online database.  Volunteer “Citizen Historians” then review the individual digitized pages of the war diaries and index them, capturing a wide range of historical data.  In the future, such indexing will enable people to search those thousands of pages of digitized war records to do research on battles, military units and individual soldiers and officers.

Zooniverse has made the indexing process remarkably user-friendly.   Drop down menus enable the “Citizen Historian” to quickly identify and capture important information contained on each war diary page.  Such data being collected includes dates, unit locations, unit activities, persons mentioned, casualties, battles, and the weather.

To become a “Citizen Historian” one only needs to register for a free online account with Zooniverse.  A ten minute tutorial explains how to index the records.   The Citizen Historian is then free to choose from one of the dozens of digitized war diaries contained on the website.  The units included in Operation War Diary include some of the most distinguished ones in the British Army, including the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, the Coldstream Guards, and the Irish Guards.  In addition to infantry units, there are cavalry, field ambulance, field artillery and service units.

I volunteered to become a Citizen Historian in June 2014.  In selecting a unit to review, I sought out one that had been involved in the Great War from the very beginning.  I chose to work with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Highlanders, more commonly known as “the Black Watch.”  Founded in the 1730s, this regiment’s long history includes distinguished service in the Seven Years War, the American War for Independence and the Napoleonic Wars.

In August 1914, 1st Battalion/Black Watch deployed from its home in Scotland to serve as part of Field Marshall Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force.  1st Battalion participated in the retreat from Mons, the battles on the Marne River, the advance to the Aisne River and the First Battle of Ypres.  Later in the war, 1st Battalion fought in the 1916 Somme Offensive, the 1917 Second Battle of Passchendaele, the German offensive of spring 1918 and the Allied offensives of 1918 which forced the Germans to seek an Armistice in November of that year.  The battalion’s participation in these battles is recorded in its Unit Diary.

Besides the accounts of battles and casualty figures, the Unit Diary also records many other aspects of the soldiers’ lives.  This includes religious worship services, weather conditions, billeting (housing) when not at the front, unit movements, training, hygiene, inspections and visits by superior officers.

Operation War Diary provides a unique opportunity for historians and archivists alike.  As a historian, one reviews digital images of the war diaries to record important historical information.  As an archivist, one indexes the documents and helps to make these documents more accessible to researchers and the general public.  It is both a fascinating intellectual exercise and a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought in the Great War.

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