Tracing battalions or regiments of the British Army during the Great War
This podcast gives you an introduction to the various records at The National Archives that can be used to trace the experiences of individual battalions or regiments during The Great War. These records include unit war diaries, trench maps, Prisoner of War reports and battlefield photographs. The examples given show how to search for and find these records using Discovery, our catalogue.
David Langrish is a Reader Advisor at The National Archives. David graduated in War Studies from the University of Kent, where his dissertation project was on the experiences of The Royal West Kent Regiment during The Great War.
Good afternoon everyone, my name’s David Langrish; I’m a Reader Advisor here at The National Archives. The talk today is just an introduction to some of the sources that you can use to start tracing a battalion’s history or regiment’s history during the First World War.
One of the most common enquiries we receive at the enquiry desk is: ‘I have or haven’t found a First World War service record, what additional information can I find here relating to my relative’s period of service?’ and so we would generally direct you on to operational records, specifically unit war diaries in WO 95 and while todays talk will focus on the unit war diaries, there’s also some other sources which you can use in conjunction or separately that might just add to your understanding of a certain battalion, unit or regiment’s experiences during the First World War.
What we’re going to do during the talk is just quickly recap on how you’d find out a battalion number. We’ll start by looking at the regimental histories in our library collection. We’ll move on to the unit war diaries in WO 95; the examples I’m going to use from that series today are largely due to the hard work that a team of volunteers have been carrying out as we look to digitise a number of these unit war diaries from the France and Flanders theatre ahead of the start of the centenary events in 2014.
Some of the volunteers are with us today and their hard work in preparing these records for digitisation, making sure the pages are in order, all the appendices are tied up in the correct place, they’ve been noting down some of the interesting finds which I’ve used during this talk today.
We’ll look at trench maps and photographs and how they can be used to add perspective to a written account or just give you a new perspective on stories you may have heard or can relate to. And then we’ll look at some addition sources which are more specific to individuals but can still be used to draw out more background knowledge on the experiences of individual units in periods of battle on specific days.
We’ll finish with a case study of the 8th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment at Loos in 1915. My Royal West Kent examples will come from, largely from my dissertation project when I studied War Studies at the University of Kent and I studied the regiment’s First World War experiences for my dissertation project. And then we’ll just finish with some summary points just to wrap up the talk.
So just a quick recap then on how you can find a battalion number. If you have a service record you should be able to find a statement of services page: Might be a slightly different layout that what’s here, but on the left hand column at the top it says RW Kent for the regiment, which would be Royal West Kent and so for James Joseph Harris here, if we look in the second column you can just see for the 30th August 1914 he was posted to the 1st Battalion, that’s where it indicates which battalion. So if we were to take this example forward for this individual, we would know we’d need to be looking for unit war diaries for the 1st Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment from September onwards 1914.
Now it might be that you don’t have a service record, it’s quite a common problem and so you can go via the official medal roles in WO 329 to try and find a battalion number. You’ll need the battalion number to search the operational records and your first step to getting to that stage is through the medal index cards. Go to ‘looking for a person’ up on the top left of our home page; you’ve got British Army Soldiers under ‘army personnel’ after 1913. At the bottom of this section which says ‘what records can I see online?’ you’ve got the link to the medal index cards. You can put your search in, you can just search by name and it will bring you up any matching results. Just click on the description and you’ll be able to follow the instructions to download the medal index card.
There’ll be six cards to the page that you download and in the middle at the top of each one it tells you the regiment that this chap, David Henry Langrish belonged to, which was the Hampshire Regiment. Very occasionally it will detail the battalion number at that stage but in the vast majority of cases it will just give you the regiment or army corps that he was in. You’ll need to take a note of the code there next to the victory medal and the page number indicated. Type that code into our discovery search facility to start searching our catalogue and it will bring you up the matching result.
As you’ll see at the top there, that’s one to 15 of four million results so you can narrow that down a bit further by just adding ‘AND WO 329’ to your search. Order up that piece number indicated WO 329/1270 and you’ll get the official medal rolls in the document reading room and that just indicates, just in that column, which battalion each man served with; so David Henry Langrish was in the 9th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment and that’s the one we would search for if we then went into the unit war diaries.
I’m going to start with regimental histories before we move on to the unit war diaries. They’re a very good place to start. Very comprehensive histories of regiments during their service in the First World War. They will give you the key dates, the key locations, the key events that each battalion of the regiment was involved in. They would have been published mainly in the 1920’s and 30’s and they are mainly designed to honour the troops that served in the regiment and, more specifically, the families of those soldiers who lost their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice while at the front.
So you won’t find too many critical statements, in theses official histories, of the actual war direction; they’re not going to include, they wouldn’t have had access to, material such as soldiers that were executed due to ill-discipline in the regiment. So you’ve got to bear that in mind when you’re using it, but it will give you the key dates.
You can search for them in our library catalogue, just down here on the right hand side of our home page and you can start typing in the name of the regiment or part of the name of the regiment; I put ‘Royal West Kent’ and it found the result for me at the top and in the green writing there, it indicated the reference number so you can find that on our library shelves and start reading up on the history of the particular regiment.
They come in all different shapes, sizes and layouts. The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regimental History is arranged chronologically by theatre, so each chapter will contain references to the different battalions that were serving in that area at that time.
As you can see on this layout, the author uses a margin to indicate which battalion is being covered in each section, so if you were just interested in one particular battalion of the Royal West Kents, you could quite easily just scan through this history, you don’t have to read the whole thing for all the other battalions. Likewise, they also indicate any sketch maps or appendices which can be used alongside that section of the chapter.
As I mentioned before, they do really honour the troops that served and died in the appendices for the Royal West Kent history. It lists all the men that had died whilst serving the regiment during the Great War and some of the other appendices will detail men and the different awards and medals that were handed out to officers and other ranks.
But the appendices will vary from unit to unit, from history to history; so just to bear that in mind when you’re using them. There are some differing layouts; we’ve got here the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Regimental History. Instead of having a whole margin to show where the different battalions are covered, they just use an indentation. On the left you’ve got the 4th Battalion, on the right you’ve got the fifth, so it’s still fairly easy to trace a certain battalion through these histories. And here for the Royal Berkshire Regiment, each individual chapter is dedicated to one specific battalion, so you get a comprehensive history, just in one chapter for each battalion.
We also have divisional histories in our library collection. As we’ll see with the unit war diaries, it’s always worth just moving up and down the chain of command for the army, just to try and find additional information which might be contained, for example by moving from a regimental history and looking at a battalion, moving to a divisional one you might just get a better overview of what was happening elsewhere along the line at that time, just moving away from just a battalion perspective. Likewise, you can move down the level of chain of command. You might find that some battalions had official histories published after the war and you’ll probably find those in local library services to where the regiment was located or at the regimental museums.
Moving on to the unit war diaries and WO 95. This series is one of our most popular here at The National Archives. They provide a day by day account of what each unit was experiencing, what they were up to and where they were located. The detail will vary from unit to unit, from diary to diary; that’s because the junior officer who would have been completing the diary on a daily basis, will obviously, one junior officer in one unit will detail things differently to another in another, so one might go into extensive detail, others might go into less. And likewise, you also have to consider what was going on at the front at that time. There might have been more pressing concerns than putting in a detail entry in the war diary.
Where you can get a lot more detailed information is if the appendices survive which might be attached at the back of diaries, relating to specific entries. These can include operational orders, personal or unit accounts regarding specific events, battles or periods at the front, also maps and sketches going with operational orders, which just provide a different perspective to what’s being detailed. And you can find some hidden gems which our volunteers have been finding and noting down, which we’ll come to in a second.
You can search by battalion, brigade or divisions, so you can easily move up and down the level of command if you wanted to and we’ll cover that as well in a second. And as I’ve mentioned, you should always consider doing that just to try and find some additional information that might not be contained within one level of the diary.
If you’ve not used a WO 95 record before, this is the general layout. This is the general page that would be completed by each unit on a daily basis, taken from the 2nd battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment. As you can see on the left-hand side there, it gives the date; sometimes it will also give a location there. The middle column is where they enter the main details of what happened on that day and the right column would be where they indicate if there’s any particular appendix or remarks that should be considered alongside that entry.
As you can see from this entry, it’s a fairly undescriptive entry, you’ve got three days in billets followed by three days in trenches, three days in billets, three days in trenches and so on; just a general rotation in and out of the front lines for a general unit. What it does detail is the names of the officers and the number of other ranks that were sent to hospital in each day.
As you go through you’ll find more detail in the descriptions as they come into more activity. This is from the 4th and 5th March 1917, bottom entry confirms the names of the officers killed, wounded and missing and the number of other ranks also killed, wounded or missing. We’re just here, it says ‘for the report of operations on the 4th and 5th March, see appendix one attached’. Fortunately it does survive, it’s about a four page report attached to this war diary for this month and that will just go into much more detail about the actual fighting experiences on those two days and actually, the flow of the actual fighting. So you can get, where these appendices survive, you can get a lot of detail from them.
Likewise you have operational orders ahead of a certain attack or period at the front, so again you can draw out a lot more information about how each company within a battalion was located or positioned. Was it going to be working in conjunction with a certain artillery attack or barrage? Was it going to be working with tanks? Were the other brigades of the division going to be involved and what would their positions be? So you can draw out a lot of knowledge, if these appendices survive, about the actual battlefield experiences of each unit. You get some maps and sketches, which can be attached. In this example it indicates what the objective is for the coming battle period, where the starting off position would be and then the various divisional and battalion boundaries so the troops are aware of who’s in support and where they’re located.
There’s many different reasons why you might use a unit war diary. You may wish to trace a whole battalion through their whole war service. You may wish to use a war diary just to cover a specific event or period at the front. It may be that you have a relative that you know was in a specific battalion for two weeks, two months, two years and you just want to cover that period. What I’ve done here to show you why you should consider moving through the levels of command in these war diaries, to get more additional information, is I’ve selected the Christmas truce and it comes from one of the examples our volunteers found.
If you were interested in the Christmas truce and you had a relative in the 1st Battalion Norfolk regiment for example, you may order up the diary for December 1914 and you might find just in this case, that you can see there that there’s no entry recorded for the 25th December and that seems to be quite a common issue in this diary, that some days there’s just no details entered. So at this point you might think, ‘well ok there’s nothing there, I’ll move onto the next period I’m interested in’. But one of our volunteers found that at the infantry brigade level for the 15th Infantry Brigade Headquarters Diary for December 1914, this battalion, the 1st Norfolk Regiment were in this infantry brigade. The entry for December 25th reveals something slightly different, or a lot more information I should say: ‘At 2.00pm a German officer, unarmed, walked towards the Norfolk trenches’. So automatically we’ve found additional information about the battalion which wasn’t contained in the battalion war diary. It goes on to say that for about an hour and a half 200 to 400 British and German troops, including officers, conversed and sung hymns together and I love the way that they try to cover their own back really, with their commanding officers; they sort of turn it into an intelligence gathering exercise. They say that the Germans are expecting the war to finish within two months at that stage and that more Germans came out of the front trenches than it was thought that the trenches held.
And so, there’s a good example why we should consider moving up the chain of command to try and find more information. The battalion diary had nothing at all; the brigade level one gives us quite good information. You could take it a step further and move up to the divisional headquarters diary for Christmas 1914; this is the 5th Division, which this brigade was a part of.
On the folder for December 1914, it gives a list of appendices that are attached, third from the bottom is ‘fraternising’. At the end of a diary you find the appendices attached, it still survives and the title page is ‘Conversing with the Enemy’. What follows is about 11 pages of statements from various company, battalion, brigade officers about basically witness statements about what they saw, what they experienced on that day. Again, you get largely people trying to cover their own backs: ‘It started further along down the line before I got there’, ‘I couldn’t do anything about it’, ‘there was already British troops out in no man’s land so I couldn’t order anybody to fire’. But again, you can just draw out some more information about specific periods or events by moving up the chain of command on these diaries.
So how do we search? If you’re searching for a battalion, you search by the battalion number, the regiment name or part of the regiment name and WO 95 on our discovery service. I’ve just searched ‘West Kent’ and so because of that it’s brought me up the West Kent Yeomanry as well. What you can do, when you actually come to a result for the battalion or regiment you’re looking for, the rest of the battalions in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment will be titled exactly like that, just the difference will be the battalion number.
So if you’re looking for an additional diary for the 1st Battalion, this one just covered July to November 1917, if you’re looking for an additional one or an additional battalion in the regiment, you now know the term you should use to search and so you can narrow you’re search results automatically and avoid any confusion when you go to order.
This example for the 6th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment clearly shows in the description that that is part of the 37th Infantry Brigade, so if you wanted to move up to check the infantry brigade diary, the information’s already there for you, so you know which to search for. Likewise on the description, again it’s there and any notes there will tell you any diaries that are missing for that particular one. So you can search for the 37th Infantry Brigade, it will bring you up the different diaries and give you the reference numbers. Again you can see in the description there, that it now tells us which division that infantry brigade belongs to. So it’s fairly straightforward to trace infantry brigades and divisions that certain battalions would have belonged to. Again, on the description, if you clicked on browse by hierarchy, just at the top there, on the yellow tab it also says the division. Click on the yellow tab, it takes you to the subseries for the 12th Division and then, listed down here on the right hand side, are all the individual piece numbers that make up that subseries for the 12th Division. Start with the general staff diaries; you’d work your way through all the branches and services, so quartermaster, general commander, royal artillery, that sort of thing and then you would have come to the brigade level diaries and then you would come to the battalion level diaries making up the 12th Division.
There is a drawback to using war diaries, it’s like any record series, sometimes you just won’t find the detail. For example here 12th Indian Division Headquarters from November 1915, based in Mesopotamia, which we now know as Iraq, November 7th is just ‘Sunday’, there’s no other information. So you’ve just got to bear in mind that at times there wouldn’t have been much going on in specific theatres or there would have been more pressing concerns or the appendices you’re after just won’t have survived, they would have been weeded out or just lost or destroyed during or after the war.
You can find some really good hidden gems though and again, thanks to our volunteers for being able to go through and find these. This was an interesting one which gives a direct insight into what life might have been like in the army away from the front line. And we’ve got a bayonet training assault course in the 5th Division Headquarters General Staff Diary for March 1916. When we consider there’s about 1000 men in a battalion, there’s four battalions into a brigade at this stage in the war, four brigades into a division, plus all the divisional troops, many thousands of men would have gone through such training so it’s a good insight into what they would have been going through away from the front lines.
At the top there you’ve got the three white trenches A, C and D which had just been, sort of like, Krypton Factor style assault course and then you’ve got your two red trenches which are the bayonet training sections. Enlarged here on the right hand side, you can see the men were being trained to aim for the face, the throat, the heart, the right and left nipple, stomach or kidneys, right groin, left groin, so it’s quite a gruesome insight. But when you consider it does give us a good insight into what was happening or what the men were going through, what these units were going through when they weren’t in the front lines.
Likewise, for the Adjutant and Quartermaster General Diary from April 1917 for the General Headquarters in Salonika, we have instructions that would have been passed down to the various divisions, brigades and battalions that would have made up the force in Salonika. Now these might not survive at these levels of diaries, so you might have to move up to try and find this. But again on the left it talks about the need to prevent malaria. In particular it says that soldiers should be looking out for certain spotted types of mosquito, so quite a bit of random information there. And on the right it talks about the spread of disease by flies, spreading fever, dysentery, malaria, cholera; all lovely subjects like that and then follows on with quite a detailed description of how latrine discipline was required for the men in the back lines; making sure they were cleaned out properly and constructed correctly. So again, it provides a different insight into the actual army life and the experiences that units would have been going through and some of the disciplines required.
Talking of latrines, we have a very funny looking image here from the 24th Field Ambulance attached to the 5th Division in July 1915. And it details a new type of latrine that they were constructing and encouraging units to use, made out of old biscuit boxes which had been left in that sector of the front. Quite crudely, it details two sections to the latrine: one for one method of relieving oneself and the other for the other method and a lovely diagram, at the bottom there, of how to actually sit on the said latrine. And we know it’s a demonstration because he seems to still have his undergarments clearly on. But when we look passed that, sort of humour side of it, it just gives us an insight into the make do and mend policy that units would have needed to undertake at the front lines. When you’re reading war diaries, regimental histories, personal accounts, you’ll come across so many different, ingenious methods of reusing equipment, coming up with different sort of trench bombs and equipment that can attack the enemy with, or just general designs reusing material that just improves conditions and life, either at the front or in the reserve positions.
Moving on to trench maps and photographs and if you go to our ‘Looking for a place?’ research signpost, under ‘Maps, Plans and Surveys’ you’ll find ‘Military maps of the First World War’, takes you to this index guide. You’ve got your two sections at the top which contain the main map collections and additional map collections and section five if for photographs.
In summary, each of those can be broken down into individual record series by the theatre of war. And when you use these, they can just add a new perspective to some of the written accounts used. The main trench map collection for the Western Front would be in WO 297. It’s a bit too complicated to go into detain of how to search that here today; I don’t have the time or scope to do it. If you were to go through that, you’d need to know the old grid references for them, for the trench maps on the Western Front; they’re not all searchable by place or name in that record series.
You need to head up to the map room, there’s a book up there called Topography of Armageddon and there’s also the paper catalogue for WO297 and that has the map that you would need to use to get the grid references for the different locations of different sections of the Western Front, to then start searching for those maps.
What I’m going to talk about today are the maps in WO 153; maps showing the progress of the war, specifically situation maps regarding certain battles or offences. So these can really support any battalion histories, regimental histories or unit war diaries and their descriptions of what was happening and where the fighting was taking place.
You can search discovery by using those terms: ‘situation AND Somme and WO 153’ is an example, they bring you up various results. The one I ordered up was battle of the Somme, daily situation maps covering that period indicated there, 1st July to 26th November 1916 and you will have a map for every day so it’s quite an extensive amount of maps in just one document.
When you order them up, the first one here, situation 8:30 on 1st July, shows the quite extensive area there and it gives all the corps boundaries here with the units identified and different sections and the British front line at that stage being those thick, red lines. You then move on to the actual daily maps which will show the British front line at a certain time on that day. This thick, red line is that position at 10am on July 4th, down at the bottom you’ve got a dotted blue line which was the original British starting position ahead of this offensive and more extensively detailed are these red lines which are the old German trench positions before the offensive started. The reason why the German positions are in much more detail is the British didn’t want to detail their trench systems in case maps were taken by the enemy and so it’s an intelligence issue. And you’ll start to see as you’re using regimental histories and unit war diaries, you’ll start taking down notes of the key areas that form the key places of battle for that particular unit. It might be a wooded area like that, or a little village or town like that, a cross roads even, any high ground over low ground and you can start to follow quite easily, on these maps, how the fighting took place and how the front line moved.
If we move it on a couple of weeks, you can just go day by day, you move it on a couple of weeks we can see the front line’s now moved beyond these wooded areas just there and in the middle up to the next section of wooded area and little town there. Just out of reach in the north is another wooded area called High Wood and if we move it on again a bit further, we see that eventually the British line gets a little foothold in that wood.
If you follow it over the next few days it then gets the whole wood, then pushed back out, then they start trying to take it again. So when you’re using regimental histories and war diaries, you can be using these maps just to get a perspective of the flow of a battle or an offensive period, just to help your understand in your new perspective.
Now these are quite detailed maps, they are at a scale of 1:20,000. Eventually the British trench maps would go to 1:10,000, even 1:5,000 scale I believe. And they could even picture enemy machine gun posts. The reason they needed to go into so much detail as the war became entrenched and static, is that obviously the artillery and commanding officers needed to know where the week points were, where they should be planning their offensives and where they should be aiming for. At the start of the war the British Army didn’t have access to such detailed maps; they were reliant on vaster sized maps covering a vaster area. And I ordered up, just to show you an example, situation map for the first battle of Ypres in 1914 and what I actually ended up ordering up was a whole shot of the Western Front at that point. It details all the French Army units there and the opposing enemy forces opposite.
When we zoom in, we find the small British Army at this stage just in front of Ypres and the small Belgian Army just at the top and again the opposing forces. This is a scale of a 1:500,000 so you don’t get the detail of the later maps. Generally, the British army were using 1:100,000 maps at the early stage of the war; as I said, they thought it was going to be a war of movement and be over very quickly so the commanding officers needed vaster areas in their maps just to try and be able to move long distances at short notice. And the red dots indicate old fortresses of pre-war Europe and if we just go back you can see a number of those dotted around. So just bear in mind when you’re using these records, they will vary in quality and detail.
Moving on to photographs; again, they’re broken down by theatre of war. WO 316 are Western Front photographs and just here on the right you can see the different subseries, the different types, groups of photographs that we have. I’m going to just show you panoramas taken from the artillery. We have about 15 or 16 of these photos for different areas of the line. It’s not going to cover the whole Western front, it’s not going to cover every battlefield but if you’ve got a battalion that you’re interested in, which did fight at Loos or Lens or the Somme, you might want to have a look at these just to get more of an idea of the lay of the land, just to add again to your perspective, give you a new insight into what conditions might have been like.
These roll out and they can be about a metre in length. Here’s one for the Somme, so you can see then lie of the land, is it hilly, is there any high positions that would be keenly fought over. It indicates where wooded areas are in the distance and any villages or towns which again might be keenly fought over as the offensive moves forward. And as you roll it out, you come to a section which covers High Wood, which we saw in the trench maps and you can see in the near vicinity here, obviously the extensive damage caused to the wooded area, obviously there might be more wooded area in the actual far distance. But it just gives you a new perspective on what the actual land looked like, was it hilly, was there any cover for the men as they would be attacking, it can add to the actual written accounts that are made.
I’m now going to move on to more records that are more specific to individual soldiers, but again they can be used to draw out information on particular battalions or units of the British Army.
I’m going to start with prisoner of war interview reports in WO 161. They are available online and can be downloaded from our website. Go to ‘Our online records’, just at the bottom here, on the right of the homepage. Select ‘Army [and conscription]’ and at the bottom you’ve got ‘Prisoner of war interview reports [1914-1918]’.
You can search by name, so as you’re working through a regimental history or unit war diary, you should be noting down any officers or men that were captured or taken prisoner or wounded or missing, but you can also just search, in that third box there, by the regiment name. So I searched ‘West Kent’ and it brought me up a series of results. You’ve just got to look out for two different types of results. The top option there is for W. Tucker of the 8th Battalion Royal West Kents.
It says quite clearly in the title and description ‘report not printed’, so if you downloaded that report, it would just be a list of names of soldiers who’s reports weren’t printed so you won’t get any detail of their time as a prisoner. Underneath, for CAWP Selby, an England cricket captain in the making with those initials, you’ve got his report which doesn’t say ‘report not printed’ and you’ve got here, it just indicates, the exact date he was captured so we can be pretty sure that there’s going to be a report there.
Now most of these will start from the point at which the man was captured, so won’t give you any details on the events that led up to the capture. But some of them do contain that information, as this report does here for Captain Lowe of the West Yorkshire Regiment.
At the top he indicates the positions of the various units and brigades that he knew at the start of the day as they went into battle. This is on the 20th September 1914 so quite early in the war. And then he goes on to detail the French position on their right and then there were two major events that happened which undermined the position of his particular unit.
First event, the French withdrew on their right flank leaving them exposed and then it started to rain heavily and the British rifles began to jam with the mud and so the actual resistance that could be offered by this particular battalion just reduced and reduced until they were cut off and the wounded and those cut off were captured by the enemy. So you can just begin to see how these records could be used to just get a better idea of what happened to a particular unit on a particular day if you come across a war diary entry or a regimental history entry. Again there are variations in quality; you might come across reports which look like this, which give you one word answers and are just focused on their period in captivity, which won’t give you the information that you’re hoping to find. So just bear that in mind as you’re going through, it will be a bit of trial and error until you come across one.
We also have correspondence from the Prisoners of War and Aliens department, the Foreign Office, from 1915 to 1919 in the record series FO 383. These volumes will come into book volumes. You can start searching by going to ‘Looking for a person’ signpost, under ‘Prisoners of war and conscientious objectors’ there on the left you’ve got British prisoners of war up till the First World War, which includes the First World War and you can search that series by name. So again, if you’re making note of the names, you can search by name, but you can also search by regiment so you can put ‘West Kent’ into discovery and FO 383 and they will pick up those results because they’ve been extensively catalogued. And you’ll need these catalogue descriptions when you’ve ordered up the individual piece because it will give you a rough idea of the order those pieces of correspondence come in. They’re not numbered and it can be quite tricky, there can be hundreds of folios of correspondence in one book so you need to work with these descriptions to help you find your specific entry a little easier.
A good example of what you can find is from Private Burns of the 2nd Battalion Royal West Kent regiment. He was captured with half the battalion at Kut in Mesopotamia in 1916; he gives about a four page report of his time in captivity. Luckily for Private Burns, when the surrender took place he was actually sick and so he was sent to Bagdad via boat whereas the other ranks, generally, were forced to march into captivity, which was quite a horrendous experience. He, in hospital in Bagdad, he details that he met up with other British prisoners of war including Private Bradford of the 2nd Royal West Kent Battalion, who details some of the experiences, specifically that the guards had been beating the prisoners, with whips and the butts of the rifles and that food wasn’t very good and that men were being left on the roadside too exhausted to carry on.
Other accusations from that same period will point to local tribesmen attacking the soldiers as well. So again you can begin to see how these reports from prisoners, specific individuals, can detail information about a particular unit and their experiences, either on the battlefield or when taken in, say, captivity. Again, they can vary in detail and quality. You do all the searching, say for Sergeant A Scrase from the 8th Battalion Royal West Kents and all you do after taking all that time to get the volume and actually find where it is in the volume, it’s just this small sheet detailing his concerns about a specific prisoner of war camp in Germany. So again, you can vary in the detail which is included.
We have officer service records as well which can be used: WO 339 and WO 374. If again, you’re finding that officers were being captured at a period when your relative was fighting with a certain battalion. You might want to look in their service record to see if they have a confidential report regarding their circumstances of capture.
You can search on discovery by name but you should be prepared to use the digital index which is free to download and if you’ve got a common name which you’re searching for, that’ll just help you identify the correct file to order up. Lieutenant Archibald Allan Bowman, from the Highland Light Infantry, has one of these reports attached and this is just solely on the events of the day he was captured. And so you can see that if they survive and they’re in good quality, they can contain extensive information and quite detailed information of a battlefield experience for a particular unit on one given day.
He goes on to just describe for his unit, the 10th, 11th Highland Light Infantry, that on the day in question, they were already low on ammunition, they didn’t have any reserve of ammunition left, they didn’t have any trench bombs to be able to attack or defend against the Germans. And then on this second page you have a very detailed sketch map that’s included and it just goes on again to explain that the units in his flank or in the positions to this particular Highland Light Infantry battalion, were eventually pushed back exposing this unit who were cut off and the Germans, using their trench bombs, ironically, were able just to finally force a surrender of this particular officer and the men he was fighting with. And as you can see, a very detailed sketch map again which can add to your perspective of what a particular unit was experiencing. So again by using an individual’s perspective you can add to this perspective of what a whole battalion or the men of a battalion might have been experiencing on that day.
I’m going to finish with a case study of the 8th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment at the battle of Loos in 1915. Their Regimental History in our library confirms that the battalion was part of the 72nd Brigade of the 24th Division which moved to France on the 29th August 1915. It indicates that the battalion only received its service rifles in July, and that’s not to say they couldn’t shoot, but obviously it raises questions over their sort of training and preparation.
The 8th Battalion History, they had their own history published, which was available through the Kent local library service and the Regimental History in Maidstone, reveals that in August, before they went to France, the division was due to undertake trench warfare training at Cobham Common but was abandoned due to very bad weather. And when you consider the weather that the men would have experienced throughout the war, it’s quite incredible that that happened. And trench-to-trench attacks and consolidation techniques were thus not experienced by the men of this division, by the brigade, by the battalion as before they went overseas. The regimental history then describes what happened on the 26th of September. Less than a month after going overseas, the battalion attacked between Hulluch and Lens at the battle of Loos. Of the 24 officers and 800 men, only one officer and 250 men remained, as they described, effective. The 9th East Surreys which were also part of the Brigade who were attacking alongside the West Kents, were also wiped out and it was the British artillery fire had not been able to break the German wire and so the German machine guns positions in the flank were able to bring down a devastating fire on the troops.
As we mentioned earlier, sometimes the unit war diaries just won’t contain the detailed information you’re hoping to find. There for the 26th, just towards the bottom, there it says, ‘Attack Hulluch, lose three quarters of battalion’, and then it moves on. Obviously the battalion would have been completely re built after this, so it doesn’t have the detail we are looking for, so you could move to see if there is a prisoner-of-war interview report which might give us some more background information.
I found one for Captain Hutchinson of the battalion and who details at the top that at first the battalion were attacking down the slope before having to attack up slope by the lay of the land and that two German groups of soldiers moved into the flank positions from in front of them, taking on the left, Hulluch village and on the right, a wooded area. He then goes on down the bottom, just to point out that the machine gun fire, concealed in that wooded area and that machine gun fire and artillery from Hulluch village from the enemy, became more deadly and more targeted on the men as the advance came to a halt and obviously had a devastating impact.
Perhaps to highlight the impact of the fighting over these two days, we can use the situation maps for the battle of Loos in WO 153/144. This is the position, the British position on the night of the 25th of September and just in the middle there, you can see the 72nd Brigade, that was their position as they were about to go into the fighting the next day. And just along here, it doesn’t come out great, but you just see here, some wooded areas and then the village area that Captain Hutchinson was talking about. And so the brigade, including the 8th Battalion Royal West Kents, would be attacking through here and it’s the next map which really highlights the devastating day that was experienced by that battalion, that brigade and the brigades alongside as we can see that the line has just been smashed back by the Germans. And whereabouts the 72nd Brigade started and obviously alongside some of the other brigades it’s been absolutely wiped out. And when you look for the next day, there’s a map for the next night, the 27th. That line has been re-established back to where it was the day before. And we have some photographs for Loos; these are taken about six months later on but it gives you an idea of the layout of the land.
You can see quite clearly the white chalk stands out from all the old trench systems. And as you roll it out you begin to see that slope which Captain Hutchinson had been speaking about, which the men had to run up and you see the wooded areas in the distance which would have concealed the German defensive positions. And when they weren’t able to advance any further it was those positions, that deadly fire, that obviously destroyed the battalion.
So on that gloomy note, we’ve looked then today that regimental histories and war diaries will give you the key dates, the key locations and quite comprehensive information about what had been experienced by each individual unit. And you should be prepared to move through the level commands to find additional information, moving from battalion to brigade to division and even higher up that chain of command.
Trench maps and photographs can add perspective to published battle and offensive situations; that might just make it a little bit easier to understand those written and published material. And records even to relating to specific individuals can give you more information about battle field experiences of individual units. And as we saw at the end there, the very end, with the 8th battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment, if you can use regimental museums and local archives to find any additional, personal accounts, again they can be used just to improve and increase your knowledge and understanding of what was happening to a particular unit at a given time at the front.
That’s it from me. Thank you for your time.
Transcribed by Matthew Vernon as part of a volunteer project, January 2015.