Those of you who have visited the ‘Military History‘ page on my website will know that I have been researching the background to the First World War military service of my grandfather, Charlie Payne. Following the well-worn trail of a number of similar authors I started off by concentrating on the Battalion war diaries available at our National Archives. As expected, they are full of useful information, and are an invaluable starting point for any researcher. However, I soon found, from some of the letters that Charlie had sent home, that he mentioned that he had been sent off from time to time to carry out tasks for other units (e.g. units of the Royal Engineers). In addition, I was also interested in getting information on the ‘bigger picture’ that he was involved with. After all, even at full strength a Battalion only contained about a 1000 men and there were hundreds of thousands of men on the Western Front.
Of course there are many excellent books that describe individual battles (e.g Bryn Hammond’s book on the Battle of Cambrai, that Charlie fought in, is outstanding), and others provide an excellent overview of a particular year of the conflict (e.g. John Terraine’s superb evaluation of the events of 1918, “To Win a War”) but these rarely provide detail of the planning and activities that influenced the day-to-day world of the poor bloody infantryman. At the time, Charlie himself would probably have been largely unaware of them.
However, in the last year or so I have come to realise that almost all the ‘bigger picture’ information’ can be located in the files containing the war diaries of the larger organisational units, i.e Brigade, Division etc. Not least, this is often where you will find copies of the maps you will need to get details of the original targets for an attack, the rate at which the artillery barrage would lift etc etc. In addition, these records will also provide details about engineering works taking place at specific points on the front, ‘intelligence reports’ on what the enemy was up to, artillery unit reports, medical reports on the state of health of the men (e.g. reports on the emergence of Spanish Flu) etc. etc. Only by reading the 62nd Division war diary was I able to understand what Charlie was up to when he had written home that he had been transferred to a ‘Water Job’ in April-May 1918.
Having read the diaries for Battalion, Brigade and Division, my next task will be to cover the Corps and Army versions. So far I am hugely impressed by the logistical skill and attention to detail displayed by the British Expeditionary Force in France (albeit that I’m concentrating on 1917-1919). For the experts amongst you, I am probably ‘teaching grandmother to suck eggs’. However, for those of you who are just starting out to follow the trail of an ancestor who served in the Army during 1914-1919, my advice would definitely be, start with the Battalion war diaries, but don’t just stop with them. It involves more work, but if you have ever been to the National Archives, you will know what ‘fun’ it can be!!