Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Education – Using Somme War Diaries

This post is an attempt at education on what officers did and how that affected casualties at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. This, and its follow ons, was inspired by a Twitter conversation after Friday’s post. I was asked about whether other ranks were sacrificed at the Battle of the Somme by officers. It was a form of Alan Clarke’s fallacy Lions led by donkeys. Here’s the tweet.

There are three parts to answering the questions.

  1. What did officers do in WW1 battles?
  2. What are the relative numbers of officers and other ranks in WW1 infantry battalions? (and how did this change as the battle progressed?)
  3. What do the casualties tell us?

British_infantry_Morval_25_September_1916Method of Education

For the first question I went back to my WW1 bookshelves. There are a few relevant tomes. I also drew on my personal education as a UOTC officer cadet between 1989-92 and years of reading military history.

On the second I consulted Nafzigers research on war establishments and also looked in war diaries for actual strengths. Theory and practice vary a lot in military units.

Reading the war diaries also helped with the third part of the question. Especially looking at differences between the 1st July attacks on the Somme and the later assaults. I also got some data from Appendix 5 in Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day of the Somme. That helped bulk out the numbers, but only covered the battalions with more than 500 casualties.

Education from Battalion War Diaries

These are interesting reads. They have now all been digitised, but aren’t yet universally free to view. I’m a cheapskate so only consulted those that were free to view. This might bias the results.

War Diaries vary according to the personality of the adjutant. They were usually written up at the end of each day, but in battles there can be gaps. Generally only officers are named, other ranks are usually just noted as totals. Also some adjutants were better than others at recording details.

What I did was to start reading in June. As I read I recorded the days on which joiners, leavers, casualties (Killed, Wounded or Missing) were recorded for Officers and Other Ranks separately. For each day where there was a change in strength I recorded the day, location, and how many officers or men counted in each category. I also made a note of anything significant at the end of the spreadsheet row. Where someone was wounded but remained on duty I recorded a joiner as well as a wounded so that the calculations didn’t reduce the strength. Unless otherwise noted by an explicit strength count I assumed that the unit was up to war establishment.

8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment

So far I’ve read two battalion war diaries, both from the East Surrey Regiment. The choice of regiment is because I knew they were all online after the Remembrance Challenge set for my cub pack.  You can see them at http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/war_diaries/war_diaries_home_new.shtml (which has both East & West Surrey Regiments available).

For example in June 1916 the Adjutant of the 8th Bn East Surrey Regt recorded the names of the other rank casualties. He also noted joiners and leavers. On the 1st July there are minute by minute entries. The war diary is incredibly detailed and runs to several pages, more than most months have. The loss of officers and men clearly has a major impact, and the details fade from 2 July. My tracking makes it clear that the new adjutant wasn’t properly recording officer arrivals. There must have been some, I can see new names in the details, but no record of when they joined. Most battalion war diaries are very clear on officers joining and leaving, if not on other ranks.

This spells out some of the drawbacks of war diaries. The reliability varies, and sometimes it needs quite a bit of detailed re-reading to extract the information that you need. I had to count named officers a couple of times to work out the officer strength. I had to assume that the only other ranks strength came from the larger counted drafts and that there weren’t men returning in ones and twos from hospital.

Finding War Diaries

Although all the war diaries have been digitised by the National Archives, there is a cost to downloading these. There are a number of sites, including the Queen’s Regiment linked above, that make war diaries available free of charge. If you know of any please let me know so that I can expand my sample.

Thanks.

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3 Comments
  1. That exchange reminds me of a paragraph in Mud, Blood and Poppycock about comparing raw numbers and proportions.

  2. That’s one of my sources!

  3. Pingback: Golden Chestnut 2016 - Military Muddling

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