Analysis of a War Diary

My latest lockdown activity, continuing my research into the 1st Battalion The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), arose from a simple question – just how did the battalion spend the war? The answer involved going through the battalion war diary day by day. I started recording what it was doing, but this quickly evolved to capture more data – where did it start and end the day, was it in action, were there any casualties, and how many men transferred in and out? This has provided a rich set of data, and some of the initial findings are presented below.

From initial mobilisation (4 August 1914) until the Armistice was declared was a period of 1,561 days. The battalion arrived in France on 13 August 1914, thus spending 1,552 days on active service overseas. Of this period 20% was spent in Belgium and 80% in France.

Day-by-day categorisation of the battalion’s war diary was used to build up a picture of the battalion’s activities for the duration of the war. The predominant activity of the day was recorded and the war diary descriptions consolidated to give a summary view (for example route marches have been recorded as ‘training’).

The breakdown of how the battalion’s time was spent is as follows:

ActivityNumber of days%
Training / general routine67443%
In the line31320%
On the move17211%
Working parties1308%
Cleaning & refitting / rest916%
Parade / inspection574%
In support302%
In reserve292%

The bulk of the battalion’s time was spent either on general routine or training. Twenty percent of the war was spent ‘in the line’, and just over 10% moving around between locations. Working parties accounted for 130 days, or 8%. The remainder of the time was spent either carrying out relief/being relieved, resting and refitting, on parades and inspections, or in support or reserve (this figure is probably higher as ‘in the line’ is not always denoted as front/support/reserve).

The battalion participated in the Retreat from Mons, the Aisne, First Ypres, Loos, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, the Battle of the Lys, and the final 100 days advance. Yet in terms of being in ‘action’ (for this purpose defined as active engagement with the enemy, i.e. conducting an attack or raid, or being subjected to the same), perhaps surprisingly this only accounts for 63 days of the war, or 4% of the battalion’s time overseas. However, that is not to say that casualties were not incurred even when the battalion was not in action, for example through shelling, illness, or accidents. The battalion suffered casualties (defined as killed, wounded, or missing) on 239 days of the war, which equates to 15%. Its longest spell without casualties (according to the war diary) was a period of 89 days, commencing in February 1915 and ending in May 1915 when it went back into the line near Bethune.

The war diary also regularly detailed the number of reinforcements the battalion received. This shows that on top of the original 1,000 men who embarked with the battalion in August 1914, another 5,000 men served in the battalion, equating to a battalion’s strength several times over. This is a figure I certainly wasn’t expecting. Coupled with the fact that at the end of the war just 17 of the battalion’s original members were still serving in its ranks, it serves to highlight the change that the battalion went through and raises further questions about its identity both as a Regular battalion and a Surrey battalion. However the diary also shows that nearly a quarter of the men transferred out of the battalion during the war.

The casualty figures provided in the war diary were also recorded. This poses a number of problems, for example in some cases (such as after Gheluvelt), only a total figure rather than a breakdown of killed, wounded, or missing is given.

The diary gives a total of 4,867 men killed, wounded or missing during the war – equating to 77% of the men who passed through the battalion. Even discounting those listed as missing (1,185 men) on the assumption that at least some of them would have turned up safe, somewhere in the region of 45%-60% of the men who served with the battalion were either killed or wounded. Of course ‘wounded’ covers a broad spectrum and could include anything from minor injuries or ailments requiring only brief treatment, to more serious battle injuries necessitating evacuation. Perhaps understandably the war diary seems to understate the number of men killed (621 – excluding days where killed, wounded and missing are lumped together), with some of those who died being listed as wounded or missing at the time the figures were recorded.

Using the casualties listed on the CWGC database (1,561) as a proportion of the men who served gives a casualty figure of 25%, i.e. a quarter of men who served with the battalion were killed/died.

Some of the battalion’s casualties listed on the Menin Gate

This exercise has produced some interesting results. Given the battalion’s service and battle honours I had expected it to be ‘in action’ for a higher number of days than it was. I was also surprised by just how many men passed through the ranks of the battalion during the war. There is further work to be done to understand how the composition of the battalion changed and how effective it was as a fighting unit.

As a standalone piece the numbers provide some interesting insights into the war experience of one battalion – ultimately it would be interesting to see how the figures compare to other Regular, Territorial and New Army battalions. If anyone is aware of a similar exercise carried out on other battalions, or has any thoughts on the results, please feel free to leave a comment.

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4 Responses to Analysis of a War Diary

  1. Operation War Diary did similar categorisation of unit’s activities. There is a research fellow working on the data now so hopefully something will finally be published which would give a wider view across the BEF

  2. Matt Ball says:

    Interesting post from a lot of hard work. Will be doing something similar with QORWK.

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