Understanding War Diaries

Discussion in 'Unit History' started by hutt, May 10, 2013.

  1. hutt

    hutt Member

    A lot of us are new to this forum plus often have no military background. I have been reading quite a few diaries now and have indeed posted a number of times for information in understanding abbreviations etc. Thanks to those who reply.

    What I am still lacking is an overall understanding how they were used at the time and whether they were ever expected to form long term historical records. I am also interested if anyone has any 'instructions' from the era on how they were to be compiled, particularly as the 30+ that I have so far copied and read have considerable differences in level of detail, style and content. Many record grid references and named places, others simply 'in the field'.

    I am also amazed that many are typewritten. I can understand that for a more 'static' formation like a depot, workshop or storage unit but the most detailed and neatest diary so far has probably been for a Royal Artillery Regiment on winter mountaintops in Italy! Who actually wrote them or were they typically written or typed up by a Clerk from dictation from a senior officer or did people use Shorthand as I know there were shorthand courses listed in the Diary of a RASC Training Depot.

    I am also interested in one of the supplementary bits of paperwork that is often included. This is the 'Field Return of other Ranks'. Split into Part A, B and C Description of other Ranks whose return to the Unit is particularly requested, what exactly did they mean by particularly, surely any man absent for medical, training or secondment should have been recorded or was this a way of units trying to make sure men did not get purloined elsewhere particularly if they had a useful additional skill or trade?

    Hopefully any replies can give a good foundation for newcomers to the forum.
  2. PsyWar.Org

    PsyWar.Org Archive monkey

    The one thing you can guarantee about war diaries is that they are hugely inconsistent!

    I've copied a war diary which covered one year. It was 12 pages in total with a line drawn across every page with the notation "Nothing of significance to report"!

    Yesterday was copying the month of May 1944 for the 1 Kensingtons, over 600 pages of diary pages, operational orders, message forms, maps and tracings, aerial photographs, German propaganda leaflets, and various other goodies.

    But certainly the diaries from Italy and NW Europe are more voluminous than earlier and Far Eastern ones.

  3. amberdog45

    amberdog45 Senior Member

    Just out of curiousity Lee were all WW1 diaries hand written? I've only seen one so far. Had to look it up, but typewriters have been around since 1860.
  4. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran


    Thanks to one of our delightful forum members, I was given a full set of War Diaries relating to both of my former regiments and this particular form also fascinated me. For a few weeks in March'44 whilst my unit was at Cassino, I was sent into dock at Naples for a minor ailment.
    Since I was given the full Regimental War Diary records, I have been scanning the forms that deal with "request return of these men" looking in vain to see if I got a mention :) To date no joy !

  5. PsyWar.Org

    PsyWar.Org Archive monkey

    Yes mostly handwritten in pencil. Real difficult to read sometimes.
    I think I recall a GHQ WWI diary that was type written. The wide width of the WWI diary pages might have been an issue for portable typewriters.
    Plus general cost of them in WWI as well I guess.
  6. Brian Smith

    Brian Smith Junior Member

    Hi hutt

    Not too sure about shorthand but those of those kept by the Companies I have seen could have done with a hand writing course.

    Was the hand writing deliberately so bad so that it could not be read if the diary fell in to enemy hands?

    Squinting as I go Brian
  7. Richard Lewis

    Richard Lewis Member

    Hello Hutt,

    Here's a cover (Army form C2119A) for War Diaries. You'll see that instructions are inside.

    I've wondered why most seem to be handwritten. The orders etc attached to the diaries are typewritten, so typewriters were available. As Lee suggests, was it the width of the War Diary form? In the case of 8th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers the diaries for May 1940 (covering the dash to Dunkirk) were compiled some months later on plain paper and neatly typewritten, whereas all others on AF C2118 are handwritten.


    Attached Files:

  8. bexley84

    bexley84 Well-Known Member

    The war diaries are indeed inconsistent in style and content but in my view, that's the "delight" for the anorak amongst us.

    Some battalion ones refer extensively to appendices, others muse at length about what the rations are like, The Brigade ones that I've seen may include screes of narratives - some in novel form. Maps can be included, some hand drawn, some original 1940s versions with markings.

    Some are typed carefully, some handwritten in pen or pencil and clearly been exposed to the elements. Some months are missing during difficult periods - eg Anzio in Feb 1944.

    The skill of the author can differ - I guess the adjutant would have been technically responsible, but no doubt a number of scribes were involved. a bloke who lives up the road from me recognised a turn of phrase that might have been used by his father, who was IO of a rifle battalion.

    Once in a very blue moon, you might spot a direct reference to your Dad or someone you've met and will be meeting in the near future...

    It's like a logical jigsaw when you can put several diaries together for the same action and then get quite different perspectives and these then map into personal narratives and personal diary entries..

    I like them...not sure if I like standing at Kew for 8 hrs though..
  9. hutt

    hutt Member

    Thanks to all for sharing experiences of different war diary ‘styles’.
    They are certainly a mixed bag and so far I think I have been quite lucky in getting some useful information as I try and construct the narrative of my fathers time in WW2. I have also been lucky in finding my fathers name in the ‘return of other ranks’ section of his 2 main units plus the dates link with his medical record and (now we have it) the xii dates in his service record, all of which I find fascinating that the army tracked and recorded so much in such precise detail and that it’s still accessible 70 years later!

    Ron, sorry to hear you’ve yet to find your own name. Those ‘return of other ranks’ forms can either be very well completed for months at a time or completely non-existent. I guess it’s the luck of the draw.

    Richard? / Bexley84, it seems I have not been alone in finding them quite addictive and have been fortunate to be able to find a number covering the different ‘layers’ of formations so for instance on my last visit I tracked down the diaries for company and corps levels so I now have 3 parallel diaries tracking one particular RASC unit with many events recorded more than once plus I also have the diary for the RA regiment they were primarily supplying at one point. Coupled with map references (often recorded in more than one diary) and the site that translates the coordinates, it is possible in the case of most of Italy to use Google Maps and StreetView and ‘virtually’ visit the locations themselves or ‘drive’ some of the mountain roads connecting them. The Italian campaign was certainly fought in some beautiful country but I doubt few were in a position to appreciate it.

    I don’t know how other people collate this info but I have constructed a large Excel spread sheet that effectively timelines the whole of my father’s service from the TA in 37 through to demob in 46. I’ve added transcriptions of his main unit diary entries, locations and map references, details from his service record, dates and addresses of letters to him of which I have about 100+, details of medical events (these record hospital and ccs visits), leave passes, photos (especially if dated) and as a result, I probably know exactly where he was on a daily basis for a good chunk of his service . Even where he’s not mentioned by name, some unit diary entries record ORs joining or leaving on dates that tie up precisely with the medical or service record. I just wish I could have asked him to check it!

    If anyone has followed my earlier posts about Operation Dodge, those diaries are still not yet back at Kew.

    Oh, and after a day at Kew with a camera, my back and legs are certainly in need of a rest!

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