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Article posted: July 3, 1998



World War One Unit Diaries
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles


This week I am going to talk about individual soldiers' records from world War I, the ones which Glenn Wright has said describe, "every aspect of a soldier's life and activity from enlistment to demobilisation." There are many other kinds of records which will also be worth examining if you have a military ancestor.

War diaries were kept by all units in the field. From your relation's personal record, you will be able to determine what unit he joined. You can read the unit's actual diaries from the battles they fought or their times off the line in England or France.

While you might find your relation mentioned, often the officers are the only ones whose names are included, However, others might appear if they had acted in a particularly brave or unusual fashion.

Depending on your view of the war, you should be prepared for some matter of fact descriptions of the most harrowing events. I spent a week before Christmas of 1978 reading the war diaries of the 9th Royal Ulster Rifles for the first battle of the Somme in 1916. On 1st of July of that year (12 July in the old Julian calendar, and still known as "The Black twelfth" in Belfast), 800 soldiers made an early morning attack on the German lines.

There were extraordinary feats of bravery. The colonel commanding the regiment, Frank Crosier, ended the day with his uniform torn by bullets in several places, but without a wound. Less than 80 of the brave Ultermen returned. There were so few, the regiment had to be disbanded. Each unit will also have a file giving details of its life in the military.

They will describe the official view of what happened to the various regiments and brigades. You may remember the scenes in "Gone with the Wind" when the civilians gathered at the newspaper office to read the casualty lists as they came of the press. It was the quickest way to learn who had been wounded. These lists were also compiled by the Canadian Government during World War I. Enquire about these various records at the National Archives of Canada, 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N3 If your solider died, his grave is cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has an Ottawa office. They will be able to give you the exact location of the grave and details of its care. The government of France ceded the land occupied by the cemeteries to the British Empire in 1915.

If your relation belonged to the Royal Flying corps or the infant Royal Canadian Air Force, his personnel files will be gone. However, they have a card index describing each airman as best they can. This file can be seen at the Directorate of History, Department of National Defence, in Ottawa. Navy files are also scanty, but they have casualty lists, also at the Directorate of History.

If your relative won a gallantry medal while fighting with the Canadian forces in World War I, he will be listed in a new series of books published by Kirkby-Malton Press (P.O. Box 24027, 1853 Grant Avenue, Winnipeg, MB, R3N 2B1). David Riddle and Donald Mitchell have compiled lists of those receiving the Distinguished Service Order ($19.00), the Military Cross ($29.00); the Distinguished Conduct Medal ($27.00), a total of 5999 awards.

Given the social structure of the time, these medals will have gone almost exclusively to officers. You should be able to find these books in the reference section of your local library.

If you have a connection with a winner of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for courage in the British Empire, you will find his story in a number of books listed in your library's catalogue under "Victoria Cross."



Books By Ryan Taylor

Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.

Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997



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