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Photo gallery: Thousands of diaries from the First World War, including those from the Norfolk Regiments, are put online as part of centenary celebrations

PUBLISHED: 13:28 15 January 2014 | UPDATED: 14:08 15 January 2014

Victoria van Hyning from Zooniverse carries boxes of diaries from the First World War as the diaries are going online for the first time to mark the organisation's centenary programme, at the National Archives in Kew, west London.

Victoria van Hyning from Zooniverse carries boxes of diaries from the First World War as the diaries are going online for the first time to mark the organisation's centenary programme, at the National Archives in Kew, west London.

About 300,000 pages of unit diaries from the First World War have been put online, giving people a more detailed picture of life in the trenches and beyond.

The digitisation of the records by the National Archives ties in with the organisation’s centenary celebrations and allows those interested in military history or their ancestors role in the war the chance to read first-hand reports from the front line.

The first set of diaries to be put online are from France and Flanders and include reports from the Norfolk Regiment, which expanded from three battalions to as many as 16 from 1914 to 1918.

According to the Norfolk Regimental Museum, at least one in three men in the county joined the forces during the First World War - 100,000 in all, posted to the Western Front, Gallipoli or the Middle East.

Professor Thomas Otte from the School of History at UEA welcomed the digitisation of the diaries, saying it was “always a good idea for people to have access to historical material”.

“These diaries are very varied,” he said.

“Some of them can be quite dry, while others can be quite lively. It’s the little stories that sometimes throw a revealing light on what actually happened on the front line.”

Professor Otte added that war office records from the First World War were a popular search by genealogists, but that these diaries offered much more insight than previous official records.

“You can try to explain what happened on the front line by looking at supply figures and tacticle objectives, but sometimes it takes the human story to get the essence of what life was like,” he said.

The diaries cover the entire period of the units involvement in the war and some include maps, pictures, orders and instructions.

Entries in the diary of the 6th Division of the 9th Norfolk Regiment from January to December 1917 include descriptions of the trenches, German attacks and loss of life.

Some are brief and lacking in emotion, listing casualties, the wounded and those who have been subject to gas attacks. But others go into more detail - one describing the “most tragic incident of the tour...when a garrison of a trench on the right front was almost annihilated”.

The 1st Battalion of the of the Norfolk Regiment was involved in the First World War from beginning to end, taking part in most of the major actions, while the 8th Battalion was made up of local volunteers, who went overseas in in 1915 and took part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1915.

The 2nd Battalion was sent to Mesopotamia (now Iraq) to fight Turkish troops, where it suffered great losses.

The 9th Battalion suffered heavy losses on September 26, 1915 in Vermelles near Loos, when they lost about 209 men and on September 15, 1916 on the Somme, when they came under ‘friendly fire’ from their own tanks. A total of 431 men were killed or wounded that day.

Culture secretary, Maria Miller said: “The National Archives’ digitised First World War unit diaries will allow us to hear the voices of those that sacrificed their lives and is even more poignant now there are no living veterans who can speak directly about the events of the war.”

Once complete, the diaries will comprise more than 1.5 million pages - revealing the daily activities of each unit.

Diary extracts from the 6th Division of the 9th Norfolk Regiment on the Western Front: (OR = Other Ranks)

11/03/1917 – 2nd Lieut MWL Spratt was awarded the Military Cross.

One of our aeroplanes came down in flames, behind our lines, both pilot and observer being killed.

Much aerial activity being displayed this day. Machines from both sides up all day. Much anti-aircraft shelling and machine gun activity.

A very warm and bright day.

14/03/1917 – Patrolled No Man’s Land to a point where entry might be possible, in the forthcoming raid, they stayed for 20 mins near Boshe front line and returned, reporting that no enemy could be seen.

23/04/1917 – At 4.10am, a hostile party, estimated 20 strong attempted to raid C Coy, who were the centre front company.

Four of the raiders got through the wire before they were observed.

On the alarm being given two Lewis guns opened fire and bombs were thrown at the raiders.

The enemy turned and ran, leaving two of their dead in our wire.

Other casualties were almost certainly inflicted. The raiders belonged to the 72nd regiment. Our casualties were nil.

29/04/1917 – At 2am the 46th Division bombarded the enemy trenches on our front and flank and fired gas projectors into Cite St Laurent.

This provoked further hostile retaliations. Consequently, during the 24 hours from noon 28th to noon 29th, our casualties were exceptionally heavy.

1 officer 2/Lt HE Dodson and 
11 OR killed, 2 OR died of wounds, 2 officers Capt AJG Crosse and 2 Lieut Coleman and 6 OR gassed, 31 OR wounded or 53 in all.

The rest of the day, for this front at least, was comparatively quiet.

30/04/1917 – During this period, the Battalion was on the offensive front opposite Hill 70. The trenches were dry, but wide and greatly battered.

In the front line there was little or no protection from shellfire. All the trenches had been accurately registered by the German artillery. Much sniping too was done by the German field guns.

The front trenches were unwired. Communication between Battalion HQ and Companies was difficult and depended entirely on orderlies, who fortunately carried out a dangerous task with marked efficiency.

During the incessant shelling, all attempts at establishing telephone communication had to be abandoned.

Our casualties for the seven days totalled five officers and 108 OR, including 2 officers and 36 OR killed.

The most tragic incident of the tour occurred on the last morning, when the garrison of a trench on the right flank was almost annihilated.

Between 11am and noon, the Germans methodically bombarded the dug-outs with 8-inch armour piercing shells and lighter guns. The dug-outs were blown in.

Of the 1 officer and 36 OR who formed the garrison, 20 OR were killed and buried, the officer and 14 OR were wounded and 2 OR escaped unwounded.

- Professor Otte’s book on July 1914 is coming out this summer published by Cambridge University Press.

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