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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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War Diaries

"The Company Commander, after a hard-fought action, sits down by the stump of a candle in a captured dugout to give his pencilled account of the battle. The results are compressed into iron limits of the battalion diary. The Commanders of Brigades, Divisions and Corps send in their reports dealing with the issue from the broader point of view of tactics and strategy."

Aitken, W.M. Canadian War Records Office: Report Submitted by the Officer in Charge. January 11, 1917, p. 2, RG 9, series III-D-I, vol. 4746.

From the start of the First World War, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) units were required to maintain a daily account of their "Actions in the Field." This log was called a War Diary. Since the mid-nineteenth century the British Army had kept historical records as a means of fostering regimental identity and traditions. The CEF adopted this practice, thanks in part to lobbying by the Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty (1860-1936) and the Anglo-Canadian newspaper proprietor Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964). Doughty and Aitken felt that Canada's contribution to the war should be fully documented and publicised and that records kept by units at the front would "furnish an accurate record of the operations from which the history of the war can subsequently be prepared." War Diaries were the most important of the various historical records that CEF units were required to keep.

This Web site contains contextual information and help for researchers wishing to use the digitised War Diaries of CEF infantry and artillery units, Brigade, Division and Corps commands and support units such as Railway and Forestry troops. The site also includes the War Diaries of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and British units that served under Canadian command. This site does not include documents relating to the Royal Canadian Air Force, or to the Royal Canadian Navy.

These are NOT personal diaries. War Diaries rarely record information about individual men because they were never intended to document individual service, and also due to the size of the unit to which a single War Diary referred. Infantry Diaries were recorded by battalions, which consisted of approximately 1,000 men. Artillery Diaries were most often kept by brigades, which numbered about 4,000 men. Command-level diaries recorded tactical and strategic information. Even so, once you have identified the unit in which you are interested, War Diaries provide the most complete first-hand record of how and where that unit was deployed and the wartime experiences of its individual members.

Units were only required to record their "Actions in the Field." Therefore, you will find very few Diaries for periods during which units were mustered in Canada, shipped to Europe, or trained in England. With this in mind, the contextual material that was prepared for this Web site, identifies the units that fought in a select number of battles. However, this is not the only way to access the Diaries. The search functions on this site make it possible for researchers to follow units from month to month, or to see the first-hand experiences of a single day.

Maintaining the unit's War Diary was generally the responsibility of a junior officer, who might in turn pass it on to a clerk. War Diaries were written by hand or typed on a standard legal-sized form that included the columns: "Place", "Date", "Hour", "Summary of Events and Information", and "Remarks and References to Appendices." Although the form outlined what information to capture, every unit interpreted what constituted a "historical record" somewhat differently, meaning that the richness of information researchers can find in these diaries varies greatly from unit to unit. These differences appear principally in the "Summary of Events and Information," the heading under which a narrative account of the unit's experiences was written. The information recorded in this column relied heavily on the writing style and ability of the person responsible for completing the diary. In some diaries, this column is a terse, point-form record of the most basic facts, while others contain lengthy, graphic and moving first-hand descriptions of life on the front lines and during trench warfare.

In addition to the War Diary form, units were required to attach copies of the administrative documents they received. These appendices include a variety of "General Orders" that regulated routine aspects of military life, like rations, transfers, discipline and promotions. In preparation for an attack, units received detailed "Operation Orders," which outlined the unit's mission and objectives, as well as other essential information like maps, intelligence reports, artillery timetables and code names. Longer narratives of events and reports on operations may also be found as appendices to some War Diaries. Researchers should note that not all these appendices are found in each War Diary.

At the end of every month, completed War Diary entries and the corresponding appendices were placed in a folder, on which was written the unit's name and the outside dates covered by the Diary. These folders were sent to British authorities until September 1916, when the British Army Council decreed that the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO) in London would be the repository for CEF Diaries. Headed by Aitken, the CWRO was responsible for collecting the historical records of the CEF and for publicizing the Canadian contribution to the war. In order to ensure the quality of the historical record, staff from the Library and Archives Canada worked at the CWRO examining the diaries for completeness and legibility, before cataloguing, indexing and making a photostatic copy for British authorities. These inspections made CWRO personnel aware of the large discrepancies in the information contained in individual War Diaries and so, by 1917, CWRO records officers were being deployed to France to train units in how to complete their War Diaries. Despite these efforts, the information continued to vary considerably from diary to diary.

The CEF War Diaries were shipped to Ottawa with the rest of the records held by the CWRO in the fall of 1919. Once in Canada, they came under the care and control of the Army Historical Section of the General Staff. There, the staff of Army Historian Colonel A.F. Duguid used these records to research a projected multi-volume "Official History of the CEF." Only one volume was ever completed. In 1962, the CWRO records, including the CEF War Diaries, were transferred to the Library and Archives Canada. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, who fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force, submitted their War Diary to British authorities, who subsequently transferred it to the Public Record Office in London, England. The Library and Archives Canada acquired a microfilm copy of it in 1985.

For More Information About the CEF War Diaries

Aitken, W.M. Canadian War Records Office: Report Submitted by the Officer in Charge. January 11, 1917. RG 9, series III-D-I, vol. 4746.

Marsden, Paul. "Shaping the Canadian Record of War in the 20th Century." Canadian Military History Since the 17th Century: Proceedings of the Canadian Military History Conference, Ottawa, 5-9 May 2000, pp. 455- 464.

McIntosh, Robert. "The Great War, Archives and Modern Memory." Archivaria 46, Fall 1998, pp. 1-31.