Many people’s image of World War I is something like this: shellshocked men, stuck for weeks or months in rain-filled trenches, enduring artillery bombardments and deadly raids from the enemy, before going "over the top" in fruitless raids of their own. Rinse. Repeat.
It's an image that has become familiar from war poetry, novels and even television series like Downton Abbey. But a new study is challenging some of that myth.
By looking at the Unit War Diaries kept by the British Army, a group of historians have been able to piece together actual movement of troops on the Western Front. Professor Richard Grayson, who led the research, says that these records reveal that most British soldiers spent only a minority of their time at the frontline, and were frequently rotated away from the battlefield.
“They were under fire or firing at the enemy only during one in five of their days at the war,” he says. “So this does revise the view — learned from television — of men living in trenches from one year to the next. There are isolated examples of soldiers in trenches for weeks or months, but that was very, very unusual”.
Nevertheless, conditions at the front were often just as horrific as is popularly thought, according to Grayson. PTSD, or shellshock as it was then known, was very real. “Even though the men were not in the front line the majority of the time, knowing that you would have to go back, knowing that you were still at risk of death or serious injury, takes its own toll”.
These findings about troop movements come from a project known as Operation War Diary, which uses crowdsourced research of British military records to understand the war better. At the center of the project are the British Army’s regimental Unit War Diaries — an official record of each unit’s activities during the war. According to Grayson, the diaries have little personal information about individual soldiers, but they do record the position and activities of British forces on a day-to-day, and sometimes minute-to-minute, basis.