Divisional Diversion

My house is awash with books; most rooms contain between one and four bookcases and only one of those bookcases contain anything other than military history.  This is the bookcase housing all the Great War divisional histories, plus some histories of individual units.  All divisions numbered 1-75 for which there is a published history, plus Royal Naval Division and Fifth Australian Division.

According to the Order of Battle Of Divisions, eight didn’t leave the UK (64, 65, 67, 68, 69, 71,  72 and 73) and so there is no history and for some reason there was no 70th Division, period!   A divisional history was not written for another twenty-four, but each history that was published has individual characteristics; there was no set protocol for what should be included and what not, it was simply a case of who decided to write them.  Often it was middle-ranking officers.

Half a dozen divisions commissioned a professional writer to write their histories i.e. author and journalist Richard Everard Wyrall. Some divisions have two histories; the second of the 38th’s is exclusively devoted to the last five weeks of the war.

The 32nd Division’s history is only that of its Artillery and Trench Mortar, told through the eyes of the diaries and memories of personnel, including the Divisional Artillery Chaplain. 

Some histories are tiny, others very large or in two volumes.  The size of the 33rd Division’s  publication is too big for the bookcase, but compare the style, content and layout to the tiny history of the 49th Division at Lens.

The Great War Group decided to make a small dent in the unwritten histories by writing up the history of one of them, deciding upon the 14th Light Infantry Division.  It was determined that the first task would be to transcribe the individual unit war diaries for that division, which is obviously a mammoth undertaking.  The aim is to produce a good quality history; this will be a long term project!

In the Founders’ Note to the second Salient Points journal of the Great War Group, we discover that there are nearly 150 volunteers working on the transcription project, of which I am one, working at a far slower pace than many others, but I am sure I am not the only tortoise!  It can be frustrating at times when the handwriting of a diary entry is illegible and calls often go out to Twitter with accompanying screenshots asking for help in deciphering a single word or more.  It is also the fact that there are variations of the level of detail and scarcity of information can be annoying.

This is not a problem in the diary I am transcribing! Learning is all part of the process, even small minutiae e.g. I discovered there is such a thing as a two-wheeled horse drawn cart called a maltese after asking Twitterstorians.

Many of us are getting enormous satisfaction from the process and diversions are an occupational hazard!  For example, on 13th August 1915 Captain T.E.F. Penney, 6th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry recorded in the battalion war diary that another unit of their brigade, 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, had 40 men buried from the debris caused by a large shell which landed in the crypt of St. Martin’s Cathedral, Ypres in which they were located.  This caused me to download the 6th DCLI diary for more details – one of those rabbit holes down which researchers often disappear!

When 43rd Brigade relieved 42nd Brigade on 10th August 1915, the units were dispersed to various locations in Ypres. C & D Companies 6th DCLI, went into St Martin’s Cathedral, at the southern wing where the cloisters were almost untouched.  On 12th August 1915 just after 6 a.m. the enemy commenced shelling the vicinity of the cloisters, but the men inside thought they were safe and stayed put. Eventually the gunners got their range correct and a direct hit brought down most of the west end of the cloister ceiling, burying several men.  Shellfire continued for five hours.  Many of the men inside who escaped and went to rescue their comrades were, themselves, buried.  An officer and the adjutant were killed outside the cloisters just as they arrived to try to help.  The shellfire was from a German 17” gun in Houlthurst Forest nearly 10 miles away.

2 Officers killed, 2 wounded, 18 Other Ranks killed, 19 wounded, 5 men rescued from the rubble.

Amongst the Other Ranks killed was 20 year old Lance Corporal Fred Dubbins from Putney in south-west London and he was laid to rest in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. I have been to visit his grave because his campaign medals are lodged close to me as part of a larger collection to the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

I am hoping for a personal eureka moment as transcription progresses. I am transcribing the diary for the unit my great uncle joined in September 1915, 6th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, but have only just finished August.  As a private he is unlikely to be mentioned, but you never know because, at this period anyway, the diary is being written by an officer who goes into a lot of detail and he often mentioned other ranks by name, usually casualties.  My great uncle, 23567 Private Alfred Ebdon, enlisted on 28th December 1914 and his Medal Index Card indicates that he went overseas on 3rd September 1915.  He became a casualty in 1917 and the War Badge Roll shows that he was discharged 4th June 1917 after receiving a gun shot wound to the left thigh.  Unfortunately, I neither have a photo of him nor know the whereabouts of his campaign medals and silver war badge.

So, onwards with #team14thDivision transcription!

N.B. Apologies for the quality of the images, but you get the general idea!

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