Researching Canadian Soldiers of the First World War

Part 4: War Diaries and Unit Histories

By Michael O'Leary; The Regimental Rogue


Once you have acquired the service record for your ancestor, and examined it for the dates he arrived at and left various units, you can now start to focus research efforts into the activities of those units while he served with them. Unless you have letters the soldier sent to family and friends, you may be limited to gaining a general understanding of the unit's activities to generalize his experiences. Without being able to place him specifically in a certain company or platoon at particular times, it will be difficult to narrow your area of study with precision. To examine the wartime activities of units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), we can seek out War Diaries and unit histories.

War Diaries

Each unit of the CEF was required to complete, in monthly submissions, a War Diary. The war diary consists of a daily entry summarizing the unit's activities for that day, and the monthly record was usually supplemented by the addition of orders or other communications sent or received, maps and other paperwork considered worthy of retention or that supported the diary's content. The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) provides a good description of the War Diaries, which includes this passage:

"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.

As so, for War Diaries of units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, we return to the Library and Archives Canada website, this time consulting the War Diaries of the First World War database.

The search form at the Library and Archives Canada War Diaries of the First World War database.

The introduction page at the Library and Archives Canada War Diaries of the First World War database.

The war diaries can be searched by unit name, date, or by year only. The database search results lead to set of page images for the relevant war diaries. The war diaries have not been transcribed and cannot be searched for text. Each war diary has been made available as individual page images, some of which are typrewriten and some of whick are hand written.

The search form at the Library and Archives Canada Soldiers War Diaries of the First World War database.

The search form at the Library and Archives Canada War Diaries of the First World War database.

Searching with dates can miss results depending on how dates have been added to the database for individual document sets. It is more effective to determine the exact unit name and search with that. Start with a generic name for the unit (e.g., "2nd Battalion" and examine the results to narrow and refine your search. For example, a search for "2nd Battalion" will result in 19 returned results, including all of the following units:

From this one example, it becomes obvious that knowing exactly which unit you are researching is a critical piece of information.

The results of a search of the Library and Archives Canada Soldiers War Diaries of the First World War database.

The results of a search of the Library and Archives Canada War Diaries of the First World War database.

If you are continuing to have difficulty finding the right War Diary, you may find some assistance through the CEF Study Group in their forum section War Diary Transcripts. There is also the Study Group's Matrix Project which includes this page on War Diary Lists.

Each returned result in a search of the War Diary database will provide a link to "Images associated with this entry". This link will lead to a longer list of individual image links for each page in the war diary.

The associated images for one record in the Library and Archives Canada Soldiers War Diaries of the First World War database.

The associated images for one record in the Library and Archives Canada War Diaries of the First World War database.

The amount and level of detail of content in the war diaries varies greatly. Some units probably considered the war diary an onerous and unwelcome task and very little information was included, others seemed to have a much better sense of the war diary as a method to capture their unit history and much detail was recorded. This also varies within individual diaries depending on the personalities of the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant, and the sense of importance given to particular activities and periods of time.

The following cropped image provides a glimpse of what may be found in a unit war diary.

A (cropped) image of one page of the war diary of the 2nd Canadian Machine Gun Battalion.

A (cropped) image of one page of the war diary of the 2nd Canadian Machine Gun Battalion. The full page may be seen here.

For each month of the war diary, examine both the recorded daily activities, but also the appendix pages. Some appendices will be orders for moves in and out of the trenches and give precise dates and locations for periods in the front lines. Other appendices may provide detailed descriptions of unit actions in battle or other details far exceeding the short notes in the war diary pages themselves.

To minimize the time taken to download and view each page of the war diary, consider using a bulk download utility to capture all of the pages in a war diary database result at once. A utility such as DownloadHelper for the Firefox browser, or Bulk Image Downloader for Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Opera, will let you capture all the images at once for a more leisurely pace of research. (I would recommend doing any mass downloads after working hours in Ottawa, when the LAC server will likely have the lowest bandwidth load.)

Published Unit Histories

Some units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force published unit histories soon after the War, others did so later and, unfortunately, some never did so. Even today, there are researchers and authors working to fill in some of those gaps on the virtual bookshelf of unit histories, so it can be worthwhile to renew your search for information periodically.

Some published unit histories are very rare, and very expensive when found for sale. Others are more available and some have been digitized and can be found on line. Internet searches for the unit name will often result in mentions of, if not links to, unit histories. Some CEF unit histories can be found online in the Internet Archive, where a search for the keywords "CEF" and "battalion" results in 49 returned results.

Results of a search of

Results of a search of "CEF" and "battalion" for texts in the Internet Archive. Note the keywords associated with the third result, which can aid in further searches.

Where a specific unit history does not exist, you may need to search out a Corps or formation (such as that of an Artillery Brigade) history. These may provide less information specific to your soldier's unit, but will provide a good overview of tasks and activities the units undertook.

This is also an alternative to the wartime unit having published a history. Each combat unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers) is or was formally perpetuated by a unit if the Canadian Militia, or Permanent Force. See Perpetuation of the Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.), 1914-1919 for an explanation of perpetuation and a link to tables showing what units now perpetuate CEF battalions.

From a research persepctive, the importance of perpetuation in the research of a First World War soldier is not that a later unit in Canada represented his unit's history and honours, but that that perpetuating unit may have published a history under their own unit name which includes the history of their CEF forebears. For example, the 28th Canadian Infantry Battalion is now perpetuated by the modern day Reserve Force infantry unit the Royal Regina Rifles. The regimental history of the Royal Regina Rifles published in 1992, Up the johns! : the story of the Royal Regina Rifles, includes a chapter on the Great War, including the 28th Battalion.

The Library and Archives Canada
Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force

In the spring of 2012, The Library and Archives Canada made available to the public a thematic guide compiled over many years by one of the LAC's archivists. The Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in introduced in the LAC's website with the following description:

The guide has a section for each military branch (or corps), such as artillery, infantry, or medical. Each corps is further sub-divided by unit, for example, the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Brigade can be found in the artillery section, along with all the other artillery units.

Each unit contains either background information or archival sources or both. It is important to note that if one or the other is absent, this does not necessarily mean that there are no existing records related to that unit, only that they have not been referenced.

For convenience, the following list of links is reproduced from the LAC page linked above:

Online Forums as Sources of Information

Another possibility to find information about your soldier's unit and its activities (as well as many other aspects of the CEF soldier's experiences) is to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before you. Join and participate in the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group, or the Great War Forum, where you may find others who have researched that unit or even have details about your soldier in their own collected data. As you join these groups keep in mind that they are virtual communities, the members create and grow the group through cooperation and sharing of resources and research. While it is fully aceptable to ask questions, be as ready to share what you have with others.

Part 5 - Casualties.

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