War Diaries—Good, Bad and Indifferent

Colonel C.P. Stacey, OBE, Director of the Historical Section, Army Headquarters, Ottawa
Canadian Army Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, Summer 1950

It must be admitted, unfortunately, that in the wartime Army the War Diary was not a generally popular institution. Keeping it up was a chore, and not a chore that most people sought after. It was regarded as a job that tended to interfere with more important matters; and it followed that all too frequently the job was badly done. Nevertheless, a surprising number of officers and ex-officers, since the war, have been heard to express regrets that they didn't take more trouble with their War Diaries. (The regrets are particularly strong and poignant in the case of people who have anything to do with writing Regimental Histories.) And quite frequently the complaint is heard that not enough guidance was given to units and formations in this matter. Actually, a considerable amount of paper was issued on the subject; but it is to be feared that it was not always carefully read. However, it seems worth while, at a time when some diaries are again being kept and when those of the Second World War are being actively used in the preparation of the Official History, to set down on paper some of these latter diaries shortcomings so that officers who have to keep such records now or in the future may profit, if they choose, by this experience. During the war the people in the Historical Section and at Second Echelon who had the job of supervising the preparation and submission of War Diaries found their task in many ways embarrassing. Nobody liked the business of harassing busy field units, reminding them that their diaries were overdue, or carping at them because the diary when received was inadequate. And nobody in the field liked getting these "hasteners" and observations, and occasionally pungent comments, written or verbal, were received in return. One can sympathize with the diarist of "W" Force Transit Camp (Newfoundland) who once alleged that he had answered a request from N.D.H.Q. for overdue diaries as follows: "Herewith Transit Camp War Diary for Sep 1944; subsequent months may be expected in the ageless fullness of time; history cannot be anticipated or hurried, it is like a delicious fruit or a beautiful woman, it must be allowed a certain period of time in which to mature and ripen." And yet those who complained most about the labour of keeping a War Diary were frequently those who were working under the least pressure; and it was and is a matter of surprise (and gratitude) to the historians to discover how frequently a unit involved in heavy and bitter fighting nevertheless contrived to keep an excellent record of its operations. The War Diary, to a very large extent, in fact, reflects the efficiency of the unit. Broadly speaking, a good unit kept a good diary. I should not like to say that this was invariably the case; there were certainly instances of good fighting regiments whose diaries were not adequate records of their deeds. (The tragedy is that these units, thanks to this neglect, may never receive full justice for their achievements.) But I think one can say with considerable confidence that a really bad unit never kept a good diary.

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One thing should be said, and said strongly. All our experience with the job of writing history proves that the War Diary, however unpopular, is absolutely essential and indispensable. If we are to have Official Histories or Regimental Histories that are any use at all; if we are to be in a position to study our own operations intelligently with a view to improving our tactics or our administration; then we cannot do without War Diaries. Inadequate though they are in many cases, they have been the foundation of our work, and it is clearly very important that in another conflict War Diaries should be kept, and every effort made to improve them. As many people know, the Canadian Army in the Second World War had Historical Officers in the field—one per division. These officers had the task of advising units in the keeping of their own records, but their main job was to collect, by means of interviews, etc., information which might otherwise be lost. After an important engagement, the Division's Historical Officer made it his business to visit, at the earliest possible date, those units which had played the most significant part. He interviewed officers or other ranks who could give important information and recorded their evidence. In this way, undoubtedly, a great deal of valuable tactical and other information was saved from oblivion, and these records of interviews have made a great contribution to the Official History. However, we will never be able to provide Historical Officers in sufficient numbers to take the place of records kept up by the units themselves. There is no substitute for the day-to-day recording of events as they took place by the people who actually did the work.

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The historian, attempting to reconstruct the events long afterwards, constantly has reason to complain of the inadequacy of the diaries. They are almost always less explicit than he could wish. Nevertheless, on balance, they provide the means of compiling a fair record of operations and activities. Where one infantry battalion writes a poor account of an operation, the deficiencies may be supplied in some degree by the diaries of flanking units or of the brigade headquarters, and, putting together all the available sources, a moderately good narrative can be produced. But it is often a harder task than it ought to be, and frequently the end result is less reliable than one could wish for. What are the major shortcomings in the diaries which contribute to make the historian's task more difficult? The worst, undoubtedly, is a tendency to set down insufficient information, and information which is not sufficiently definite. A surprisingly large number of the deficiencies of diaries in this respect are clearly due to a misunderstanding of security aspects. A War Diary is a SECRET document, and is always transmitted and treated as such. The reason for this is that it has no value unless it is a full and accurate account of events. Inevitably, it would be very helpful to the enemy if it fell into his hands, but it is protected from him in exactly the same manner as any other highly classified document. In spite of all the instructions that were issued on the subject, many commanding officers failed to appreciate these facts, and the result is that their diaries omit things which should have been included and which are essential to accurate history. For instance, many units persisted in recording their location as simply "In the Field"; what they should have put down was the name of the place where they found themselves, supported by a map reference. One Medical unit in Italy "recorded" the movement of a section of it as follows:

That is absolutely all. The diary gives no information whatever as to where "B" Division went, let alone why it went or what function it was to serve on arrival. It took the historian a very considerable amount of research in other records to discover even the bare outline of the facts, which should have been readily available in the unit diary. There would be no difficulty in multiplying examples—including much more important ones—of the same sort of thing. A unit which provided a detachment for a small raid on the French coast failed to preserve the detachment commander's written operation order, and no copy of this order has in fact survived. There is no doubt that this was a direct result of misunderstanding of security regulations. To give another instance on a much higher level, somebody at Headquarters First Canadian Army apparently destroyed that headquarters' copy or copies of the basic directive issued to the Army by 21 Army Group in the spring of 1944, after it had served its immediate purpose. The Canadian historian in due course had to beg for a photostat copy from the United Kingdom records. It isn't hard to reconcile good security with the maintenance of good historical records. TOP SECRET documents should not be placed on a War Diary until they can be downgraded to SECRET. Most such documents relate in some way to future operations. The best procedure for a unit to follow is to retain these documents until the operation in question has taken place or has been cancelled, and then place them on the War Diary as appendices, along with the necessary narrative entry to explain them. Alternatively, it is usually possible. to forward TOP SECRET documents under proper cover to the appropriate Canadian static headquarters for preservation until they can safely be downgraded and placed upon the War Diary. This procedure was followed, for instance, by Headquarters 1st Canadian Division when it was anticipating leaving for France in June 1940. A copy of the draft operation instruction describing its proposed role across the Channel was forwarded by safe hand to the Senior Officer at C.M.H.Q., London, before the headquarters left Aldershot; it was preserved in his safe, and placed on the Division's G.S. War Diary only after the cancellation of the operations. Thanks to this action, a most valuable document was preserved. The unit or formation diarist should remember that a document important enough to be graded TOP SECRET is one in which the future historian is almost certain to be interested. It should accordingly be preserved for his information. Many of the errors of fact found in diaries are the result of their not being written up day by day as the events occur. It is not difficult to identify a diary which has been written up after the lapse of several days or weeks, and unfortunately such diaries are fairly numerous. They are not much use to the historian. It is surprising how often a diary gets the date of an operation one day or two days wrong. This is a clear indication that the diary was written up after a considerable lapse of time and of course casts suspicion upon the whole content of it. It is only when the diary is written immediately after the events that the record is either complete or reliable. The passage even of a day or so, particularly when great events are following one another in rapid succession, is enough to blur the diarist's memory and prevent the creation of an accurate record. One point of detail worth making is the fact that an extraordinarily large proportion of the map references found in War Diaries and other operational records are clearly inaccurate. It would probably not be too much to say that one-third of all those found in the documents in the hands of the Historical Section are wrong in some degree. In most cases, the inaccuracy is small and not important; in others it is so large that it is quite impossible to identify the locality referred to. Incidentally, officers writing the text of War Diaries often seemed reluctant to use map references, and their descriptions of terrain are often so vague as to be completely useless. Such phrases occur as "to the right of the village." The ambiguity of this is obvious; what is needed is a reference to a compass point, or some other exact description. And of course far the best method of making a unit's position and movements quite clear is to mark a map and attach it to the diary as an appendix. This is always done in really good unit diaries. An example may be given here of a generally satisfactory account of a day's fighting by an infantry battalion. It is an extract from the West Nova Scotia Regiment's War Diary and describes the fighting before Valguarnera in Sicily.

Jul 0200. After proceeding about 3 miles it was learned that the R22eR had run into an enemy ambush ahead. Brig Penhale ordered West NSR to occupy area 320735. By this time it was little more than an hour before first light and the bn was forced to dig in in full view of the enemy who began to very ineffectively mortar our positions … 0900 West NSR, less C Coy left to guard the approaches from the North, was withdrawn from under the nose of the enemy, and assembled at 312716 … The West NSR was to make a flanking movement on M. del Forma while the Carlt & York attacked the feature with hy arty support. Companies moved across country to rd. 303714 … at 1300 hrs the bn moved off across country as shown on the map (appx 4; 268-II). The river bed at 287717 was impassable to tpt, excluding a sqn of tks included in the original [plan], and forcing all weapons, incl M 3 in. to be carried on the man. After a march across difficult country in extreme heat, the bn occupied a hill feature 280745, the only resistance being a LMG post at 280737 …

Here the diarist has made a conscientious and effective effort to record a complicated battle in an accurate manner. Another battalion engaged in the same affair set down a much poorer account; it gave little detail of any sort, it did not record the battalion's deployment, and it gave only one map reference (and that one was wrong.) And the diary contained no valuable appendices—whereas the West Novas preserved marked maps and other very useful papers.

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The diary of a formation headquarters presents special problems. In this case, the appendices are likely to be considerably more important than in the case of a unit. It is very essential that a formation should preserve its basic documents on the diary. The heart of any formation diary during active operations is the operations log, and it is of the greatest importance that this should always be preserved as a diary appendix. Almost equally vital are sitreps and intelligence summaries. But any piece of paper, however slight, on which operational information is found may be of value to the historian. It is particularly essential to preserve the text of signals or other orders or information received or sent. A special problem of the historian under modern conditions arises from the fact that so many orders are now issued verbally, either in conferences, in personal interviews or over the air. The diarist who does his job well will do his utmost to ensure that a record of the gist of such orders is preserved. One example of the problem may be given. The General Staff diary of Headquarters 1st Canadian Division records that on 15 September 1943 the Divisional Commander met the Corps Commander near Catanzaro. It does not record the discussion that took place or the orders that were received on this occasion. It is useful for the historian to know that the two generals met; it would be infinitely more useful to know what passed between them. In order to write good history, one needs to know, not only what orders were issued, but the considerations which influenced them—the reasons why they were given. It is up to the diarist of the formation headquarters to do his best to find out these things and to record them. This, incidentally, is one reason why it is essential that every diary, whether of a formation or a unit, should be kept by an officer, and an officer who is in a position to know or to find out what is going on. There is no doubt that many diaries during the war were kept by Warrant Officers or N.C.Os. These men frequently tried hard and in many cases produced pretty fair diaries. Nevertheless, they were not in a position to have all the information which was essential to recording operations really adequately. The responsible officer (the G.S.O. I in the General Staff of a Division, the Commanding Officer of a unit, or whoever he may be) should detail a competent officer to keep the diary. What is more, the responsible senior officer should see to it that the job is properly done. He is required to sign the diary at the end of the month, and he should not do so without reading it and satisfying himself that it is an adequate and accurate record events. A unit diary differs considerably from that of a formation. Many formation diaries kept during the war consisted almost entirely of appendices, and if the appendices are adequate the diary is still pretty useful, although it would be much more so if the diarist had provided a connecting narrative and commentary. But the heart of a unit diary is the narrative of events written up daily by an officer in a position to know. It often happened that diarists completely failed to realize just what sort of information is most useful to the historian. For example: One artillery battery was stationed at a point in Canada where its operational role brought it into particularly close relations with American units and indeed under American command. The workings of this arrangement are naturally of special interest, yet the diarist has nothing whatever to say of the battery's relations with the Americans or of the military job it was doing or how it did it. His narrative is composed of items concerning dances, corn roasts, church services, swim parades, and movements of personnel. He records that Gunner M—was taken on strength on 11 September and went A.W.L. on 12 September; but he shows no understanding that the unit was performing a unique and special task, and he says nothing whatever about it. Here again, a misunderstanding of security may have been responsible; the officer may have thought that in omitting such matters from his diary he was following sound security practice. In fact, he was failing to do his duty. Home War Establishment diaries frequently err in this manner, giving little information about the unit's operational role—the chief matter in which an official historian is likely to be interested. It would seem that many diarists, a bit disgusted perhaps with their units' static employment, did not realize that such a role has its own interest. The historian is interested in knowing how a coast defence battery, for instance, was armed and equipped, and in the changes that took place in such matters from time to time; but in many cases unit diaries give him no help whatever. Numerous diaries, at home and abroad, are filled with what can only be called chitchat. Now there is no objection to including personal information about officers and men and their activities; this material will often be useful to a regimental historian; but it should not be allowed to crowd out material which is more important from the point of view of the history of the war or improvements in methods of warfare. That witty fellow from "W" Force Transit Camp, who has already been quoted, once wrote the following entry:

Major-General—attended a Mess Dinner in the Officers' Mess. After dinner he spoke in glowing terms of Transit Camp. He said that Transit Camp was a dagger pointed straight at the heart of St. John's.

This sort of thing brightens the historian's day, and he is grateful for it accordingly. However, it can't be said that it adds anything very vital to the history of the war.

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This leads, finally, to the question of the basic purposes of a war diary. According to Field Service Regulations, "Its object is to furnish a historical record of operations and to provide data upon which to base future improvements in army training, equipment, organization and administration". (While the Second World War was still in progress, our diaries were carefully scrutinized, month by month, so that the information contained in them might be turned to immediate practical account.) But a diary can serve these purposes only if it is written up promptly, accurately and frankly. It is essential that the unit should record its operations and activities in as great detail as possible, and record them the same day on which they take place. It is important also that every diary should comment upon the experience gained and state the lessons learned. If this is done the diary will make a contribution to the effective analytical study of organization, administration, equipment and tactics. But note that such comments can only be effectively made by senior officers who know what they are talking about. Thus we come back once more to the vital importance of such officers taking an interest in the diary. At formation headquarters, in particular, it is most desirable that senior staff officers ensure that the fruits of their experience are set down in writing for the guidance of those who come after them. In this way we may be able to avoid what the Army is so often accused of doing—learning the same lessons over and over again, in battle after battle and war after war. In conclusion, one word of practical advice. Half the battle is getting the diary off on the right foot in the beginning. Moreover, we have found that few diaries of 1939 give an adequate picture of the process of mobilization, which is something that both the historian and the planner are greatly interested in. Therefore, the wise Commanding Officer, in making his unit mobilization plans, will earmark an officer whose job it will be to keep the war diary from the word "Go". This officer should be selected NOW.