Our guest blog post today comes from Alexander Hail, student at the University of Leeds. As part of HIST2505 Archive Intelligence: Unlocking the Archive, Alexander researched the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Tetley, written between 1915 and 1918 and explores what it can tell us about the First World War.
The Great War saw the culmination of hundreds of years of military culture, philosophy and establishment face the realities of impersonal industrialised warfare. The days of chivalry, duels, and cavalry charges were over and gallantry usually resulted in death after the invention of the machine gun and fragmentation shell. Battles like the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele saw hundreds of thousands of men and boys swallowed whole by fire, steel, gas and mud.
The accounts of these human tragedies has most commonly been seen through the eyes of those that directly fought. Captured in interviews, personal diaries and fictional retellings of real events through the perspective of the private soldiers, non-commissioned officers and junior officers who’s job it was to storm trenches and bunkers and weather the endless storms of enemy artillery barrages. Their brutally visceral stories have been thoroughly explored; however, the day-to-day experiences of senior commanders is rarely touched upon outside of heavily edited memoirs and often critical biographies.
There are two reasons why senior officers’ personal experiences have been relatively unexplored in the great war: firstly, their jobs required them to regularly send men to their deaths for little gain, the daily life of a senior officer would have been both boring and dreadful; secondly, there is a common perception of gross incompetence on the part of senior officers, the ‘lions lead by donkeys’ epithet comes to mind immediately as a central theme to the war.
There is an unspoken popular narrative of perceived poetic justice in the memories of those who died or were wounded in botched operations taking precedent over their architects, which is fairly unsurprising. However, this does not necessarily reflect the true nature of the war. Many modern scholars have reached the conclusion that in reality much of the senior British brass were competent commanders and were put in incredibly difficult situations where heavy casualties were unavoidable. The great war saw, in an incredibly short period, an incomparable acceleration in military tactics and doctrine, so much so that by the German Spring offensive (1918) the conflict was totally unrecognisable from its first months.
This is why documents like Lt. Col. Tetley’s Diary, located at the West Yorkshire Archives provides unique insight into the daily insights of a field officer facing impossible challenges with limited resources. His diary, unlike many published war diaries, is not a personal diary but an operational one. The purpose of this document is to record operations and use those recordings to better plan and execute future operations. Due to the nature of this document, it is lacking in colourful language or poetic insights on Tetley’s experience during the great war and for an audience unfamiliar with military affairs, can come across as dry. It, for all intents and purposes, is a technical document and not a piece of literature.
It is easy therefore to see this piece of information as less useful or relevant than more sensory records due to the recent emphasis on ‘people’s history’ and an earthier more democratised form of research, but actually the restraints of the document force us to examine it from a different lens and brings out novel insights. Limitation breeds creativity and in the case of Tetley’s diary there is far more to be learned outside of the basic facts of what the diary says. What he chooses to omit can tell us just as much and help us better understand the perspective and priorities of someone in his position.
What this document shows is the scale and intensity of warfare during the conflict. When his men take casualties they take them in droves, with each gas attack and bombardment that kills one or two men, it leaves dozens wounded. This is an often-forgotten element of casualty statistics, that it is possible for a unit to take 300% or even 400% casualties due to replacements or soldiers surviving their wounds and re-joining their units. In the case of the Leeds Rifles, which he commanded, most soldiers that died had already been casualties several times in varying degrees. Also considering that British soldiers on average spent less than half the war in theatre and that of that time spent, 20% was spent on front line due to troop rotations, the trenches were a place fundamentally inhospitable to human life. When we add into the statistic that of those killed the vast majority were infantry, it seems if you enlisted at the beginning of the war you were bound for an inescapable fate. This intensity of conflict would have made sustaining anything other than mass casualties impossible.
The document casts Lt. Col. Tetley as a thinking and learning officer who is dedicated to his men and possesses the humility to retrospectively analyse his own mistakes and successes. While it may be true in some parts of the war, that officers sent their men over the top in waves to die, this is certainly not reflective of Tetley. Recent historiography has greatly rehabilitated the role of the middle and senior officer and this diary reinforces many of these more modern attitudes towards the Great War. That officers were placed in impossible situations and made the best of what they had to try and get as many of their men home safe.
This diary relates to the 1/7 (Leeds Rifles) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, and is held at our Leeds office, reference WYL793/10. If you would like to find out more about this collection, or any of our other First World War collections please contact the Leeds team at email@example.com