GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
Katherine Gwyn from the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies shares her love for the casualty books from the 1st Bucks Battalion.
WW1 casualty books from the 1st Bucks Battalion
On 11 November 1918 the Allies and Germany agreed an Armistice, marking the end of the First World War. By that time, about six million British men had fought in the war, of whom 1.6 million were injured, 662,000 killed and 140,000 recorded missing. At the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, a set of four casualty books of the 1st Bucks Battalion preserve the story of just a few of the men from the county who served, fighting on the Western Front from 1915 to 1917 and later in Italy. In this anniversary year, Katherine Gwyn, the centre’s community outreach and projects archivist, told us more about the priceless information the books hold.
Can You Describe The Casualty Books?
The four volumes were created by the 1st Bucks Battalion to keep a log of what was happening to its soldiers.
They cover details of individuals’ health, injuries, discipline and rank, as well as when they got promoted and when they received training.
Many other battalions would have kept similar volumes, but these are the only ones that we know to have survived in Buckinghamshire – I think this is because after the war these were preserved locally, rather than in central Army administration. It is frustrating that we have such good information on maybe several hundred individuals, but nothing for the majority of people who served in the Buckinghamshire regiments: the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and the Royal Bucks Hussars.
How Are The Books Formatted?
They’re laid out like a grid. Each chunk relates to an individual, and tells the story of their time with the 1st Bucks Battalion, line by line, incident by incident. Typically the first entry in a person’s log will describe the date and place they joined the regiment. Subsequent lines might include details of when they moved with their unit or regiment, and when they received specific training.
Typically every entry will discuss a soldier’s health. Shell shock is mentioned, as are gunshot wounds and wounds from shrapnel, but also measles, scabies and influenza – conditions that you’d pick up when you’re living in really poor conditions close to lots and lots of people. The books record when the wound or illness started and how it progressed, so often you can see people get moved further back from the front line, from casualty clearing stations, to field hospitals, maybe to a hospital ship, and even to a military hospital in England, if the illness or wound was serious. Then you’ll get a date when they were fit and returned to active service.
However, the books feature lots of abbreviations
‘People gravitate towards them, although the handwriting is tiny’
and codes – you really need guidance to understand soldiers’ disciplinary records in particular.
Why Did You Choose The Casualty Books?
I think they’re fantastic.
I take these documents out to events with me, and people gravitate towards them, although the handwriting is tiny. We know that the books would have gone to the Western Front, and in all this chaos there was someone
taking these precise notes while the world fell apart.
The books contain a wealth of information for family historians too. If we can find an entry for someone that they’re researching, it fills out the picture of what their relative was up to.
The books remind you that it wasn’t all trench foot and gallantry at the Front – it was just a hard, hard life. There were often very mundane medical problems – things that we would think of as not very serious at all, like a cut that becomes infected – that suddenly become so serious and life-threatening that the soldier can’t serve any more, and has to go to hospital.
You also get the date and usually cause of death, and often a grid reference to where soldiers were buried. It’s really useful. Because there are four volumes a person will start off in the first volume, and you trace them all the way through. It’s devastating when they’ve endured so much, and die in 1917 or 1918.
What Other Documents Do You Have Relating To The First World War?
We have quite a few personal collections, including letters and postcards home. We have records relating to the Royal Bucks Hussars and the Bucks Battalions of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, including trench logbooks for that latter group. We have photographs of the Royal Bucks Hussars around the Middle East, and correspondence from the Phipps and the Crouch families, whose sons were all officers in the 1st Bucks Battalion, which gives an insight into life at home.
In addition, readers might like to know that the Great War Buckinghamshire Project website at buckingham-country archive.daisy.websds.net shares the stories of people from the county during the war, at home and abroad.