This guide looks at First World War war diaries and explains what they are, how to find them and why they are such crucial documents for researching a soldier. This article is one of a series I have written on researching soldiers who served in the British and Indian Armies during the First World War:
- Researching Soldiers who Served in the British Army
- Researching Soldiers who Served in the Indian Army
What are First World War Unit War Diaries?
First World War war diaries were kept by units serving abroad to record their daily activities and location. There were two main reasons they were kept as Field Service Pocket Book (1914) explains:
(a) To furnish an accurate record of the operations from which the history of the war can subsequently be prepared.
(b) To collect information for future reference with a view of effecting improvements in the organization, education, training, equipment and administration of the army for war.
The information recorded in a war diary varied considerably not only between units but also month by month. The diary was usually handwritten, though sometimes typed by an officer and you’ll often find their signature in the bottom right-hand corner of a page. The Field Service Pocket Book (1914) explained the type of information an officer should record:
(a) All important orders, despatches, instructions, reports and telegrams issued and received, and decisions taken.
(b) Daily situation, i.e., arrival at, departure from, or halt at place; all movements and dispositions on the march, in camp, bivouac, or billets.
(c) All important matters relating to the duties of the staff under their respective headings.
(d) All important matters relating to the administrative services and departments under their respective headings
(e) Detailed account of all operations, noting connection with other units in the neighbourhood, formations adopted, ranges at which fire was opened, &c. The hour at which important occurrences took place should be entered with exactitude. The state of the weather, condition of the roads and ground, and general description of the locality should be recorded.
(f) Changes in establishment or strength. As regards casualties, the names and ranks of officers, and the number of other ranks and followers, and animals should be noted.
(g) Nature and description of field works constructed or quarters occupied.
(h) Metrological notes.
(i) Summary of information received and of all matters of importance, military or political, which may occur from day to day.
(j) In what respect organizations and regulations have stood the test of war.
I have never seen all of the above points recorded in a war diary. As well as the daily entries, you’ll usually find a mixture of appendices in the form of movement orders, maps, battle reports etc. Fortunately, unlike the daily entries, a lot of the appendices are typed. If you are researching an officer, you will usually find their name mentioned in a unit’s war diary. However, the names of other ranks seldom appear, even if they are killed. I have found that war diaries from the first months of the war can be far more detailed than those appearing later and are more likely to contain information about other ranks. Though, some war diaries do record all casualties sustained by a unit.
Finding a Soldier’s Unit
To find the relevant war diary, you will need to know what unit or units a soldier served in. This can be found by checking a soldier’s service record. However, many were destroyed in the Blitz and if this in the case, check the following resources:
- For infantry regiments, check the soldier’s medal rolls available on Ancestry.
- For cavalry regiments, the soldier’s unit often appears on their medal index card and can also be found checking the relevant medal rolls.
- For soldiers who served with a corps of the British Army (Royal Engineer, Royal Army Medical Corps, etc), the task can be a lot more difficult. If they died in the war, a soldier’s unit can appear in their entry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Occasionally, their exact unit was recorded on their medal records. However, many soldiers would have served in multiple units of a corps.
- Absent voters lists can be a great help but they only record the unit a soldier served with when the list was produced.
- Birth and marriage certificates often recorded a soldier’s unit
- For officers who served in the infantry and cavalry, check the relevant army list, though this when an officer moved between units it could take some months for the lists to be updated
Where can I Download or View WW1 War Diaries?
The war diaries of First World War units are held at the National Archives in London and can be viewed onsite though you will need a reader’s card. Most of the war diaries have been digitized by the National Archives and can be downloaded as pdfs from their website for a small fee but not all have. Some are also available from the genealogy website Ancestry including the war diaries for Gallipoli. War diaries are grouped together in the catalogue by theatre or geographic area, e.g. “Egypt, Palestine and Syria” but for ease of use are listed mostly by country below.
- Aden: Available to view at the National Archives only
- Belgium: Available to download from the National Archives and to view and download from Ancestry
- Britain: Available to view at the National Archives only. Most units didn’t keep war diaries while serving in Britain and Ireland
- East and West Africa: Available to download from the National Archives’ website
- Egypt: Available to view at the National Archives only
- France: Available to download from the National Archives and to view and download from Ancestry
- Gallipoli (Turkey): Available to view and download from Ancestry and can be viewed at the National Archives
- Italy: Available to view at the National Archives only
- India: Available to view at the National Archives only. Most units serving in India and Burma did not keep war diaries. There’s usually good coverage for the Third Anglo-Afghan War and the campaigns in Waziristan
- Malta: Available to view at the National Archives only
- Mauritius: Available to view at the National Archives only
- Mesopotamia: Available to download from the National Archives
- Palestine: Available to view at the National Archives only
- Persia (Iran): Mostly available to download from the National Archives’ website, however, units which served with the Sistan-Cordon Force can only be viewed at the National Archives
- Russia: Available to view at the National Archives only
- Salonika: Available to view at the National Archives only
- Straits Settlements (Malaysia): Available to view at the National Archives only
- Syria: Available to view at the National Archives only
- Turkey: Post Gallipoli diaries can only be viewed at the National Archives
- Western Front: Available to download from the National Archives and to view and download from Ancestry
The genealogy website Ancestry has most of the Western Front war diaries and all of the Gallipoli war diaries available to view on their website. A lot of the infantry war diaries for the Western Front have been put in with the Brigade Headquarters’ war diaries for reason. So if you can’t find the battalion of the regiment listed, check the Brigade Headquarters diary. Also, check the Brigade Headquarters and Divisional war diaries as there are often maps of trenches and operations.
Finding the Correct WW1 War Diary
I’ve started to catalogue First World War diaries to units of the British and Indian Armies units but haven’t completed some sections yet. To see if I have catalogued the war diaries you need, click on the links below, select your regiment and go down to the war diary section. Then you’ll be able to read about which war diaries are available with links to the National Archives’ website.
- British Cavalry Regiments
- British Yeomanry Regiments
- British Foot Guards (Grenadier, Coldstream etc.)
- British Infantry Regiments
- Indian Cavalry Regiments
- Indian Infantry Regiments
If you’re searching for a different unit then click on the link below which will take you to the relevant search page on the National Archives’ website. It’s often easier to search using only part of a unit’s title, e.g. if you want to find the war diary for the 5th Battalion Liverpool Regiment, put “5 Liverpool” in the search bar. Or, if you wanted the 100th Brigade Royal Field Artillery search “100 artillery”.
- If a unit served in multiple theatres of war, e.g. France then Mesopotamia, their records will be found in more than one box at the National Archives. For example, the war diaries of the 89th Punjabis can be found in six different boxes.
- An Indian unit’s war diary can be listed under a number of different names, e.g. if you searched for Sirmur Sappers and Miners, you would miss the war diary for Sirmur Imperial Service Miners. Or if you searched 99th Deccan Infantry, you would miss the war diary titled 99th Infantry, so try combinations to make sure you find every available resource. However, many Indian units have large gaps in their war diaries due to records being destroyed.
- It is usually beneficial to view the relevant brigade headquarters war diary, as these often contain maps and operational orders which haven’t survived in a unit’s war diary. The divisional headquarters war diary will often contain information of use.
- If you are researching a soldier who took part in a major battle, it is always worthwhile having a look at the war diaries of units which fought alongside them. They can sometimes contain accounts which can add to your research, as well as additional maps, reports, etc.
How to use WW1 War Diaries in your Research
First World War unit war diaries are crucial documents to view when researching a First World War soldier and can help you in a variety of ways:
- You can learn of a soldier’s location through the First World War.
- Find out the daily activities of a unit. This can include digging trenches, marches, and when they were in the trenches, etc.
- If you know which company a soldier served in, there can be accounts of that particular company’s activities in the diary.
- When conditions were poor, there is often a record in the war diary. War diaries of units serving in Mesopotamia often recorded the extreme temperatures and poor living conditions.
- If a soldier was killed or wounded on a particular day, the war diary will provide the context of where they were and sometimes what happened.
- If you are researching a soldier who was awarded a gallantry medal, the military cross or military medal, the circumstances which led to the award may be recorded.
- If a soldier was wounded and appeared in an official casualty list then the date they were wounded can be narrowed down.
To give you an example of how useful a war diary can be, below is a transcript from the war diary of the 1/1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment which landed at Suvla Bay on 9 August. In an entry in the “Remarks and references to Appendices” column of the war diary, it was written that map 1:20,000 Anafar Ta Sagir was to be used. The photograph below shows A Beach at Suvla Bay with the hill on the right-hand side Lala Baba.
4 am: Arrived at A Beach (south of Biyuk Kemikli) Point
7 am – 8:30 am: Transferred to trawlers and proceeded to C Beach (south of Kuchuk Kemikli Point), landed from steam launch and cutters and proceeded to area 103. T2 where the 158th Brigade under Brigadier General Lloyd concentrated.
Fatigue parties from the Battalion employed in getting up water and stores from C Beach, Quartermaster Stores established on C Beach. Men had some bully beef, biscuit and lime juice about 1 pm. Turks shelled the Brigade occasionally with a 75 mm field gun, no casualties in the Herefords at this point. Shells all failed to explode. 53rd Division Headquarters established on western slopes of Lala Baba, and after meal referred to above, 158th Brigade moved to 103 P.6. Weather fine. Sea smooth.
About 4 pm commanding officer sent for by general officer commanding division who gave him directions (verbal) as follows: Colonel Bosanquet of the Sherwood Foresters is anxious about his right flank. He is near the K or D in Asmak Dere. Place yourself in communication with him. I do not think you have much to do or will get a dusting “get away as quickly as possible” or words to that effect.
Above order was asked for in writing and was handed to commanding officer as the Battalion was on the point of moving off and confirmed the first three sentences. No information was given as to our troops (if any) on the right (west) flank or at Anzac.
The Battalion moved out in anti-artillery formation B and C 1st-line under Major Carless B directing. D and A 2nd-line under commanding officer. In the few minutes allowed before moving off Major Careless (2nd-in-command) was sent forward to reconnoitre the line of advance (Area 92 G.1.).
The Battalion after proceeding approximately one mile came under heavy shrapnel fire. B and C Companies got into touch with the right(west) flank of Sherwood Foresters who were very considerably further away (to the northeast) from the point of direction indicated to the Battalion commander, touch was lost between the 1st and 2nd-lines, the 2nd-line keeping as far as possible on the point of direction indicated arrived at about area 92 B.7. Here the commanding officer met the Captains of D Company and realizing that he had gone 1/2 a mile beyond the Asmak Dere (a slight dry watercourse) decided to rally the men (who were a good deal scattered) near him and withdraw to the line of the Asmak Dere.
Whilst proceeding thither a staff officer of the 53rd Division rode up and showed the commanding officer a written order from the Division’s General, which stated that all previous orders were cancelled and that the Battalion was to withdraw to some trenches which had previously been dug from the Salt Lake westward to the sea about area 91 B1. Just previous to the withdrawal, commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel G. Drage, Captains Yates, Capel, Nott and Lieutenant Bourne were hit by shrapnel.
B and C Companies reached Headquarters at the Sherwood Foresters at area 105 V.8. Heavy sniping. Communication was eventually established with the second-line which was in the trenches in the rear and in consequence of the order of the general officer commanding division. These two companies rejoined Headquarters at about 02:00 on the 10th.