Researching a Soldier Using WW1 War Diaries

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. 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. To view other guides covering how to find service and medal records, articles on individual regiments etc. click on the links below:

I also offer a First World War Soldier Research Service.

What are WW1 War Diaries?

First World War war diaries were kept by units abroad to record their daily activities and location. There were two main reasons they were kept and the following information is taken from the Field Service Pocket Book (1914):

War diaries are confidential documents. Their object is:

(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 which was recorded varied considerably not only between units but also month by month. A war 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) explains what should be recorded in a war diary:

In so far as they apply to each case the following points should be recorded:

(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.

(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.

In total there are ten separate points relating to what should be recorded in a war diary. However, I have never seen all of them recorded and you’ll get a mixture. Some of the most important documents you can find in war diaries are detailed appendices describing the actions fought. Fortunately, a lot of these 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.

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, a lot of service records haven’t survived, in that case:

  • For infantry regiments, you can check the relevant medal rolls available on Ancestry.
  • For cavalry regiments, their unit often appears on their Medal Index Card or can 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.

Where can I Download or View WW1 War Diaries?

The war diaries for First World War units are held at the National Archives in London and all can be viewed onsite though you will need a reader’s card. Many diaries have been digitized and are available to download online for a small fee:

  • France and Belgium: Available to download from the National Archives and Ancestry.
  • Gallipoli: Available to download from Ancestry.
  • Mesopotamia: Available to download from the National Archives.
  • East and West Africa: Available to download from the National Archives.

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. Clicking on the banner below will take you to Ancestry.

Finding the Correct WW1 War Diary

I’ve started to catalogue First World War diaries to British and Indian Army 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.

If you’re searching for a different unit then click on the link below which will take you the relevant search page on the National Archives’ website:

National Archives Search Engine

  • Put WO95 in the box next to ‘Any of these references’ on the last row
  • If you want to find the war diary for the 5th Battalion Liverpool Regiment, put 5 Liverpool in the top box
  • If you want 100 Brigade Royal Field Artillery, type in 100 Artillery

War diaries for the Royal Flying Corps can be found in AIR 1, though many have not survived.

If you need a war diary photographed which hasn’t been digitized then contact me – (most will be around £15-25)

Important Tips

  • 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 a few 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 can be beneficial to take out the war diary of the relevant Brigade Headquarters, as these often contain maps and operational orders which haven’t survived in a unit’s war diary.
  • 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

WW1 war diaries are crucial documents to view when researching a First World War soldier and can help you in a variety of ways:

  • Follow a soldier’s location through the First World War by using the place names in the diary in conjunction with Google Maps.
  • 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 record 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 WW1 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 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers in Gallipoli:

Date: 1 May 1915

Place: Trenches near White House running E[ast] to Morto Bay.

Quiet day spent in improving trenches and making a communication trench, along the back.

10.30 PM Turks commenced an attack on the trenches.

The attack started against the French on the right followed by an attack on the left against the Inniskillings. There were evidently simply feints as later the whole weight of the attack was thrown against the 86th Brigade on the right as far as the Regiment was concerned there was never any real danger of the Turks being successful. Generally speaking they did not come closer than 100 [yards] and a brisk fire was maintained by both sides until morning.

Our [?] machine gun directed its fire right across the front of the Lancashire Fusiliers and appeared to do great execution. On our right the Turks made repeated bayonet charges and on one occasion penetrated the line, but were thrown back with heavy loss. Throughout the night the enemy’s artillery made excellent practice against out trenches and burst their shrapnel very well indeed. Attacks continued all night.12 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment

The group photograph above was taken from Tatler, 11 August 1915 and shows the officers of the 12th (Service) Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment prior to landing in France in November 1915. If you wanted to research the officers above, then you would find many of their names recorded in the Battalion’s war diaries.

If you are researching a soldier who served in the First World War click on the photograph below to learn more about the research service I offer.ww1-research-service