WW1 British Army War Diaries
British Army War Diaries were handwritten or typed documents providing a daily account of the activities of a British, Dominion, Indian and Colonial Army unit on active service. This was a British Army Field Service Regulation dating from 1907. Sometimes the War Diary was designated as an Intelligence Summary.
It was the responsibility of the commander of every military unit – from the level of a battalion to a division – to ensure that the War Diary was kept up to date. It was to be written up each evening by a specific junior officer and usually signed off by a senior officer or the commanding officer.
The War Diary was compiled by month for every month that the unit was on active service.
In addition to the completed official War Diary Army Form, there might also be sketches, messages, maps and Operational Orders included as appendices.
Purpose of the War Diary
The purpose of the War Diary was to create a record of the operations of the unit on active service. It would record the part it was playing in a battle and would usually list the number of men who went into action and the number of casualties when the unit came out of the action. The information in a War Diary would be used by senior commanders for intelligence about the enemy opposite their units and as a historical record for future planning.
War Diaries for WW1 Theatres of War
War Diaries were written by units on home service in the United Kingdom and when serving in the following theatres of war during the First World War:
- France and Flanders
The period covered by the WW1 War Diaries also includes the time when the British and Commonwealth Armies were in post-war occupation of Germany.
Trace the Footsteps of a WW1 Soldier
If you are tracing an individual soldier and you know the name of the military unit he served with – the corps, division, regiment or battalion – you may be able to use War Diary records to find out where the unit was at any time when it was on active service during the 1914-1918 war.
It is always useful to look at the War Diaries of other units based in the same location or involved in the same attack. In addition to the specific unit that you are interested in it is recommended that you also look at related War Diaries because this will help to expand on “the bigger picture” but frequently additional details missed by one unit's War Diary will appear in another's. For example, if you have found a battalion War Diary for the month when a relative was known to be in action or was killed in action, you could also look up the War Diaries of the other battalions in the same brigade, division or corps.
Other sources such as Correspondence and Papers of Military Headquarters, Intelligence Summaries, Maps and photographs may also be helpful to look at as they may contain additional details of the particular action you are looking for.
Information to be Found in a War Diary
The information contained in the daily report of a War Diary can vary from just a few words to a detailed description of life at the Front. It may include map references, individual's names (usually officers only), awards of gallantry medals and casualty reports. The information contained in the War Diary will reflect the type of unit, for example, the War Diary of a Field Ambulance unit will give information about casualties and medical services assisting the wounded during a battle. An infantry battalion on the Front Line will record the part it played in a particular battle action or raid. It will also outline the duties carried out during its daily routine out of the line, for example, training, parades, cleaning of equipment and bathing the men, sorting out stores and so on.
The fact that the War Diary was sometimes written under very difficult conditions when the unit was in action explains why some daily reports were scribbled and brief. Another interesting factor about the War Diaries is that the reports are often a reflection of the individual who was writing them. Some are descriptive, full of detail, map references, names and are also in clear handwriting. Others are matter-of-fact with few details or may have handwriting that is hard to read.
Other Ranks Mentioned by Name in War Diaries
The names of soldiers below the rank of officer are not usually mentioned in the War Diaries. This is not because they was not considered worthy to be mentioned, but it was not the task of the War Diary to record the names of every soldier in the unit, what he did and whether he became a casualty. That was the task of the forms in his Army Service Record.
Nevertheless, soldiers' names are occasionally recorded in the account of an operation such as a patrol, a raid on an enemy trench, or the award of a Military Medal.
Officers Mentioned by Name in War Diaries
The names of officers may be recorded in a Battalion War Diary when they join a unit, go on leave, take command or become casualties. As men holding an officers' rank, and there were fewer officers to be named than the other ranks in the Battalion, this type of information was useful for senior commanders to know.
Extract from a War Diary
To illustrate the sort of information to be found from a War Diary, the following extract is taken from the War Diary of the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers in October 1916. The battalion was in trenches at Les Boeufs on the Somme battlefield. It was carrying out tours in the Front Line trenches every three to four days, alternating with and relieving the Cameronian Regiment.
The battalion was preparing to make an attack on the German Front Line within the next few days. The battlefield here had been fought over in the preceding weeks and the ground was devastated. Relief from a three or four day tour of Front Line trenches usually took place during the night under cover of darkness. The 11th Brigade had been fighting in that place before the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers arrived there. The War Diary states that wounded men and dead of the 11th Brigade were brought in by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers' 2nd Battalion. The wounded would have been in a very poor state.
War Diary Extracts from 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers
Place: LES BOEUFS TRENCHES
“At 1 p.m. we had received an order that we would be relieved by the Cameronians. This relief took place and was completed by 2.30 a.m. on the 28th. The weather conditions during the whole tour had been bad, the trenches were very wet and muddy and in the early stage of construction. Carrying parties were very heavy, ration and water parties having to go three miles from the line over ground much cut up by shell holes and in a bad state owing to the rain.
There were many wounded and dead of the 11th Brigade in the sector left from previous attacks by that Brigade. During the tour the Regiment evacuated about 20 wounded of the 11th Brigade and buried as many of their dead as was possible.” (1)
A few days later, in the next month of the War Diary, it is recorded that 2nd Lieutenant Loverseed and a party of soldiers attacked a German position to clear it out of the way before the main attack was to go in later. Summer Trench is identified by name, as is Second Lieutenant Loverseed:
“On the night of 4th/5th an attempt was made by 2/Lt LOVERSEED & a party of 30 men from “B” Coy to dislodge a pocket of Germans occupying a postion likely to cause great annoyance to a daylight attack. This was unsuccessful & heavy casualties incurred. The battalion in accordance with orders was to go forward to a line roughly 250 yards in advance of SUMMER TRENCH & dig in." (2)
Where to Find a War Diary
The National Archives, Kew, London
One original War Diary for almost every British Army unit from 1914-1922 was given to the War Office during the First World War. Now these War Diaries are held by The National Archives in Kew, south-west of London.
Most of the War Diaries are classified by the National Archives in class WO 95. The WO classification stands for War Office. Some War Diaries are in class WO 154. These WO 154 diaries were not released with the other War Diaries because they contained confidential personal information. They are now open documents and can now be viewed by the public.
Most of the maps originally included as appendices in the War Diaries were removed by the National Archives to be catalogued in a separate classification of WO 153.
There are some War Diaries for the Royal Flying Corps in class AIR 1. Unfortunately the War Diaries for the Royal Flying Corps are incomplete as some squadron War Diaries are missing from the collection.
War Diaries can be viewed for free by visitors to the National Archives. Copies can be made at the archive or can be ordered.
Digitized British Army WW1 War Diaries
Many of the War Diaries in the National Archives collection have been digitised. These are free to download when viewing them in person at the National Archives and copies can be made for a small fee per page.
These digitised War Diaries are also available to download online for a fee chargeable for each month of the relevant War Diary. Please note that the pages of the War Diary are not available to view before the request for payment for the download.
For information on how to search for a digitised War Diary you can view the National Archives website at Documents Online/War-Diaries.
The National Archives also produces a Research Guide called War Diaries entitled British Army War Diaries: First World War, 1914-1918
A duplicate copy of the War Diary was kept by the unit during the war. These copies are likely to have been passed to the regimental museum after the war. There may be a research fee for requests for information from regimental museums. Often these are small museums with limited numbers of staff. A fee may be required to carry out a search and/or make copies and the information you require may take a few months to retrieve. The regimental museums have received many requests for information since the interest in family history has grown in the last few years, so there may be a delay in finding information for researchers.British Army Regimental Museums
Australian and Canadian War Diaries Online
Selected War Diaries in the national military archive collections of Australia and Canada have been digitised and are available to download free of charge. In most cases these War Diaries will be duplicates of those held at the National Archives.
For links to these online archives go to:
- Australian War Memorial: First World War Diaries
- Library and Archives Canada: War Diaries of the First World War
(1) War Diary of 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, October 1916, Source: National Archives, Reference WO 95/2423
(2) War Diary of 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, November 1916, Source: National Archives, Reference WO 95/2423