First World War unit diaries go digital

By Jon Bauckham, 14 January 2014 - 10:17am

The National Archives has uploaded thousands of First World War unit diaries to the web, enabling family historians to learn more about the plight of British troops in France and Flanders

Tuesday 14 January 2014
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As well as being available to download through The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue, the diaries can be annotated on the Operation War Diary website © The National Archives

A selection of unit diaries from the First World War have been made available to view online for the first time.

Digitised as part of The National Archives’ (TNA) First World War 100 programme, the records chart the daily activities of the first cavalry and infantry divisions deployed to fight in the conflict, including the First Battalion South Wales Borderers, the 4th Dragoon Guards and the 5th Royal Irish Lancers.

Researchers can search the collection for free, with a small fee required for downloading digital copies of the documents.

While the tranche released today contains 1,944 records, further diaries from record series WO 95 will be digitised and uploaded to the web over the next five years, together comprising more than 1.5 million pages.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller said: “The unit diaries will allow us to hear the voices of those that sacrificed their lives and they are even more poignant now there are no living veterans who can speak directly about the events of the war.”

TNA has also launched an online 'crowdsourcing' project, Operation War Diary, in collaboration with Imperial War Museums (IWM) and research website Zooniverse.

Volunteers are encouraged to assist with tagging names, places and events from each unit diary so that it will be easier for family historians to trace their army ancestors.

A 10-minute tutorial on the site illustrates how to classify the data and catalogue a broader index of soldiers. Interesting entries can be shared and discussed, and similar pages can be linked by adding a hashtag (#).

Already, 100 diaries from the collections have been published on the website, with more to follow.

“Genealogists can discover the daily activities, stories and battles of each unit for themselves,” said TNA’s military records specialist, William Spencer.

“It also creates opportunities for the public, history enthusiasts, family historians and researchers worldwide to explore the official records which may lead to some new discoveries and perspectives of this important period of history.”

The digital leader for the IWM’s centenary programme, Luke Smith, said: “Operation War Diary will uncover new first-hand information about day-to-day life in the First World War – information that may not have been previously communicated through letters home or covered in traditional history books.”

He added that the project would “help today’s generation to discover even more” about the war and commemorate the soldiers who fought in it.

Marése O'Sullivan

take it further

► Search the first batch of diaries at


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