This guide provides a brief introduction to the records of the First World War held at The National Archives. These are the records of British government, including the various branches of the military. There is also brief advice on some of the records you can find in other archives and organisations. For more detailed advice on the wide range of First World War records held at The National Archives, browse our First World War research guides.
What do I need to know before I start?
The records are arranged by government department, including the War Office, which administered the British Army, the Admiralty, which administered the Royal Navy, and the Air Ministry, which administered the Royal Air Force. The records of these three departments are identified by their National Archives department codes, WO, ADM and AIR, respectively.
Numerous other government departments have transferred First World War records to The National Archives, including the Home Office (HO), the Foreign Office (FO), the Cabinet Office (CAB) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PREM).
There is likely to be some overlap between separate departments on any given subject. For example, a decision made during the First World War may have been informed by the Foreign Office, discussed by the Cabinet and Prime Minister and then carried out by the Army and Navy.
Records of the British Army, Air Force and Royal Navy (c.1914–c.1920)
Go to our Digitised First World War records page for links to British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force online service records, medal records and, for the British Army, unit war diaries.
Records of Royal Navy officers and ratings on the First World War Royal Navy Lives at Sea database
Search for details of the service of Royal Navy officers and ratings who served in the First World War on the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database. You can search by name, service number and numerous other criteria.
The database is being compiled largely from records held at The National Archives and there is no charge for access. It is a joint project between The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and the Crew List Index Project with the help of a global team of e-volunteers. The database is continually updated and the project is expected to be completed by November 2018. You can track its progress by consulting the FAQs from the project website homepage.
Cabinet Papers (1915–1981)
Search our Cabinet Papers website for documents concerning decisions and discussions before, during, and after the First World War.
Explore additional records of the Cabinet and its wartime sub-committees, through our catalogue, in CAB 38 and CAB 42.
Records available only at The National Archives in Kew
To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).
British Army unit war diaries (1914–1922)
These diaries were daily accounts of operations. Search WO 95 in our catalogue for war diaries from the First World War. To search, enter the battalion number and the regiment with the word AND (in capitals) between them. Many diaries have been digitised – see our Unit war diaries page for more details.
Diaries and papers of top rank officers in the British Army
Browse the diaries of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig in WO 256, the papers of Field Marshall Lord Kitchener in WO 159 and PRO 30/57, the papers of General Earl Cavan in WO 79 and the papers of General Sir A J Murray, also in WO 79.
War Cabinet records (1916–1919)
Search or browse the following record series to find papers created by the War Cabinet, which took over the wartime role of the permanent Cabinet between December 1916 and October 1919:
War Office intelligence
Use our catalogue to search for papers of the Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence in WO 106 and WO 208, and related papers in WO 160, searching by keyword and restricting the date range. Browse the intelligence reports in WO 157 and the maps and plans in WO 78 by place.
Search, browse and consult the following departments to gain an overview of the First World War from various government and military records:
- War Office (WO), Admiralty (ADM) and Air Force (AIR) – this is where most armed forces and general war records will be found
- Foreign Office (FO) – correspondence, policy and negotiation with other states
- Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) – mainly correspondence to and from the Prime Minister’s office
- Home Office (HO) – this series focuses on domestic and internal affairs
Records in other archives and organisations
Wartime diaries and personal papers (1914–1918)
Visit the Imperial War Museum website for information on how to access records in their document archive and on the various collections held by the museum relevant to the First World War.
Many local archives hold useful information, including letters, diaries, photographs and the personal documents of service personnel and civilians.