How to look for records of... British Army war diaries 1914-1922
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
What are these records?
These records are the unit war diaries of the British Army in the First World War and are held by The National Archives in record series WO 95.
They are not personal diaries (try the Imperial War Museum or Local Record Offices for those).
Different parts of the collection cover units serving in different theatres:
- France and Flanders: WO 95/1-3154, WO 95/3911-4193 and WO 95/5500
- Mesopotamia, Iraq and North Persia: WO 95/4965-5288
- East Africa, Cameroon and West Africa: WO 95/5289-5388
Additional operational records for the Royal Naval Division can be found in ADM 137.
Some diaries are available on other websites:
- Gallipoli and the Dardanelles: WO 95/4263-4359 Ancestry (£).
- Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Force: WO 95/3155-3657 Australian War Memorial and Archway
- Canadian Expedition Force: WO 95/3715-3910 Library and Archives Canada
What information do the records contain?
Some diaries record little more than daily losses and map references whilst others are much more descriptive, with daily reports on operations, intelligence summaries and other material. The digitised diaries cover activity in France and Belgium.
The diaries sometimes contain information about particular people but they are unit diaries, not personal diaries. A few contain details about awards of the Military Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.
Many maps and plans were included in the original diaries but some confidential material was removed before the files were made available. This accounts for the absence of some appendices referred to on the covers of many diaries.
You can take part in our crowdsourcing project Operation War Diary, which aims to unearth the details from within the diaries, including names, places and events.
Snapshots from unit war diaries have been used to create our @unitwardiaries twitter feed. This is a great way to see the variety of information the diaries contain.
How do I search the records?
You can search (£) for a diary in our catalogue by filling in the form below.
Each diary is listed in our catalogue under the name of the unit, for example ‘9 Battalion Manchester Regiment’, along with a short description summarising the theatre of operation and the section of the British Army command structure within which the unit existed (usually a division).
Please note, the search results will include the number(s) and term(s) you searched with wherever they appear in the title and short description of the diary. So if you search for the 3rd battalion of a regiment your results may include diaries for units in the 3rd division as well.
The following search tips may prove useful:
- If you search only by name of regiment (without a battalion number), your search results will include all the battalions in that regiment.
- You do not need to include the word ‘regiment’, ‘battalion’ or ‘brigade’. For example, to search for a battalion in the Northumberland Fusiliers, you need only search using the word ‘Northumberland’.
- When searching for unit numbers, use cardinal numbers (i.e. 1, 2, 3 etc.) as opposed to ordinal numbers (i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.). For example, to search for the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment search with “9 Manchester”
What do the records look like?
With each download, you will typically see a unit diary that may cover a period of several years. This may be divided into several PDF files, which you can save to your computer. You can then scroll through the PDF files to locate the battalion and dates that you are interested in.
Many of the war diaries were scribbled hastily in pencil and use obscure abbreviations, whilst some are the second carbon copy of the original, so they may be difficult to read.
Why can’t I find what I’m looking for?
Not all the unit war diaries held by The National Archives have been digitised.
Those diaries that haven’t been digitised are available to view in their original form at The National Archives in Kew. They are in record series WO 95.