How to look for records of... First World War – an overview
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
This guide provides a brief overview of First World War records held at The National Archives. You’ll get a sense of the sorts of records we hold and links to guides with more details and advice on how to find and view specific sets of records. There is also advice on some of the related records you can find in other archives and organisations. You can browse through a list of all our First World War guides on our research guides pages. See our First World War 100 pages to explore the rest of our content and coverage of the war, including blogs, podcasts and videos.
What are these records?
First World War records at The National Archives are records once held by central government departments, especially the departments responsible for the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the Royal Air Force. Among them are records of service for individuals, operational plans and reports, administrative records of various kinds all the way up to those documenting top level government policy and decision making.These are the original records, most of them paper records, that played some part in the working life of these departments and the branches of the military which they governed.
How to search for and view records
Before you begin a search you should see if there is a guide to the records you are looking for – this guide is designed to help you to do that. Each guide listed in the sections below contains the links and advice you will need to search a specific set of records.
How you search will depend, partly, on whether the records are available online. Some of the online records are available on our own website but others are provided by our licensed partners and there are links to their websites in our guidance where this is the case.
Many records, almost all of which were created on paper, have no online version and to see these you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for digital copies to be made and sent to you. The search for records held at Kew begins in our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of the records and a catalogue search means searching for the keywords and dates that match these short descriptions (our guides provide keyword suggestions). Some descriptions are just a word or two, others contain several sentences of descriptive text. You can narrow a search using the advanced catalogue search to target the specific departments and series into which the records are arranged, each one identified by a code. Three of the most significant for First World War research are:
- the War Office, which administered the British Army – department code WO
- the Admiralty, which administered the Royal Navy – department code ADM
- the Air Ministry, which administered the Royal Air Force – department code AIR
Numerous other government departments have transferred First World War records to The National Archives. You will find details for many of them in the guides which we provide links to below.
When you find a description of a record in the catalogue it will come with a document reference – you will need the document reference to see the record at Kew or to request copies. For more guidance on using our catalogue, visit our Discovery help pages.
Records of individuals
Military and intelligence
The service record of an individual will usually provide more detail on them than any other single record. However, you can use operational records of the units they served with to paint a broader picture of service (see next section for advice on operational records). Military service records of the First World War are held separately for each branch of the military and then split further by rank, with the records of officers held separately from other ranks. There are guides for each:
- British Army soldiers and other ranks and officers
- Royal Navy ratings, warrant officers and commissioned officers
- Royal Naval Reserve or Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve personnel
- Royal Naval Division personnel
- Royal Marines other ranks and officers
- Royal Air Force personnel – and the services which preceded the formation of the RAF in April 1918, the Royal Flying Corps, with guides to officers and lower-ranked airmen, and the Royal Naval Air Service, with its own officers and lower-ranked servicemen known as ratings
The First World War saw the creation of women’s military units alongside the traditional male forces. For guidance on finding records of women’s service, use our guides to:
- Women in the British Army
- Women’s Royal Naval Service
- Women’s Royal Air Force personnel
- Military nursing
For other records at The National Archives which concern or mention individuals who served with the military during the war read our guides to:
- British military campaign and service medals or gallantry medals
- British and Commonwealth prisoners of war
- Disability and dependants’ pension records
- Death records
In general, the identities of individuals who worked for the security and intelligence services are protected and therefore records of them are not made available to the public. For more information read our guide to records of the intelligence and security services.
Compared to military personnel, you are far less likely to find detailed information on an individual merchant seaman who served during the war as the registers that were kept to record service have not survived. See our guide to merchant seamen of the First World War for more detail. We also provide guidance on finding merchant seamen’s campaign medals.
The Home Guard was not created until the Second World War but records of individuals on the Home Front in the First World War, for which we have guides, include those of refugees and some records relating to conscientious objectors.
We also have guides to finding records of internees and enemy aliens, and of enemy POWs in British hands.
Operational records and maps
Military and intelligence
Operational records range from the daily reports of small units to the higher echelons of the military commands, or combined operations, and can provide background information not present in records of individuals.
For guidance on finding operational records of the various military services consult our guides to:
- British Army operations in the First World War – for advice on finding battalion war diaries, regimental records and other army operational records.
- Royal Navy operations – for advice on finding records including ship’s logs and the Royal Naval Division.
- Royal Air Force operations – for guidance on records including squadron Operations Record Books, crashes and combat reports.
- Intelligence and security services – for advice on finding signals and intelligence records.
Our huge collection of First World War maps is detailed in one of our two military maps guides.
The National Archives also holds some papers of senior army officers. Browse the diaries of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in WO 256, the papers of Field Marshal 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.
There are some surviving ships logs from merchant ships operating during the First World War, providing details of voyages. How to search for records of wrecked or sunk ships is explained in a separate guide.
On the Home Front, the Ministry of National Service was set up to oversee maintenance of a sufficient labour force and military recruiting. Find its records by searching or browsing in the series NATS 1.
Our guidance to records documenting land and property requisitioned by the military and the state contains a section on the First World War.
Though we do not generally hold photographs of individuals, there are large numbers of photographs depicting elements of military operations, some of them taken as part of the operations themselves, and some from the Home Front too. Consult the First World War section of our photographs guide for more details and advice on how to find photographs at The National Archives.
Government policy and strategy, international relations and the aftermath of the war
The First World War saw the creation of new government offices, the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. For guidance on finding their records see our guides to Cabinet papers and to Prime Minister’s Office records.
There are no guides covering the financing of the war but you can read through the papers of Sir John Bradbury, Joint Permanent Secretary to the Treasury (1913-1919) and chief financial advisor to the government during the war in T 170. Look also at the papers of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Office in T 172.
For records covering industrial mobilisation again you will need to go straight to the records as there are no guides specifically on this subject. A good place to start would be the papers of the Board of Trade’s wartime committees in BT 13 and similar records of wartime committees in BT 55.
For guidance on finding records of government concerning the conduct of the war and international relations, see our guides to Foreign Office records and Colonial Office records.
Our only guide specifically targeting records covering the aftermath of the war is for the League of Nations.
Records in other organisations and other resources
Explore our Education pages on The Great War 1914 to 1918 for an interactive history of the conflict.
Find out about the British Army in the First World War on The Long, Long Trail website and through the National Army Museum.
Search The Times Archive and the Guardian and Observer Digital Archive to view articles (charges apply) about the First World War.
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.
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