First World War unit diaries published online

Unit diaries chronicling the day-by-day operations of regiments during the First World War have been made available online for the first time.

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Unit diaries chronicling the day-by-day operations of regiments during the First World War have been made available online for the first time.

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The National Archives has today published the first batch of diaries in a new online portal, as part of its centenary programme. Once complete, the portal will comprise more than 1.5 million pages relating to France and Flanders.

The domain, titled First World War 100, will open up wartime records previously available only at the National Archives site at Kew in London.

Included in the first batch of digitised unit war diaries is the daily account of the First Battalion South Wales Borderers in 1914 (file series WO 95/1280/3). This documents the anxiety and terror felt during the opening days of the war, as well as sporting events and farewell dinners marking the end of the conflict.

Also included are the diaries of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who fired the first shots in Mons (file series WO 95/1112/1).

The diaries of the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, who saw action continuously from 1914–18, have also been published today. The Lancers, who witnessed some of the bloodiest battles, included the last British soldier to die in the First World War – Private George Edwin Ellison, who was killed in action while scouting on the outskirts of Mons. He was killed shortly before Armistice came into force. (File series WO 95/1134/2).

In addition to the unit war diaries, the portal will later include service records of the Household Cavalry, the minutes and papers of the Central Military Service Tribunal, and medal cards and prisoner of war interviews.

William Spencer, author and military records specialist at The National Archives, said: “Making the First World War unit diaries available online allows people across the world to discover the daily activities, stories and battles of each unit for themselves.

“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.”

Mark Connelly, a professor of modern British history at the University of Kent, told History Extra: “It’s absolutely wonderful that these documents are being digitised. They will allow people to map something of the character of units and the type of officers they had in charge.

“They will also be full of domestic detail that you don’t associate with life at war – for example, that an officer had to have tooth removed, or a soldier caught the flu. The diaries will help show that not all casualties are by enemy action. You had accidents and illnesses similar to domestic ones.”

Speaking in November, when the digitisation was first announced, Connelly said: “The diaries will also increase people’s understanding of how relatively little time men spent in the trenches. Men had very varied lives, but within a monotonous spectrum – they would be on the front line for a few days, but then they would be doing backbreaking but monotonous work such as filling sandbags.”

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To find out more about the First World War 100 portal, click here.