The National Archives (UK) First World War Unit Diaries Online

By Jesse MacLeod

The National Archives (TNA) in the United Kingdom (UK) have made their second batch of war diaries from the First World War available for download as of today. For a nominal fee, you can now download high quality PDF files containing the war diaries for every unit in the British 9th-33rd Infantry Divisions. These are the first two contingents of Lord Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’, raised following the heavy losses in 1914 of the original 8 British Infantry Divisions. The diaries of these previous divisions have been available for download since last year. The files containing the diaries also include appendices, records of orders, maps and other useful documents that can shed light on the experience of a particular unit.

How to Access

For those who may be unfamiliar with the TNA website, here is a simple list of instructions for how to access these new files:

  • On the TNA homepage, select ‘Discovery- our catalogue’ (centre of the top banner).
  • On the next page, select ‘Advanced Search’ under the search box (center of the top banner)
  • This brings you here. Enter a unit name in the keyword search field (top of page). For example, ‘Black Watch’. Then enter a date range, for example 1916-1917. And in the ‘Search Within’ field further down the page, enter ‘WO95’ into any of the boxes. This is the reference number for the fonds which contains the war diaries (WO=War Office).
  • This results in a page that looks like this. From here you can select items which match what you are looking for. The payment/download process is very fast, easy and secure.

In a matter of moments and at a fraction of the cost of traveling to the the TNA you can have access to some fascinating primary documents for research or general interest. Patrons should note that the item-level descriptions (in this case, the individual diaries) are sometimes incorrect in their date ranges. For example, this page lists the range as May 1916-December 1917, when in fact the file is for May 1917-December 1917. The previous date is found here. So if you do not initially find exactly what you wanted, check the files sequentially before or after the file you accessed. This unfortunately can be a common issue in many larger archival institutions with digital references. Regardless, the National Archives (UK) should be commended for their efforts in making invaluable material available in time for the Great War centennial commemorations beginning this year.