National Archives says First World War war diaries project will lead to "new discoveries"

By Richard Moss | 14 January 2014

The National Archives digitises its First World War unit war diaries and launches a crowd sourcing project to mark the centenary of the First World War

a black and white photo of British infantry on a muddy road in France during the First World War
2nd South Wales Borderers on the road to the trenches in the rain. Montauban (October 1916)© IWM (Q 5320)
The most popular records in the First World War collection of the National Archives – the unit war diaries – are being digitised and put online to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Written by officers at unit level, the day-by-day accounts of life in the trenches have long been a rich source of information for military and social historians and writers who have contributed to the ever growing canon of literature on the conflict.

But now the public, including the large band of amateur and family historians and First World War enthusiasts, will be able to browse these valuable – albeit official – records online and draw their own conclusions about the events of the war.

The National Archives are promising some “surprising revelations and astonishing stories”, and William Spencer, their military records specialist and author, said the newly-digitised records would allow people to discover the “daily activities, stories and battles of each unit for themselves”.

Spencer also said that the eyes of amateur historians “may lead to some new discoveries and perspectives of this important period of history.”

a screenshot from the Operation War Diary website
To speed this process, the National Archives has teamed up with the Imperial War Museum and crowd sourcing specialists Zooniverse to launch Operation War Diary, which is seeking public support to tag and index the people who appear in the pages of the war diaries and add some valuable context.  

The information will then be incorporated into the IWM’s own new web project, The Lives of the First World War, an interactive, person-focused platform due to launch later this year that tells the stories of those who served both in uniform and on the home front during the First World War.

The first batch of diaries to be digitised in the project, which will eventually see millions of records released over the course of the First World War Centenary between 2014 and 2018, reveals the real-time account of the first three cavalry and the first seven infantry divisions who were part of the first wave of British army troops deployed in France and Flanders in 1914.

They cover the entire period of the units’ involvement in the war, from their arrival on the front to their departure at the end of the war, and include detailed daily accounts from units like the First Battalion South Wales Borderers in 1914, the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers - who saw action continuously from 1914-18 - and the 4th Dragoon Guards, who fired the first shots in Mons.

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