Your archive needs you! First World War for the Digital Age

Posted on 15/01/2014 by


first-world-war-logoFirst World War Diaries Go Online to Mark Centenary

Volunteers required for Operation War Diary

The National Archives has made the first batch of digitised First World War unit war diaries from France and Flanders available online via its First World War 100 portal. Once complete, it will comprise more than 1.5 million pages, opening them up to a global
audience for the first time. Also launched yesterday (Tuesday) is Operation War Diary, an innovative online crowdsourcing partnership project between The National Archives, Imperial War Museums (IWM) and Zooniverse, which aims to unearth the details from within the diaries.

The First World War unit war diaries are the most popular records from The National
Archives’ First World War collection (file series WO 95) and the first in a series of First
World War records to be digitised as part of The National Archives’ centenary
programme – First World War 100 – which spans a five-year period from June 2014 to
June 2019.

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.”

With some surprising revelations and astonishing stories, this first batch of unit war
diaries 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. 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.

In this first batch of 1,944 digitised unit war diaries is the daily account of the First
Battalion South Wales Borderers in 1914 (WO 95/1280/3), providing insight into the
anxiety and terror of the opening days of the war with the First Battle of Marne and
Aisne, right up until June 1919 with an account of sporting events, such as tug of war
and rugby, and even farewell dinners marking the end of the war.

Other unit war diaries included in the first batch are:

• The 4th Dragoon Guards who fired the first shots in Mons. (WO 95/1112/1)

• 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers who saw action continuously from 1914-18, were in some of
the bloodiest battles and included the last British soldier to die in the First World
War, Private George Edwin Ellison, shortly before Armistice came into force. (WO

• 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers who were in the final “lance on lance” action of the First

World War. (WO 95/1113/2)

Read alongside other records in The National Archives’ First World War collection, such as the Prisoner of War interview reports (file series WO 161), the pieces of the jigsaw can be put together to form a catalogue of first-hand official accounts of the First World War.

Further batches of the unit war diaries will be released throughout the course of The
National Archives’ centenary programme.

Operation War Diary – Your Archive Needs You!

As part of the digitisation of the Unit War Diaries and to engage people in the centenary,
The National Archives is teaming up with Imperial War Museums (IWM) and ooniverse
to launch Operation War Diary. IWM’s expertise in citizen history and Zooniverse’s
citizen science technology, previously used to map the stars, is combined in this
innovative crowdsourcing history project which will enable the public to capture
information from The National Archives’ unit war diaries.

Volunteers who sign up to Operation War Diary will be assigned a segment of a unit war diary and asked to tag key details from the pages, such as names, places and events. The data inputted by volunteers will be collected and used to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries, enabling family historians around the world to trace their army ancestors and providing academics and researchers with a better understanding of how the war was fought.

Information gained through Operation War Diary will also be incorporated into IWM’s
Lives of the First World War project, which will launch in late Spring 2014. Lives of the
First World War is an innovative, interactive platform that will inspire people across the
world to discover, remember and share the life stories of those who served in uniform
and worked on the home front. By the end of the centenary it will become the
permanent digital memorial to more than 8 million men and women from across Britain
and the Commonwealth, saving their stories for future generations

100 unit war diaries have been made available on Operation War Diary in the first
instance, with more diaries to be added over the coming months and as they are
published on The National Archives’ website.

Volunteers wishing to take part in Operation War Diary can join the project here:

Luke Smith, Digital Lead for IWM’s First World War Centenary Programme said: “Operation War Diary will uncover new first-hand information about day to day life in the First World War – information that may not have previously been communicated through letters home or covered in traditional history books. This project will also be an
invaluable source for IWM’s Lives of the First World War as it will help today’s
generation to discover even more about the full life-stories of the people they choose to

Chris Lintott, Founder of Zooniverse and primary presenter of the BBC series The
Sky at Night said: “History is an amazing and rich topic that many people love. We’re hoping to bring it onto people’s desktops and tablets in a new and amazing way. This
will be our first pure history project and we’re excited to tell our Citizen Scientists that
they now be Citizen Historians too!”

Maria Miller, Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, said: “The National Archives’ digitised First World War unit diaries will allow us to hear the voices of those that sacrificed their lives and is even more poignant now there are no living veterans who can speak directly about the events of the war. This new online vehicle gives a very public voice to some of these soldiers, through which we will be able to hear their thoughts and feelings. Using Operation War Diary, we can follow in their physical shadow as they fought across the Western Front.

“The First World War centenary is all about remembrance, recognition and
understanding. Yesterday informs today. The National Archives’ initiatives are at the
heart of the Government’s First World War centenary programme to forge lasting
connections between the past, present and future as we commemorate the lives and
bravery of all those who served in the First World War.”