Digital First World War Resources: Online Archival Sources

By DR ROBERT T. FOLEY

For many years I envied the research sources available to my colleagues writing about contemporary defence and strategic issues. The ability to research a project from the comfort of their favorite desk, be this at home or in the office, seemed so much more appealing than exhausting and sometime fruitless searching through dusty old files in far-flung foreign archives. Particularly as I grew older and less enamored of living out of a suitcase, the ability to pick up the phone to interview a source or to download almost all the documents needed for a project seemed a much more alluring way of writing. Now don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the time during my doctoral research in the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg and the National Archives in Washington, DC, and even the Public Record Office in Kew. (I am also showing my age and origins – For me there will only ever be one ‘National Archives,’ and this is in Washington, DC, not Kew or College Park, Maryland!) However, at a certain point in one’s life, the comforts of home become important. Of course, the research methods employed by those working on contemporary projects have traditionally been denied historians, particularly historians of the First World War. In order to do our research we have had to trek to archives. This, however, is slowly changing.

The centenary of the First World War, combined with cheaper and easier digital reproduction and storage, has led to a veritable explosion in archival sources available online. I would like to examine some of these here. My goal in this post is to show the growing wealth of material available from governmental archives, rather than to provide an exhaustive assessment of online primary source material on the First World War.

As primarily a historian of the German army in the First World War, I have spent most of my archival time in the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg. My time here, particularly working in the papers of the Kriegsgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, has given lie to the belief that there is nothing left of the German army papers from the First World War. In August 2014, the Bundesarchiv released 700,000 pages of digitized material related to the First World War online. The project is a massive leap for the Bundesarchiv and promises easy access to some important sources. Currently available are files from the Prussian Military Cabinet (PH1), Heeresgruppen (army group) files (PH5), as well as files related to the war in the German colonies (mainly from the RH61 series). The collection also includes wartime files of the Reichskanzlei (Imperial Chancellery), including the reports of the Imperial Chancellor’s representatives at the German army’s high command. The digitized material also includes the personal papers of Generaloberst Moriz Freiherr von Lyncker, the chief of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Military Cabinet through most of the war, Admiral Georg von Müller, the chief of the Kaiser’s Naval Cabinet through the war, and the Center Party Reichstag deputy Matthias Erzberger, who played a key role in the armistice negotiations in 1918. Entire files cannot be downloaded from this collection, but the files are easy to navigate and the images are easy to read online.

Although the Bundesarchiv files are a welcome addition to the growing amount of online archival material from the First World War, their selection seems a bit odd. Two large collections, or at least the important part of two collections, have already been published. Georg von Müller’s diaries were edited by Walter Görlitz and published in 1959; Holger Afflerbach has also recently edited and published the letters and diaries of Moriz von Lyncker. The selection of so many files from the war in the colonies is also a bit strange. While the war outside Europe was certainly important, most researchers will be interested in the war on the Western and Eastern Fronts in Europe, and the Bundesarchiv has some outstanding sources that they have not yet reproduced.

Another fascinating collection of German First World War documents that has recently been digitized and made available online is from the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (TsAMO RF). Funded in part by the German government, the TsAMO RF has made available 36,000 pages of material from its ‘German Military Documents of the First World War’ collection (Fond 500, Series 12519). This collection is a mixture of material from the Prussian General Staff, the Prussian Ministry of War, and German field units. Much of what is available is Kriegstagebücher, or unit war diaries, though there is quite a bit of pre-war material from the Railway Section of the General Staff and some interesting studies of Russian fortresses. There are also quite a lot of tactical maps available here. This eclectic collection is not easy to search, and entire files cannot be downloaded. However, the images online are easily read and can be printed or downloaded individually.

Archival material relating to the British forces in the First World War has been available for longer than the German sources, and consequently a much wider range of material is available. The UK National Archives has been making digital copies of some of its wartime records available for many years, but the centenary has spurred a massive expansion of these records. The digitized Cabinet Office papers from the war provide an invaluable source for historians, and the National Archives has now digitized some 1.5 million pages of unit war diaries from the WO95 series. At the moment, they charge a small fee to view online or download pdfs of many of these diaries. The National Archives have also teamed up with the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse on a project entitled ‘Operation War Diary.’ This project aims to crowdsource the unit diaries, with large numbers of the public tagging data within unit diaries. The results of this project will be made freely available to the public.

Personally, I find the UK National Archives collections inordinately difficult to navigate. In my experience, it is very challenging to find the material I am looking for, and this has only gotten worse with time. This is because there is an uneasy balance here between catering for the casual and the professional historian. Much of the material is ‘hidden’ behind divisions created by the National Archives to take researchers in certain directions. For example, when browsing the Cabinet Office papers, one is given the choice of different themes: ‘total war,’ ‘diplomacy and foreign relations,’ etc. While this is undoubtedly helpful for a casual researcher or an undergraduate, it does not help someone attempting a serious study. Moreover, much of the material digitized by the National Archive has been done so with an eye towards those researching the past of family members, rather than professional historians. Given the vast collection available, this is a shame, but will hopefully improve with time.

The First World War digital collections of the UK National Archives can be profitably supplemented with those of the Australian War Memorial, which has long made available the records of Australian formations and the units under which they served. For the most part, this means the unit war diaries found in the AWM4 class, which generally run from 1916 to 1918. These files cover a wide range of commands from GHQ downwards. They also cover theatres outside France, including the Mediterranean and Egyptian Expeditionary Forces. Unlike most other archives, the Australian War Memorial provides its files as pdfs that can be downloaded free of cost. The files are easy to search and to find, and, in my view, this service provides a model of what can be accomplished with online archival resources.

Finally, the French Service historique de la Défense has digitized some 18,000 journaux des marches et opérations from the GR 26 N series amounting to some 1.5 million pages. I have not had the chance to use this material in any depth. The site appears well organized, though researchers need to search for specific units and are unable to browse files easily. The website Mémoire des hommes also includes a ‘Morts pour la France’ section, which allows individuals to search the 1.3 million who died as a result of the First World War.

Of course, the archive material on the First World War available on the sites above amounts to a fraction of the material in these archives. At the moment, serious scholars will still need to visit these archives to complete most research projects. However, the increasing availability of First World War archival material online is a very welcome step. The centenary has certainly spurred a new emphasis on making such material available, and one can only hope this will continue to expand, particularly over the course of the next few years. What is currently available is still of considerable use. By providing a base of material, largely in the form of unit war diaries, operational historians in particular can get quite a bit of research done before having to go to the archives and can concentrate on finding other new material for their projects. Moreover, the increasing availability of unit war diaries may well open up new avenues of comparative research across national boundaries.

Have you used any of the sources above and do you have comments on these? Have you found other governmental archival sources I haven’t included here? Feel free to leave your experiences and your views below. I will update this post, with appropriate attributions, when other views or sources are added.

Image: Cover of Akte Nr. 7 of the TsAMO RF German documents.

16 thoughts on “Digital First World War Resources: Online Archival Sources

  1. I’ve run across a number of WW1 training manuals spread out in various locations around the web (so for example, at http://wartimecanada.ca/categories/training-manuals, or on Scribd. You can find the same things at the Imperial War Museums archive in person. With regards to the naval aspect, the Dreadnought project also has a remarkable number of original little tidbits uploaded relating to ship plans and suchlike.

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    1. Ben, Many thanks for your reply. I was hoping someone would chime in with some material from Canada. I used their online collection a few years ago, but wasn’t able to find much when I looked again recently. I am sure there is more good material there! Do you have a link to the Dreadnought project? I have focused here on official government archives, but of course there are other sites with really valuable material that are not necessarily government archives!

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      1. My mistake, when you said, ‘Government archival sources’, I assumed you meant archival material from Government sources!

        The Dreadnought project can be found here:- http://www.dreadnoughtproject.org/tfs/index.php/Main_Page

        They have scans for ship plans for both German and and French warships, along with a number of other interesting pieces dotted around the place (so for example, if you visit the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ Class Battleship page, they have photographs of original documents detailing internal firing circuits, navyphones, and so on).

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  2. One question with digital records is the same as that for physical archives: how much is retained of the ‘unofficial’? With the old fashioned ‘pack system’ that I joined the RN with in the late 1970s, and its equivalent in MOD, significant issues could be noted from the minute sheets inside the cover that were not always evident from the hard copies of the papers themselves. Original documents may have gone to Archive, but I suspect that many pack minutes did not.

    Thus a senior officer’s or official’s agreement to or rejection of a proposal might seem clear in the paper or letter, but the pack minute might tell a different story: For example, the green ink might say, ‘I am agreeing to the proposal from Director-General ‘X’ because it is the best of a range of poorly expressed options. I do not wish this reservation to be apparent to Department ‘Y’ (the War Office, The FCO, the Treasury, or whomever …) because that might give them the ammunition to block my proposal for ‘Z’. And so on…

    Pity then, the poor researcher who never gets to see this material that shades the grey; and even more pity on the researcher who does not know it exists!

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    1. Many thanks for your comment, Dick, and I am sorry for the delay in responding. You raise a very important point about the use of written records, and particularly the use of ‘official’ written records. The historian is ever beholden to the producers and the archivists who decide which documents are kept and which are destroyed. As your example points out, considerable important material is often withheld because it might be considered sensitive or cast decisions in a bad light. I must admit that my knowledge of the British Admiralty files is limited, but my experience with the War Office files from the First World War period is that coversheets with comments were usually saved and kept with the files. As time goes on, though, understanding the unspoken context for comments or decisions becomes all the harder for readers and makes personal papers all the more important.

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  3. I was interested in the comment about material being organized to suit the researcher of family history rather than of military history. I have found that the Jeudwine archive in Liverpool (not on-line) appears to have been carefully reconstructed in the last few years to suit those looking for material relating to individual units of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division rather than reflecting the divisional issues that were probably in the mind of the donor (the GOC) when he parcelled the papers up and sent them to the city library. Not only is this particularly annoying since the references actually used in an MA dissertation prior to reorganization are no longer relevant but the notes and photographs taken are filed on my hard drive with references that are no longer relevant and for which there does not seem to be a simple mapping. Thematic issues such as training are now difficult to follow through.

    I agree that the British National Archive is something of a maze when looking for particular units. I have not used the cabinet papers as yet (I am looking at training and learning within a particular division) but I have found the @rcre search engine useful http://www.arcre.com/wdsearch in regard to war diaries for proving hints within WO95.

    The increased availability of archives in French and German perhaps means that some fluency in those languages will be expected of researchers in future. Can we expect the appearance in English of modern equivalents of Becke’s Order of Battle of Divisions for German and French armies, to act a a search guide? I was quite surprised at the readability of the French journals armed only with a dodgy and rather antique ‘O’ Level, a bit of Alpine kayaking French and my 1919 French-English dictionary of military terms (apparently stolen from the Foreign Office). My German does not extend beyond ‘A coffee, please’ and ‘My lorry has knocked down your wall but the Damage Control Officer will pay’. The Australian archives certainly provide a additional perspective and less seems to have been weeded in some areas such as training although I have not yet looked at Corps level material for British army units of the BEF for comparison (primarily because they have not been digitised and it’s a long way to London – which reinforces your point about initial on-line searching being backed by old-fashioned legwork).

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Ian. The link to @rcre search is particularly useful and one I hadn’t seen before. I am sorry to hear about the reorganization of the Jeudwine material. I remember it as a very useful source, but haven’t been in the LRO since its recent reoganization. It seems that most archives are now catering more and more to researchers looking for very specific local units or individuals. I must admit that I don’t know an equivalent of Becke’s orders of battle for the French or German armies. I haven’t done much work at the regimental level. There are a couple of files on the TsAMO site that provide information on the orders of battle of German First World War units, but I haven’t explored it fully. Perhaps another reader will have done and can assess its value!

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  4. I couldn’t agree more with Bob as I’m also getting to an age where travelling to archives is no longer much fun and I welcome the appearance of material on the internet for scholars to use. My only caveat is that the way material is being organised on the internet can be really frustrating; for example, the French WW1 war-diaries online are apparently set up primarily for genealogical research and you can only download one page at a time. Those of us wanting the entire war-diary’s contents are left with a very lengthy downloading process.
    Another example is the French national library online, Gallica. This has the most astonishing amount of material on it about the Great War but the search engine appears to have been made by someone who didn’t want anyone to find it. On Gallica, there are a great number of original military manuals from the wartime period and all the immediate post-war regimental histories but the only way to find this material is to wade through pages and pages of search results.
    In relation to the military archives at Vincennes, I’ve in effect been doing my own digitalisation of material from there. The archivists are quite happy for researchers to photograph as much as they want and I now go there, photograph as many cartons worth of material as I can and then come home with enough to keep me occupied for months on end. Another advantage of this approach is that I can always go straight back to material to check references that would not be possible if I just had written notes.
    Tim

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Tim. Your points about the French war diaries is well made. They clearly share some of the same problems as the UK National Archives cataloging. Your point about ‘self-digitization’ is also very important. Most archives (the Bundesarchiv is a notable exception) allow users to take digital photos now, and as you say, this has really transformed using archives. It certainly makes time in the archives much more efficient, doesn’t it? I wonder what implications this has for scholarship. I was also very interested in your comments about Gallica. I agree about its cataloging as well, but it is such a wonderful source! Stand by, as I have a post in the pipeline on online official histories of the First World War, in which Gallica features prominently! I would be really interested in your views on this post when it comes out.

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      1. I think that the new technology has very much streamlined the process of historical research. Whilst I’m reasonably new to all this compared to some of you (and so have never quite done things the old fashioned way without computers and cameras), I find that all the new tech really saves on time and money. Because I can use a camera, it means I don’t need to spend several expensive weeks sitting in an archive painstakingly copying things out, rather I just snap everything relevant that I can find and take it home with me. The result being that if I want to doublecheck a paper, I have a physical copy of the original with no room for interpretation or need to pay expensive photocopier bills.

        It also helps with the analysis once I get home. Rather than having to spend hours squinting at faded documents and notes, I can simply use image manipulation to raise the detail on the image file and get at the writing. I can then record all of my notes and files in a tagged system on Evernote or similar programs without needing to resort to a card-index system.

        I have a feeling that all this significantly cuts down on the length of time it takes to research and produce articles/books in comparison to say, forty years ago.

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      2. Don’t get me wrong, Ben, there is no way I would like to go back to the old approach to archival work! One of the most frustrating things about working in German archives is the inability to use digital cameras. Whenever I go to the archives in Freiburg or Munich, it’s like stepping back in time. The ability to use digital cameras has transformed research, just like laptops and online catalogs did before. I think overall the transformation has been very good. As you say, we can now copy large numbers of documents quickly and manipulate them and organize them at our leisure. I think this has also raised the bar, or at least it should have raised the bar, for what is expected from new research now. With archival work being easier and cheaper, the archival research in theses and books should be even deeper now!

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