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.