Digital First World War Resources: Online Official Histories — The War on Land

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

In a recent post, I examined the growing availability of governmental archival sources covering the First World War. In this, I want to look at the increasing number of official histories of the war that are becoming available online. In this post, I will concentrate on texts covering land operations. I will cover operations on sea and in the air in a separate post. Throughout the Interwar period into the post-Second World War period, the governments of most of the belligerents produced multi-volume series of histories covering operations during the First World War. These histories are not without their problems; Marcus Pöhlmann has given us an excellent analysis of the biases of the writers of the German official history and Andrew Green has examined the writers of the British official history. Despite issues identified in these assessments, official histories still provide invaluable sources for historians of the war: Written with full access to official and unofficial sources and often in close conjunction with key wartime leaders, official histories often give us insights we are unable to reconstruct with the sources available today. Additionally, they generally provide some of the most definitive operational histories of the war’s battles and campaigns.

The most extensive official history of the war was produced by France. Les armée française dans la grande guerre was produced by the Service historique of the French general staff between 1922 and 1938. This massive series runs to some 104 individual volumes. It is divided into different parts (tomes), with each tome consisting of multiple text volumes providing a narrative and analysis of operations (précis) throughout the war. These volumes are supported by numerous volumes of annexes that reproduce key orders, reports, and separate cases of maps. An example of the scale of this history can be seen in the first tome, which covers the war of movement up to mid-November 1914. This tome has four volumes of narrative and analysis with eleven volumes of annexes and eight cases of maps. The narrative volumes of this tome alone run to some 3,430 pages.

Given the size of this history, these volumes have generally only been available in a few major research libraries. Thanks to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we now have online access to these invaluable volumes. On their website Gallica, the précis and annexes of Les armée française dans la grande guerre can be read and downloaded as pdfs. Moreover, these pdfs have the advantage of being searchable, which is especially welcome since there is no index for the series. Individual volumes aren’t always easy to locate on Gallica and some are misidentified, but a very helpful list of each volume and annex, along with links to each, can be found here.

While perhaps not as extensive as the French official history of the war, the contribution of the forces of the British Empire have also been well covered by official histories. Between 1923 and 1949, the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence produced a large number of volumes under the title History of the Great War based on Official Documents: Military Operations covering Britain’s roll in the war on land, including fourteen volumes of narrative covering the Western Front and eleven dealing with other fronts. Sir James E. Edmonds took the lead in compiling these volumes. While many of these have been reprinted and many are available to purchase electronically on DVD, only the text volume one covering operations from the outbreak of the war till October 1914 is available to download without cost. (Volume 2 of 1914 used to be available on archive.org, but appears to have been taken down.)

In addition to the volumes covering operations during the war, the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence also published a number of series relevant to historians of the war. The Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War, 1914-1920, published in 1922, provides an invaluable source of all manner of topics related to the British involvement in the war, from casualties to size of the armed forces at different points in the war. Principle Events, 1914-1918 gives a useful chronology of the war from the British perspective. A.M. Henniker’s Transportation on the Western Front, which was published in 1937, also provides important information about the British logistical effort during the war.

Of course, the British experience of the war was not confined to troops purely from the British Isles. Though many might often have been first generation migrants, the constituent parts of the British Empire also played a key role in the course of the war. Under the direction of the noted war correspondent Charles E. W. Bean, the Australians produced twelve volumes covering the Australian contribution to the war — The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. The first seven volumes cover land campaigns from Gallipoli to the end of the war on the Western Front, and the other volumes examine the role of the Australian Flying Corps and the Royal Australian Navy. Digital copies of these volumes have been made available for download from the Australian War Memorial. Each volume has been broken down into sections of smaller pdf files, and these can be downloaded from the Australian War Memorial website.

The New Zealand contribution to military operations in the First World War is cover by four volumes of official histories. Major Fred Waite published The New Zealanders at Gallipoli in 1921; Col. Hugh Stewart published The New Zealand Division 1916-1919: The New Zealanders in France in 1922; in 1922, Sinai and Palestine was published by Lt Col C.G. Powles; and finally Lt H.T.B. Drew published The War Effort of New Zealand in 1923. A number of other volumes covered the artillery and engineers in the war. All of these, as well as some regimental histories, can be read online through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection run by the Victoria University of Wellington.

The large Indian participation in the First World War was covered in a single volume entitled India’s Contribution to the Great War published by the Government of India in 1923. This is now available to read on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts collection.

Although no where near as extensive, the official history of the Canadian army in the First World War is another useful source for historians of operations on the Western Front. In the Interwar period, the Historical Section of the General Staff of the Canadian army had begun work on a planned eight-volume history of the war. However, only one volume of narrative and one volume of annexes and maps had been published by the outbreak of the Second World War. Col. A. Fortescue Duguid published the first volume of the Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914-1919, which covered August 1914 to September 1915, in 1938. After the Second World War, this project was abandoned, but a large, single-volume work entitled Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 was published in 1964 by Col. G.W.L. Nicholson of the Canadian Army Historical Branch. This volume covers the Canadian army’s participation in the war from mobilisation to demobilisation. Both versions of the Canadian official histories are free to download as pdfs from the Canadian National Defence and the Canadian Forces website.

Although the United States only entered the war in 1917, the official history produced by the US government provides a great deal of significant material. In 1918, the US Army organised a Historical Section at the Army War College to write a history of the American Expeditionary Forces in the war. However, budget restrictions prevented this from getting off the ground. The Historical Section, however, had collected enormous quantities of documents to write this history, and in 1948, many of these documents were published in a seventeen-volume series entitled, United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919. This series was republished by the US Army’s Center of Military History in 1988, and the volumes of this version are available for download from the Center of Military History website. Although this series does not provide a narrative of AEF operations, the orders and reports reproduced in these volumes come from US, British, and French units, providing easy access to a good range of primary material covering training, lessons, and operations in the last two years of the war. Along side the Allied documents, the series also often provides German documents in translation. Some of these German documents were captured during the war, but many were provided by the team of US researchers who worked in the Reichsarchiv during the 1920s and 1930s. More ‘official’ information about the US contribution to the war can also be found in Col Leonard P. Ayres’ The War with Germany: A Statistical Summary published by the US Army General Staff in 1919.

The military efforts of the Central Powers are also well covered in official histories. The task of writing the German official account fell to the Reichsarchiv, comprised of former officers from the pre-war General Staff’s Historical Section. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, these authors published twelve volumes of Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Die militärischen Operationen zu Lande, covering Germany’s military operations till late 1917. Two further volumes covering operations in 1917 and 1918 were ready for publication in 1942 and 1944, but German defeat in the Second World War prevented their publication until 1956. The twelve volumes published before 1939 have been easy to purchase secondhand, but the final two volumes published in the 1950s have been rare, even in major research libraries. Fortunately, the Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich has recently digitised all fourteen volumes, which are available for download or to be read online. A warning about these: The pdf files of the individual volumes are extremely large and are prone to download problems. One of the reasons for the size of these digital files is the quality of the pdfs. These are sharp and the included maps are in colour, which makes them very useful.

The Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich has also digitised and made available for download 22 volumes of the Schlachten des Weltkrieges series. In total, 36 volumes were published in this series, and these volumes covered individual battles throughout the First World War. While not ‘official’ histories, these were written with the support of the Reichsarchiv and, indeed, sometimes by Reichsarchiv authors. The authors of these volumes had access to now-lost official army records held in the Reichsarchiv. Despite this, the quality of these volumes varies enormously. The best are high quality histories of individual battles; the worst are little more than ‘boy’s own’ accounts of the battles. Nonetheless, this series is a valuable source for researchers of German operations of the war, particularly as the volumes provide welcome detail on German battles and campaigns lacking in some of the later volumes of Der Weltkrieg.

In some ways the authors of the German official history of the First World War were fortunate compared to their erstwhile allies. Although Germany may have been reduced in size and power by its defeat in the war, at least it maintained sovereignty and integrity over most of its territory and governmental institutions. The same cannot be said for the Austrians, whose empire was dismembered by the Treaty of Saint-Germain. Nonetheless, the new government of the Republic of Austria embarked on the production of an official history of the Austro-Hungarian contribution to the First World War. Between 1930 and 1939, the Austrian Kriegsarchiv under the direction of Edmund Glaise-Horstenau published seven volumes of Österreich-Ungarns Letzter Krieg, 1914-1918 chronicling the ‘last war’ of this venerable empire. Digital copies of these seven volumes have again been made available by the Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich. An English-language translation of this series done by Stella Hanna is also available for download. This site also has copies of the maps and other documents held in the annexes to the text volumes. I have not checked the accuracy of the English translation against the German text.

This post has already gone on far longer than anticipated. In a following post, I will examine some of the official histories of the war in the air and on the sea, as well as those that cover the medical side of the war. In the meantime, if you know of sources I have missed, please add them to the comments below. I will endeavour to update this post when others have added additional sources on the First World War on land that I have left off.

Image: Informal portrait of Charles E. W. Bean working on official files in his Victoria Barracks office during the writing of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. The files on his desk are probably the Operations Files, 1914-18 War, that were prepared by the army between 1925 and 1930 and are now held by the Australian War Memorial as AWM 26. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

19 comments

  1. This is a wonderful introduction to the subject. As far as the discussion of American documents is concerned, after World War I the Command and General Staff School (as it was then) published huge documentary collections of all the orders, reports, and messages produced by the 1st Division and the 2d Division during the war in two separate documentary collections. Given that the primary focus of CGSS during the interwar period was breaching a stabilized front with emphasis on the divisional level of command this publication effort directly supported classroom instruction. The number of volumes dealing with the 2d Division (the larger of the two) fill a small library. I have see the entire collection once—at the Field Artillery Museum at Fort Sill. At the time the director of the museum was considering dumping it because no one used it and it took up so much space. Finding a complete set may be something of a challenge because the thought process is not unique. Both need to be digitized and made available on-line.

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    1. Edgar, Thank you for your comments and pointer toward the US divisional histories. I have have a scout around and see if I can find them online and update this post if I find them. Alternatively, if anyone else knows where they are located online, please let me know and I will update (with attribution of course!). Unfortunately, one hears too many stories of libraries disposing of collections because they ‘take up too much space.’ It is a sad thing to see libraries disposing of any books! Digitization helps preserve collections, but in my view cannot be the only way. We still need physical copies, and there is still nothing like going through a copy of a book for research.

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  2. Hi Robert, alone amongst the Dominions, New Zealand has never published an official history of its participation in the Great War. The four volumes you refer to were popular histories that were intended as a temporary measure until the official histories were to be published. However, there was no effort made to produce a series. What we are left with were the regimental histories published in the 1920s and the four volume popular history written by participants with their own agendas. They are useful, but have many issues about accruacy and a great reluctance to deal in facts that could reflect poorly on peers of the authors. It is interesing to note that after the Second World War there was an overeaction in the production of over 50 volumes of official history yet again there was not a overarching narrative of New Zealand’s part in that war.

    I think that part of the reason for the failur to produce an official history was unlike our Australian bretheren, we did not have a Charles Bean type figure as a war correspondent driving the project. The scale of the loss to the young Dominion, an uninterested government, and the post-war depression were also contributing factors is worthy of consideration. It is also worth conisdering that again, unlike our sister Dominions, New Zealand never established a national war museum. The objects that Bean used to fill his museum in Canberra which came back to New Zealand were distributed around the provincial museums.

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    1. Thank you for your very interesting comments, Michael. It is intriguing that New Zealand and Australia took such different routes during the Interwar period in commemorating and marking the First World War. It is worth noting, though, that neither Canada nor the United States managed to produce official histories during the period either. In the United States, the reasons were clear enough — the unpopularity of the war combined with financial constraints to prevent the publication of a major work before the start of the Second World War. Like New Zealand, the United States concentrated on unit-level histories. I am sure there are others with more expertise than I who can comment on the importance of local history in remembering the war and why this appears to have been more significant in some countries than others!

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  3. This is an excellent article I have been studying the subject of Official Histories for the last 32 years and it is one the best articles ever written on the subject. At last somebody who has used them, and read the introduction of the Der Weltkrieg, and understands Volumes 13 and 14 where not sold to the public until 1956. Most bibliographical references are wrong.

    Nice to see Alain, one of the experts on AFGG has commented.

    It a great pity the British Official Histories are not online yet.

    Before we say which counties did or did not produce an Official History, what is the definition of an Official History?

    I have one and “Official History” in the title does not mean its an Official History. I would advance that the author has been given privileged access to primary source materials that is restricted/secret and they often have some form of Governmental support and accepted some form of feedback or censorship. One has to be very careful though, for the above definition could mean that Marder’s: From Dreadnought to Scape Flow is an official history, he had privileged access to the Royal Naval files, often the last person to look at them where Corbett or Newbolt, he agreed and accepted the Admiralty feedback on his drafts would be incorporated into the published volumes. To get all this he had a from of Governmental support. I have more criteria, but will add some other times.

    Keep up the great insights!

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    1. I had understood that an official history was one where the government or armed force funded & authorized a history to be published, selected the author/s and gave ongoing support once the project began.

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      1. Michael, many Official Histories fall under that definition but not all, and it does not include the most important criteria that the authors where given access to all the primary source material, much of it secret, confidential or restricted. Nor does it look at the purpose of an Official History, the Prussian General Staff the progenitors of modern official histories did them to learn the lessons of the campaign studied.

        Interestingly the New Zealand books you claim not to be OH’s fit all your conditions to be OH’s.

        There was a New Zealander who was a Bean like figure, Malcom Ross, and fulfilled a similar roll during the War, but never got to write them, due to the NZ Military establishment. I personally believe there are 8 volumes of Great War NZ OH’s.

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  4. I greatly appreciate your blog posts on Digital First World War Resources, both for online archival sources and for the official histories. For those with a knowledge of Russian, the seven volumes of Стратегический очерк войны 1914-1918 гг. (Strategic Outline of the War 1914-1918) can be found at http://www.grwar.ru/library/index.html; They are the first seven links at the top of the page. They are not PDFs. The maps for each volume are included. The big disadvantage to English speakers is that they are all in Russian. The site also has many other Russian works on the Great War, including Russian translations of a number of German books.

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    1. Thank you for your comment but I am not sure I follow you. I do discuss the British official histories in this and in other posts. The problem is that, unlike the official histories of most other combatants, Edmonds’ work is not readily available online.

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  5. This is immensely helpful. In fact, I’m using some of this literally today for a book I’m working on.

    Two small corrections, though. 1) The French official history is slightly misspelled. It is “Les armées françaises dans la grande guerre.” A pendantic point, perhaps, about two missing s’s, but their absence will mess up a search at Gallica. 2) The link to the list of the various volumes and annexes of the French history seems to be broken.

    Again, though, thank you so much for doing something really truly helpful.

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  6. We need to include Russian official history of the Great War too. The whole volume of Russian army in the Great War: Strategic Outline of the war 1914-1918 (Русская армия в Великой войне: Стратегический очерк войны 1914-1918 ) should be easily found here:
    http://www.runivers.ru/lib/book3171/

    Text version, very accessible is here:
    http://www.grwar.ru/library/Strateg_Essay_4/SE_04_03.html

    Lots of other valuable works are available at the above website or at:

    http://elib.shpl.ru/ru/indexes/values/39733

    Zaionchkovsky admirable oeuvre on the Great War is also available on these websites.

    All these works are difficult or impossible to buy online, thus their electronic forms are our only access.

    Interesting enough: Bruchmuller’s on artillery has been long translated into Russian. Barsukov unmatched volumes of Russian artillery in the 2 World Wars can also be found there.

    More worthy of note is the only significant work on the campaign of Gorlice-Tarnow from the Russian side, written by general Bonch-Bruevich, entitled The loss of our Gorlice in 1915 (Потеря нами Галиции в 1915 году) is also there too. His second volume is devoted to the catastrophe of the 3rd army led by the Bulgarian general Radko-Dimitriev.

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