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.