FAQ: British Army and Commonwealth War Diaries

 

What is a War Diary?

During wartime every British Army unit makes a daily record of events in their unit war diary. Generally diaries from World War II have three main parts the diary pages, appendices and Field Returns.

The diary pages contain a daily, sometimes hourly, record of events. The diary entries will either be typewritten or handwritten.

Often the appendices are the most interesting part of a war diary. They can contain numerous things such as maps and tracings, message forms, standing orders, situation reports, intelligence reports, patrol programmes and reports, and sometimes items such as aerial photographs, company newspapers and propaganda leaflets. Very occasionally the appendices might even contain group photographs of officers and men of the unit.

The field returns are weekly lists of officers on the strength of the unit and statistics on the number of other ranks available. Names of other ranks not on the company strength due to being in hospital or away on training courses might also be listed in the Field Returns. As the Field Returns were often completed weekly, they can be rather repetitive.

 

How can I find a War Diary for a particular unit or battalion?

British Army and Commonwealth War Diaries are kept at the British National Archives. Duplicates may also be available in Regimental Museums and the National Archives of Commonwealth countries.

If you need help locating a particular diary we are happy to look up the National Archives reference for you. Alternatively you can use the ARCRE dedicated and enhanced war diary search engine to find the National Archives references for it.

 

How many pages are there in a typical War Diary?

It is impossible to say in advance how many pages will be in a diary. However, as a very rough estimate, diary pages are usually in the range of 10 to 15 pages per month but can occasionally exceed 35 pages.

The appendices can be any number, sometimes there are not any appendices or consist of just a few pages. Other times there can be over 100 pages per month. A typical quantity is perhaps 25 to 75 pages per month.

Field Returns typically are in the order of 12 to 24 pages per month.

It is common for a war diary not to have any appendices and/or Field Returns.

As the war progressed, the war diaries generally become more detailed. Also expect infantry diaries during times of operations to contain far more pages than say a support unit during a lull in fighting. The largest diaries we have seen are the 13 Corps General Staff diaries from 1944/45 which contain several thousand pages per month. There is a wealth of information buried within them.

 

Can ARCRE copy War Diaries?

Yes ARCRE can locate and digitally photograph war diaries from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War held by the National Archives. Either the whole diary can be copied or selected months. Only complete months will be copied but you can also select which of the three parts of the diary you wish to be copied. For example, we often copy just the diary pages, skipping appendices and Field Returns, or more likely copy diary pages and appendices but skip the Field Returns.

For more details about document copying and costs involved see our Document Copying FAQ.