Military Family History : War Unit Diaries
Do you have ancestors who served in a war or major conflict? Would you like to know more about their experiences in a theatre of war or even exactly where they were located on any given day?
War Unit Diaries are one of my favourite military family history resources and are underutilised records for researching military ancestors.
Above: 4th Light Horse Battalion War Unit Diary, Aug-Oct 1914, p.29.
What is a War Unit Diary?
A war unit diary is a regularly updated official record kept by military units of their activities during wartime or major conflict.
There are two levels of war unit diaries - one each at both battalion and divisional levels. This means for an individual soldier or officer there are two different series to research as each battalion belonged to a division.
It is important to note that war unit diaries are not personal diaries. They do, however, often contain more, or at least different, information and detail than is found in an ancestor’s service record.
In Australia, I found them particularly enlightening at the beginning of WW1 when the regiments and battalions were formed and they provided information about my individual family members’ early Army activity which was not in their service record. This was despite them only holding the rank of Private (or equivalent) at the war’s outset.
The depth of information in war unit diaries varies according to the dedication and commitment of the battalion or division’s Clerk at the time. Some of the diaries are written in great detail while others, frustratingly, contain very little. Nevertheless, as a minimum, you can track your soldier around the theatre/s of war.
If they were nominated for a medal or mentioned in despatches, the original text, as written by the Commanding Officer, is often found in the war unit diary. This is particularly useful where their nomination did not result in an award and is probably the only place you can readily find this information if it survives.
For example, there was family folklore that my great uncle, Jack Frawley, should have been nominated for the Military Medal but there were no officers still alive after the battle to nominate him. I researched this through his battalion’s war unit diary and found that he had in fact been nominated for a medal and it was the Military Cross (for officers) rather than the Military Medal (for enlisted personnel).
In another example, my great uncle, Peter Frawley, was a jockey and horse trainer who joined the Light Horse regiment of the Australian Army during WW1. He later transferred to the Royal Australian Engineers who needed good horsemen to serve as despatch riders. Through his unit’s war diary, I was able to follow him around the major battlefields of northern France as well as many places unheard of in my experience. They were, however, instantly recognizable during my own battlefields tour of that region in France in 2015.
Above: Sample war unit diary, December 1917. Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-18 War - AWM4 Subclass 14/21 - 2nd Field Company, Australian Engineers. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial
From the unit’s war diary, I learned that they were constantly on the move building railways, bridges and bunkers to name a few. I also learned what they did during their all too brief down times in summer, what they ate on Christmas Day, and what their injuries, illness and battle casualties were. None of this information is available in individuals’ service records.
Where to find War Unit Diaries
In Australia, the Unit War Diaries are at the Australian War Memorial and the references can be retrieved through their online catalogue. They exist for the following:
First World War - Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-18 War
Second World War - 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and CMF (Citizen Military Forces) unit war diaries, 1939-45 War
Australian Army unit war diaries
British Infantry Brigades and Commonwealth Division Headquarters
South East Asian Conflicts - Australian Army commanders' diaries.
In the UK they are held by the National Archives in Kew and can be searched online in the Discovery catalogue. For example, WW1 war unit diaries are in record series WO 95 and are available online thanks to the WW1 Centenary project.
Canada’s war unit diaries are online at: www.bac-lac.gc.ca
New Zealand has some war unit diaries online at https://archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewEntity.do?code=ACID although they appear to be incomplete.
I recommend you first obtain your ancestor's unit or units from their service record and then look for the relevant war unit diaries.
This type of research is not for the feint hearted. It can be slow and painstaking work reading page after page looking for reference to your ancestor which may or may not be there. You can imagine how many potential pages an ancestor’s battalion could have produced during the whole period of WW1. Nevertheless, provided you are patient and don't let the volume overwhelm you, the war unit diaries can, as I found, be very rewarding.
Have you researched an ancestor’s war unit diaries? I would love to hear about the results in the Comments section below.
I’m also happy to answer any questions about using War Unit Diaries. Just drop me a line in the Comments section and I’ll respond quickly.
Your Family Genealogist
Pictures : courtesy of Australian War Memorial