World War One (primary sources)

Where can I find primary sources for World War One?

Entry last updated: 2/12/21

Introduction

People who lived during World War One and soon after left behind lots of diaries, photos, letters, manuscripts and other such documents that recorded events, people and places of that time. These first-hand accounts are called primary sources. They can also include media like film footage and audio recording, and objects or artefacts (eg painting, tools, or clothing).

World War One keywords

When searching for primary sources it's good to put together a list of search words or keywords to help you search. These words are usually the important words in your questions such as the names of people, places, and groups. You can also try different terms or spellings of words.

Here are some World War One words we've put together.

World War One : The Great War, The World War, The European War, First World War.

Battles : Somme, Gallipoli, Messines.

People : David Lloyd George, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Groups : Allied powers, Central powers, Māori Contingent, New Zealand Tunnelling Company, ANZAC.

Other words : trenches, air raid, home front, war effort, Allied powers, Central powers, mustard gas, Victoria's Cross.

New Zealand sites

Here are some excellent websites that have primary sources by New Zealanders or about New Zealand's involvement in World War One.

DigitalNZ

DigitalNZ is a search site that focuses on New Zealand history and brings together results from online resources from New Zealand libraries, museums, universities and government sites all at once.

  • Use different keywords to search the site and limit results by Date to 1910.
  • Using a general term like 'war' will bring up lots of results.
  • Remember you can use more specific words like the name of a person or place.
  • Results are grouped by type of information eg images, videos, newspapers, music scores, and manuscripts.
  • For example, we searched for 'kaiser' and looked at images to find this cartoon called Fed up.

Tips: Search words, or keywords, are the most important words in our question. Usually it's better to leave out small words like the, a and of and just choose the main ones, eg Somme. We can always change our keywords or add more if we need to.

Topic Explorer (National Library)

This is an online tool that has a wide range of quality resources for students in a range of formats (eg articles, books, images, videos, primary sources, sets, websites) on a variety of topics. These resources have been selected from reliable national and international sources.

Tips: We like Topic Explorer because it is from a government organisation (the National Library of New Zealand). You can tell this by their web address, which includes .govt. It is also a New Zealand site, so relevant for us.

Christchurch City Libraries

This organisation has digitised lots of primary sources relating to World War One.

  • Use the drop-down menus at the top of the page to search the Website by Keyword for 'World War 1'.
  • Go to the page First World War 1914 to 1918.
  • Under the heading, First World War resources choose World War 1: 1914-1918.
  • This link will lead you to many World War One primary sources, including letters, diaries, postcards, portraits, shipboard magazines, and information about conscientious objectors.

Tips: Writing from around 100 years ago can be difficult read - take it slowly, and look out for letters and words you can recognise and compare them with ones you're not so sure about.

Papers Past

This website is great for newspaper articles published in New Zealand about World War One.

  • Choose Newspapers and you will have the option to search by title, region or date.
  • You can also search for keywords eg 'war' or a topic you are interested in eg Gallipoli.
  • Then you can narrow down the dates.
  • We tried a search for 'war' between the years 1914 to 1918, and selected Articles under the heading Content types and got lots of newspaper articles.

Tips: Sometimes the only thing displayed in the results will be a headline with the word 'war' in it. In this case, you can view the whole page in its original form. Choose 'Text' and find the link to 'View the full page'.

New Zealand Electronic Text Centre

This website has been created by Victoria University in Wellington. If you are looking for more detailed written sources, published not long after the war by people who were there, this website has a collection of digitised books about World War One.

Tips: We like sites like this because they’re reliable. You can tell because of their web address – they have .ac, meaning they are from an educational organisation. They’re also a New Zealand site, so relevant for us.

AnzacSightSound.org

This site is from Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. It shows audiovisual items from their collections.

  • Choose a tab from the top and explore the collections.
  • Each item has a story to go with it.
  • We went to Battlefronts then Western Front and found the video Images of war.

General websites

There are many good websites that have primary source material (like letters, diaries, and photos) from World War One. Here are some of our favourite sites. Remember diaries and letters show how one person sees the war.

World War I Document Archive

This website is a useful starting point. It has lots of full text documents and links to other online resources. It also has diaries of different nationalities that have been transcribed — meaning that they have been typed and are easier to read than handwriting!

Tips: A website’s address (URL) can give you a hint about how reliable it is. Look for addresses in the results that include .gov or .edu in the URL. These are quality sites from overseas government or educational organisations.

British Library

This is the official site of the British Library. It has a collection of items for World War One from organisations across Europe.

  • Select Discover & Learn.
  • Choose More Online Exhibitions.
  • Look through the results for World War One and select Collection items.
  • Use the menus on the left side to limit results by theme eg Propaganda, date, or format eg Maps.

Tips: We like this site because the British Library is one of the world's great libraries, and all their World War One articles are written by experts. You can read about their qualifications at the end of each article.

Imperial War Museum

This British museum was founded in 1917 and is one of the best museums in the world about war and conflict.

  • Go to Objects & History.
  • Then Find An Object.
  • Search for 'New Zealand Army' or 'ANZAC' to find New Zealand items.
  • Use other filters to limit results by period, type of object, themes, keywords and associated events, people or places.
  • For example, we searched for 'New Zealand' for the related period First World War and object category Uniforms and insignia to find this Lemon Squeezer hat.

First World War Poetry Digital Archive

This is a great place to view original handwritten drafts of famous war poems. We like this site as it has been jointly produced by Oxford University and Jisc — an organisation in the UK for digital services.

  • Choose Browse the collections.
  • Select a poet from the images on the index page such as Robert Graves.
  • Each entry contains a biography.
  • Links to the primary sources are at the bottom of the page.
  • If you're looking for a specific poem you can search that way. Otherwise choosing 'go' will find the manuscripts for that author.
  • Find other items will link you to correspondence (letters) and images.

World History (Gale In Context)

This is one of the EPIC databases — a collection of reliable databases covering lots of different topics. It’s put together especially for New Zealand school students and helps to answer questions like this. This site provides an overview of World War One as well as primary sources.

  • Go to Browse Topics.
  • Then go to World War I.
  • Because results are grouped by type, choose Primary Sources.

Tips: To get to the EPIC resources you will need a password from your school librarian first. Or you can chat with one of our AnyQuestions librarians between 1 and 6pm Monday to Friday and they will help you online. Some EPIC databases may also be available through your public library.

Books

There have been many books written about World War One - check out your local public or school library to see what they have.

Some suggested titles are:

SCIS no: 1832725

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