World War One (primary sources)
Where can I find primary sources for World War One?
Image: WW1 soldier Allan McMillan writing at a desk at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England by [unknown]. Collection: Te Papa.
Entry last updated: 13/01/21
Primary sources are things like diaries, photos and other documents written during the war or soon after by people who were involved in it.
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.
This website is a useful starting point. To find the diaries select diaries, memorials and personal reminiscences. Here you can find diaries from different nationalities. Most of these diaries have been transcribed, meaning that they have been typed up 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.
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 in the UK and Jisc.
- Choose the 'browse the collections' option towards the top right corner.
- 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 of a specific poem you can search that way. Otherwise choosing 'go' will find the manuscripts for that author.
- Find other items will take you to links to 'letters' and 'images'.
Another good place to look is EPIC. EPIC is a collection of reliable databases covering lots of different topics and is put together especially for New Zealand school students. You may need a password from your school or local library to access it.
This database has primary source material including literary works as well as biographical information and literary criticism.
- Select a level.
- Do a keyword search.
- You can move up or down a level if you need to.
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.
This EPIC database provides an overview of world history, including World War One.
- To find the best primary sources we suggest using keywords such as 'World War 1914-1918'.
- You can limit your results to primary sources by selecting the Primary Sources option on the side of the results.
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.
New Zealand websites
There are also some excellent websites that have primary sources by New Zealanders or about New Zealand's involvement in World War One.
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.
- Go to the Filter by Keyword option and enter 'war'.
- Then select the topic you want, like New Zealand and the First World War.
- From here you can choose the Show only primary sources option.
This organisation has digitised heaps of primary sources relating to World War One.
- From the home page, go to Explore.
- Then, go to Local history, and select Digital collection.
- Next, scroll down to War and conflicts, and choose World War 1: 1914-1918.
Through this link you can find heaps of 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.
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 (for example '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 type and got lots of newspaper articles.
Sometimes the only thing displayed will be a headline with the word 'war' in it. In this case, you can choose the option to view the whole page in its original form. There will be a link that says 'page view'.
Tips: We like PapersPast 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.
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. These include:
- the official history of the New Zealand Division 1916-1919, and
- a book about Māori in the Great War (another name for World War One).
This website has been created by Victoria University in Wellington.
- Search keywords such as 'First World War'
- Select one of the Works
- Click on the link to 'Chapter One' to start reading.
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.
Creative writing (diaries, letters and poems)
Writing diaries or letters for a World War One soldier can be a really interesting project. Like many authors of historical fiction, you should be using a mixture of what you know about World War One, and your own imagination.
A sensible place to start is by finding primary sources such diaries and letters from real soldiers. This will tell you what life was like for the soldiers, and can also give you ideas about the sort of language they used. Remember that some of the slang we use today was not around back then!
Finding out more about daily life for soldiers in the war will also give you ideas about what to write.
This is a great site to start exploring what life was like for soldiers during the war.
- From the menu choose Soldiers.
- Then select A soldier's life. This takes you to a number of links such as life at the front, wounded soldiers and training. The articles are quite long, but contain lots of information about daily life and events that soldiers' experienced.
Another thing you can do to make your diary more realistic is look up slang terms used during the war, and use them in your writing.
Tips: Websites that have.com or.co in the address can have good information, but you need to assess how reliable it is. Check the About us page on the websites. That can tell you what the company's mission and values are. We like this site as it has been created by an expert and has a very detailed About page.
The British Library has a number of articles on slang in World War One such as Slang at the front. You can find these by typing ‘world war slang’ into the search bar.
The British Library website also has some great World War One poetry resources.
- First you go to Discover.
- Next select World War One.
- Then type 'poetry' into the 'search World War One' search box (not the 'search our website box').
This should bring up a number of results. The books or magazines such as this New Zealand troopship magazine can be read online. Also, if you look in the 'videos' area there are a couple of relevant short films
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.
There are heaps of other things you can do to make your diary or letter more realistic, like researching specific battles of the war and writing about them (make sure you get your dates right).
Tips: Because this website is run by the BBC, which is a reliable British news agency, we can expect the information to be accurate.
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:
- World War I by Sean Connolly
- World War I, 1914-1918 by Christine Hatt
- World War I primary sources by Tom & Sara Prendergast and Christine Slovey.