The Imperial War Museum in London, England is a treasure trove for finding diaries, letters, pictures, and histories of those who served during the First and Second World Wars in Britain. The museum includes over 17,000 diaries and papers. Not only do you find accounts of British soldiers, but also of many of the women who served in various capacities throughout the wars.
Although you can only access the records at the Imperial War Museum, they have a great free online index which describes in detail what you will find in the papers of a particular person. Click here to search their catalog. When you use the catalog’s keyword(s) search to find an individual, you can just enter the surname if the name is an uncommon one. If the name is a common one, however, include the given name in your search.
As an example of the kind of records you might find about an individual, here are a few things I saw about a flying officer in the British military while browsing through the records at the museum:
- His photograph
- Envelopes with his address on them
- A group photograph of soldiers he served with
- Letters home to his girlfriend and parents
- His Somerset and Wilts Savings and Bank card, recording dealings with his account in 1933-1940
- The original letter from the Air Ministry Department informing his parents that he had been admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital in Chatham, suffering from slight wounds he received as the result of air operations
- The original letter from his squadron leader informing his parents that their son was reported missing from operations and that he may be safe but was likely a prisoner of war
- Another letter from the Air Ministry to his parents informing them that he was missing in action
Also, I browsed through the papers of a woman who served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), which included letters she wrote home describing her duties, social activities, people she met, and her impressions of where she was stationed.
In addition to records about individual service men and women, the museum displays actual airplanes, tanks, weapons, etc., that were used during wartime. Featured as well are great videos that document the wars. A neat exhibit of what life was like in the barracks is also available, as well as displays of British military paraphernalia, including uniforms, weapons, artillery, etc., of military life during the wars.
When you have an opportunity to visit London, stop by the Imperial War Museum and get a glimpse of these incredible papers. While visiting is free, you will need to make an appointment by e-mail in order to view the records. In doing so, include the catalog number you find when you search the index for the papers of a particular person.
For further information about the British Imperial War Museum, visit http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/