Military Archive Research
by Dr. Stuart C Blank
Member of the Orders and Medals Research Society (OMRS)
Member of the Royal Air Force Historical Society (RAFHS)
Member of the Naval Historical Collectors and Research Association (NHCRA)
Member of the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS)
Member of the International Bank Note Society (IBNS)
Member of the International Bond and Share Society (IBSS)




Army Land Operations

The following comments relate to the land operations of the "British" Army from 1660 to recent times. The subject below is organised into a few eras and then sub-divided accordingly.

1) Campaign Records for 1660 - 1714
a) State Papers Domestic
b) State Papers Foreign
c) State Papers Military
d) King Williams Chest
e) Papers on America and the West Indies

2) Campaign Records for 1714 - 1815
a) State Papers Military
b) State Papers Entry Books
c) State Papers Foreign Military Expeditions
d) War Office In-Letters and Papers
e) Headquarters Records
f) American Rebellion Entry Books
g) Selected Unnumbered Papers
h) American and West Indies Original Correspondence
i) West Indies Original Correspondence
j) Private Papers for 1714 - 1815

3) Campaign Records for 1816 - 1913
a) Correspondence of the Secretaries of State
b) Headquarters Papers
c) Commissariat
d) Maps and Plans
e) Courts Martial
f) Private Papers for 1816 to 1913

4) First World War 1914 - 1918
a) War Diaries in WW1
b) Order of Battle of Divisions
c) Other Records

5) Second World War Operations 1939 -1945
a) Army Headquarters Papers
b) War Diaries in WW2
c) War Office Directorates
d) Order of Battle and Monthly Returns
e) Private Papers for WW2

6) Post 1945 Operations
a) High Command
b) Operations and Campaigns
c) Unit Records
d) Records from Overseas Stations

1) Campaign Records for 1660 - 1714
The Army as we know it can trace its history back to 1660 when a small standing army was sanctioned by Parliament for the protection of the monarch and the maintenance of order. The records of military campaigns for this era tend to be in State Papers and War Office Papers. Luckily there is an index by subject, name and regiment for the State & War Office Papers (for this era). The records can be split into State Papers Domestic, State Papers Foreign and State Papers Military, King William's Chest and Papers on America and the West Indies.

a) State Papers Domestic - these tend to be King's letters, Secretary letters, warrants etc. Military Entry Books contain the Secretaries correspondence on army matters. Of interest maybe the Duke of Monmouth's Command (1674-1679) and letters / orders for the Flanders Campaign of the Third Dutch War.

b) State Papers Foreign - There are in-letters and despatches to the Secretary of State from commanders in the field for operations in the Low Countries and Germany. These papers cover military campaigns and diplomatic matters for 1695 to 1712. Of interest are William III's Low Country campaign (to 1697), War of Spanish Succession (1702 - 1713), reports / despatches from 1st Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill) and correspondence from the Duke of Ormonde.

c) State Papers Military - There are letters from the Secretary of War, and letters from senior commanders to the Secretary of War relating to military affairs after 1702. There are also details of the strength, composition and movements of units / formations of the Army from 1661.

d) King William's Chest - This is a series of papers assembled by William III whilst as Prince of Orange and as King. They are dated 1670 to 1698. There is a mixture of papers and many relate to military campaigns. There are documents relating to the Allied Coalition against Louis XIV of France and the Treaty of Ryswick which ended the war.

e) Papers on America and the West Indies - These papers date from 1710 and include military despatches and reports on expeditions in North America and the Caribbean. They mainly relate to campaigns against the French and various Indian Tribes.

2) Campaign Records for 1714 - 1815
Military affairs were managed by the Secretary of State via the Secretary-at-War and the senior officers of the Army. These officers were the Commander-in-Chief (when appointed) and two permanent senior officers - the Adjutant-General and the Quartermaster-General. There is an index to the War Office Papers and other military records for this period. This index is by subject, name and regiment. The records of military campaigns tend to be over a few series as detailed below.

a) State Papers Military - These are letters of the Secretaries, Senior Officers and the Board of Ordnance for the period 1702 - 1782.

b) State Papers Entry Books - This includes King's letters, Secretary's letters, warrants etc. They contain correspondence on arm matters and the issue of commissions / warrants up to 1782.

c) State Papers Foreign Military Expeditions - These are correspondence between the Secretaries and commanders in the field and cover despatches from commanders and reports on military action. Included are papers on the War of Austrian Succession (1740 - 1748) and the Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763).

d) War Office In-Letters and Papers - These papers are inward bound letters of the Secretaries. They include reports on battles and campaigns. They are organised into three groups - military commanders, government departments and general correspondence.

e) Headquarters Records - They cover records for the American War of Independence (1775 - 1783) and the Peninsular War (1810 - 1814). Included are reports on the strength, movement and composition of British Army formations etc.

f) American Rebellion Entry Books - These give details of orders and returns of British Army forces in North America. Also included are capitulations and exchanges of prisoners with the American, French and Spanish forces between 1773 and 1783.

g) Selected Unnumbered Papers - This class contains in-letters and reports addressed to the Secretary-at-War. Included are details of campaigns in India between 1757 and 1796.

h) American and West Indies Original Correspondence - These papers mainly relate to fighting between the Crown and the French / various Indian Peoples between 1710 and 1784.

i) West Indies Original Correspondence - This document series is the military despatches from 1699.

j) Private Papers for 1714 - 1815
A number of senior Army officers kept their own collection of their papers. These officers include:

i) Amherst, General Sir Jeffery later Lord Amherst (mainly North American operations)
ii) Brownrigg, General Sir Robert (Military Secretary to C-in-C)
iii) Carmichael Smith, Major General Sir James (Royal Engineers, Cape of Good Hope)
iv) Cornwallis, Lieutenant-General Charles Marquess (American War of Independence)
v) Lowry Cole, General Sir Galbraith (Sicily and Peninsular)
vi) Peacocke, General Sir Marmaduke (C-in-C Lisbon 1809 - 1814)
vii) Price, Major Rice (56th Foot)
viii) Scovell, General Sir George (Peninsular War, in Intelligence Branch)
ix) Smith, Lieutenant-General Sir Harry (Rifle Brigade, Montevideo Expedition, Peninsular War, America and Waterloo)

3) Campaign Records for 1816 - 1913
Before 1855 the Regular Army (the Guards, and the Horse and Foot Regiments on the British & Irish establishments) were administered from the Horse Guards office at Whitehall. There the Secretary at War, the Adjutant-General and the Quartermaster-General administered the Army. They had little authority over supplying the Army. The Board of Ordnance was responsible for weapons and ammunition and the Commissariat (run by the Treasury) dealt with food. Uniforms and necessaries were purchased for each regiment by the Colonel and officers. The Board of Ordnance was also responsible for the Corps of Artillery and Engineers and for the Waggon Train. This tri-party arrangement was not ideal and in 1854 / 55 reforms were made to the system. The Office of the Secretary-at-War and the entire Board of Ordnance were abolished. The administration of all arms and of the Commissariat were integrated into a new department called the "War Office". This complexity of arrangement therefore effects the surviving record series. For most of this period the records are indexed by subject, name and regiment. They comprise:

i) designation, establishment and stations of regiments
ii) disposition and movements of regiments
iii) embarkation and disembarkation returns
iv) establishments
v) inspection returns
vi) marching orders
vii) monthly returns

a) Correspondence of the Secretaries of State - There are some papers dealing with the Colonies (pre 1830s) but they mainly deal with militia and domestic military affairs.

b) Headquarters' Papers - Included are those for the Opium War (1840-44), the Russian War (1854-56), the Indian (Sepoy) Mutiny (1857-60) and several minor campaigns. Also included are papers for the South African War of 1899-1902. There are papers assembled by the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence from 1837 onwards.

c) Commissariat - Up to 1855 the financial affairs of the Army in general were dealt with the Treasury. Therefore the Commissariat's papers are filed with those for the Treasury.

d) Maps and Plans - Most of these records cover forts, barracks and other military establishments but they do not contain data on the bearing of operations.

e) Courts Martial - This series covers all forms of Court Martial and are closed for 75 years from the date of last entry.

f) Private Papers for 1816 to 1913
In a similar manner to above some senior officers kept their own private papers. There is some duplication in this list to the one for the prior period above as the officers served in both eras. Private papers exist for:

i) Brownrigg, General Sir Robert
ii) Buller, General Sir Redvers
iii) Carmichael Smyth, Major-General Sir James
iv) Colvin, Colonel R B
v) Eyre, Major-General Sir William
vi) Hart, Lieutenant-General HG
vii) Kitchener, Field Marshal Earl
viii) Lowry Cole, General Sir Galbraith
ix) Murray, General Sir George
x) Roberts, Field Marshal Lord
xi) Rothwell Narrative (China 1840-42)
xii) Scovell, General Sir George
xiii) Smith, General Sir Harry
xiv) Wolseley, Field Marshal Lord

4) First World War 1914 - 1918

a) War Diaries in WW1 - The main records for operations of the British Army for WW1 are termed War Diaries. They are a daily record of operations, intelligence reports and other events. They were kept for each battalion by an appointed (junior) officer. They are not suitable for researching a specific person (especially if he was not an officer) but they do provide excellent background information. The surviving series of War Diaries cover the period 1914 to 1922. Thus they cover the main hostilities and some post-war operations, including the Army of Occupation. Many of them were hastily scribbled, often in pencil and use obscure abbreviations. Some are carbon-copies and difficult to read. The information in a War Diary is likely to cover daily losses and map references whilst others could be much more detailed. It is unusual for them to mention specific soldiers and a few contain details about awards of the Military Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal. They were kept by British, Dominion, Indian and Colonial Forces on active service in theatres such as France / Flanders, Italy, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Salonika and Russia. Also Home Service units, Royal Flying Corps and specialist units (e.g. hospitals) kept War Diaries.

b) Order of Battle of Divisions - This multi-volume series gives the Order of Battle on a month by month basis and the location of each unit and their Division / Army to which they were attached. They are arranged by Division (not by unit).

c) Other Records - The following may contain diaries and details of operations / movements of army units. There are Correspondence and Papers of Military Headquarters, Intelligence Summaries, Campaign Maps, and photographs of Gallipoli, Palestine and the Italian Campaigns.

5) Second World War Operations 1939 -1945
During WW2 the military, naval and air services were integrated to an extent previously unknown. There are Official Histories compiled by the Historical Section and these are quite detailed. There are considerable details on the direction of the war by the High Command (the Cabinet, Prime Minister and War Office Councils and Committees).

a) Army Headquarters Papers for the following theatres have survived:

i) British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France 1939-40
ii) North West Expeditionary Force in Norway 1940
iii) Home Forces
iv) Middle East Forces
v) Far East Forces (incl. ABDA & SEAC)
vi) Allied Forces in North Africa, Italy and France 1942-45
vii) 21st Army Group in Northern Europe 1943-45
viii) SHAEF
ix) North Africa and Mediterranean Theatres
x) East Africa Command
xi) Combined Operations

b) War Diaries in WW2 - In a similar strain to the War Diaries of WW1 all formations of battalion size and above (and smaller units operating independently) maintained a daily record of events. These War Diaries are arranged by Command.

c) War Office Directorates - The Directorates were primarily concerned with the administration of the army but their records often include reports on actions and campaigns. The Directorates include those for:

i) Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence
ii) Quarter-Master General (incl. exercises and plans especially for Combined Operations)
iii) Directorate of Military Operations
iv) Directorate of Artillery
v) Directorate of Military Intelligence
vi) Directorate of Military Training
vii) Directorate of Tactical Investigation
viii) Directorate of Air
ix) Directorate of Army Psychiatry
x) Directorate of Staff Duties
xi) Directorate of Supplies and Transport
xii) Engineer in Chief Papers

d) Order of Battle and Monthly Returns - There are surviving Orders of Battle and Organisational Tables as well as Monthly Returns on the distribution of the Army. Those for enemy forces can be (normally) found in papers for the Directorate of Intelligence & Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence.

e) Private Papers for WW2
There are a large number of collections of Private Papers. They include those for Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis (the Alexander Papers), those for the Chief of (Imperial) General Staff, the Permanent Under Secretary and the Secretary of State. These are the main series but there are many more.

6) Post 1945 Operations

a) High Command - There are records for the Cabinet, Cabinet Defence Committee, Combined Operations Headquarters and the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

b) Operations and Campaigns - There are War Diaries, records, reports and maps for Palestine (1945-48), Korea (1950-53), Suez (1956) and Oman (1957-61).

c) Unit Records - From the period 1946 to 1950 the system of War Diaries was phased out and they were replaced by Quarterly Historical Records and Reports. There are several series and cover Africa (East and West), Austria (British Troops in), Caribbean, Far East Land Forces, Gibraltar, Home Forces, Malta (British Troops in), Mediterranean, Middle East, British Army of the Rhine and the British Element Trieste Force. From 1950 onwards the Unit Historical Records and Reports are kept in a single document series. Army Air Corps' Operations Record Books and War Diaries 1957 - 1969 are in their own document series. 

d) Records from Overseas Stations - These exist for East and West Africa, the Caribbean and Cyprus.