Aim of this guide

This guide will help you to carry out research in the UK’s main archives that may contain valuable information on soldiers who served in World War One (WW1) and the families they left behind.

Whatever you find and collect that is of interest to you can then be shared with others through our Soldier Map.

What is an archive?

Archives are places that contain collections that hold a range of information on a particular subject.

These collections may contain:

  • Archive material.

    These are primary sources such as correspondence, diaries, photographs, account books, press cuttings and audio-visual material.

  • Printed material.

    This is anything that is published like books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals.

  • Objects.

    These are typically a 3D object like a medal or uniform, or artwork such as an original oil painting.

These collections can help to tell the stories we are interested in learning about in this project.

The power of research

The everyday records and objects of normal people, and not just the rich and famous, are historically important.

By undertaking research on them, we create the potential to tell stories that will become unique, valuable treasures for you, your family, your community and the wider world.

The key archives

There are four main UK archives with collections connected to WW1:

  • British Library (BL)
  • The National Archives (TNA)
  • Imperial War Museums (IWM)
  • National Army Museum (NAM)

The following table provides a brief overview of what they have in their collections:

Format Type NAM BL IWM TNA
Regimental histories Printed material
Army lists and roll calls Archive material
Photographs Archive material
Film and sound archives Archive material
Letters, diaries, memoirs Archive material
Prints & drawings Archive material
Paintings Objects
Posters Printed material
Postcards Archive material
Campaign maps Archive material
Manuscripts Archive material
Medals Objects
Uniforms (including turban badges) Objects
Armaments & ammunition Objects
Religious artefacts Objects
Official correspondence & dispatches Archive material
Service histories Archive material
War graves’ records Archive material
Censor reports on Indian Army mail Archive material
Newspaper reports Archive material
Passports & wills Archive material

Be sure to visit the archive’s website to see what they have on offer in terms of online and public access to their collections. With the advent of the centenary of World War One in 2014, several archives have initiated their own projects to open up their wartime collections to as wide an audience as possible. Links to these are shown below.

They also have their own particular process if you want to visit them to see items in person. The links outlining these are also given below.

  • 1. British Library (BL)

    The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and the largest library in the world by number of items catalogued.

    It is a great resource for records on the Indian Army in World War One.

    Some very interesting archives and printed material relating to the Indian Army have been digitised (via the Europeana project) and are viewable here.

    Details of how to access their collections are here.

  • 2. Imperial War Museums (IWM)

    The Imperial War Museums is unique in its coverage of conflicts.

    It is especially strong for those conflicts involving Britain and the Commonwealth, from WW1 to the present day.

    Details of how to access their five centres, from London to Belfast, are here.

  • 3. National Army Museum (NAM)

    The National Army Museum’s huge collections cover the period from 1066 to the present.

    Their archives relate to the overall history of the British Army, British colonial, imperial and commonwealth forces and the British Indian Army as a whole and its effects on national and international history.

    Their WW1 project can be seen here.

    Details of how to access their collections are here.

  • 4. The National Archives (TNA)

    The National Archives is the official archive of the UK government.

    They run special initiatives on the First World War, and have unique educational aids on many topics that can be read here.

    Details of how to access their collections are here.

Arranging a visit to the archives

Visiting an archive can be an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience. However, it can also be a daunting process. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Things to do before visiting an archive

  • Decide on what you want to find out.

    You should have a clear idea about what you want to achieve with your research. It can be as general or specific as you want it to be, but just make sure you know what it is so you can track your progress.

  • Conduct preliminary research.

    It’s useful to do some general background research on the subject area (eg on the experiences of Sikh soldiers in the war or their conditions in Punjab). You may also find it beneficial to get good at recognising a Sikh soldier (as everyone in the British Indian Army except Gurkhas wore a turban!). A great place to start is our Soldier Stories section.

  • Do some groundwork on the archive.

    Always take a look at the archive’s online catalogue – some items may well be digitised, or be part of a special collection that is not accessible through the normal channels.

  • Take a look at their dos and don’ts. Make sure you understand the archive’s rules, especially regarding restrictions on the use of pens (pencils are the norm), photography (can you take your own or do you have to pay for these?) and coats (these must sometimes be kept in lockers). Also, do they have a power supply available for laptops? And are any collections held off-site? If they are, the archive may need more notice to make them available to you.

  • Will one visit be enough? A single visit to an archive may not be enough to get all your research done, so be prepared to go back for another visit.

  • Plan your day. Think about what arrangements you need to make for lunch and transport.

  • Photocopying. If you’re planning on making copies, they can be quite costly so be prepared to write notes instead (see below). Otherwise, check which payment methods are accepted.

  • Note-taking. You will need to decide if you want to make notes digitally (eg using a laptop or phone) or in writing (eg pencil and paper). Each has its benefits and downsides. Whichever one you choose, the more comfortable you are with it the better your end results will be. It may help to use your own set of symbols and abbreviations. Some obvious ones are + or & for ‘and' or = for ‘equals’. Other examples seen less often are w/ for ‘with' or wch for ‘which'.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask. If you are having any problems finding something, or don’t understand anything about an archive’s process, don’t be afraid to contact them.

  • Pre-order when you can. If at all possible, order up some items beforehand (online or by email) so that they’re ready for you when you arrive (otherwise you may have to wait some time for your items to arrive).

  • Things to do during the visit

  • Take ID with you. Make sure you take along the correct forms of identification if you are required to do so. You may be refused entry if you neglect something.

  • Maintain an audit trail. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to find your way back to an interesting line of enquiry. If you have a laptop, a useful tool to record your findings could be a spreadsheet.

  • Be prepared to be flexible. Watch out for promising new avenues of research you may come across.

  • Use research materials with care. Make sure you follow all the handling guidelines. If in doubt, ask.

  • Worth remembering. Not all ‘Singhs’ were Sikh (the name was also used by Gurkhas, Rajputs and Biharis) but all Sikhs in the British Indian Army were ‘Singhs’.

  • Ask the experts. Navigating collections can be quite difficult at first. Archive staff will have years of experience and know the collection inside out. If you get stuck do not be afraid of asking them what may appear to you to be 'simple' or 'silly' questions.

Things to do after the visit

  • Summarise your findings. Go over the main points of your research, and summarise your findings, so that you know what you've recorded.

  • Store your finds in a safe place. Consider making an electronic copy of your paper notes or a backup of your digital file(s).

  • Spread the word. Talk about what you’ve done with friends, family and colleagues. This is probably best done through the use of social media (eg with a tweet or Facebook post). This could help you advance your research or inspire others to get researching. (But please be mindful about sharing copyrighted material without permission. If in doubt, check with the archive if it’s okay.)

  • Sharing is caring. Your research will be at its most effective when it is shared with others. The perfect way to do this is by signing up to our Citizen Historian initiative and either creating a new record of Sikh soldiers and their families on the Soldier Map or adding your material to an existing record.