War Diaries as a Source for Social and Family History


2nd Canadian General Hospital- Matron's Diary, LAC, Mikan #2005097

War Diaries are a great source for the historian.  They are essentially the day to day record of a base or unit in the armed forces.  That means that whoever was responsible for them, wrote out what had happened in their environs on a daily basis.  I repeat, a daily basis. 


Now of course these are great sources of information for the military historian who is interested in how policies are implemented on the ground, for accounts of battles and the like.   But I would like to point out to others who really don’t care much for information about wars and such that these are of great value for other reasons.


Of course it all depends.  Just like any routinely generated sources, it depends on who filled them out.  The diary was created to keep track of events on the base so as to know what happened, and how.  But what information was actually recorded depended on the person doing the entry.  Some diaries are rather dry, with one or two sentence descriptions, saying perhaps nothing happened of note, or all is well and the like.  Then there are dairies that went into the most amazing detail.  Some will note marriages that took place, visits of dignitaries, sports events, theatrical events, weather, etc.  And many diaries include photographs, newspaper clippings and other ephemera. 


For the social historian this kind of information is brilliant.  When the diaries include information about the social life of the base, and its interaction with its surrounding community, it demonstrates the creation of community on the base.  People interacted.  When not doing their military obligations, these people organised social events- theatrical entertainments, sports teams, clubs, etc.  They went out of the base and went to events in the local community; they competed against other bases in sporting events, or with local teams.  They created a wide network which constituted a larger community. This is an aspect of the military that is overlooked by non-military historians.


For those searching their family history, these diaries could be of great use.  Again, as stated before, the content of the diaries depend on who wrote it, but I urge you to consult the diary for information.  The best chances that your ancestor will appear in the diary are if: they died while in the military, they were absolutely amazing at their jobs, or they were absolutely awful at their jobs.  Then they are more likely to be mentioned in the diaries.  If your ancestor was good at their job, but did nothing to make them noticed, then the chances are less.  However, there are diaries that talk about sporting and other activities, so if you ancestor participated in anything; they could be mentioned, or even in a photograph.  Even if your ancestor does not get mentioned by name in the diaries, they provide a glimpse into the experience of living in the military.


2nd Army War Diary, LAC Mikan #2006044

I urge you to go out now and read a war diary!