Diaries written during the First World War, by politicians, officers, soldiers, or civilians, are important documents to understand the inner lives of those who were participants in and witness to the conflict. Epitomising the genre of ego-documents, diaries were a place for description and reflection on experience, where the self could be chronicled.

Diaries written during the First World War vary in length and detail. Soldiers writing from the frontlines might note in small pocketbook diaries, in faded pencil, the bare detail of the day or simply ‘same again’, embodying the monotony of their activity or the limits of what they were willing to write. Narratives are broken, with gaps and absences resulting from sporadic entries. Colouring the story of those diaries retained in their original forms are non-textual marks of experience – mud, blood, tears – that are read alongside the written words.

In contrast, others at the front and behind the line documented their lives with more discipline or precision. Those writing diaries did not necessarily intend for them to be read by others, though some were sent home in the place of letters. The freedom of diaries, allowed both literary fertility and emotional self-expression. The vivid stories of encounters with new peoples and places that were written about in letters could be subject to further inwardness and introspection in diary form. Diaries written by prisoners of war, for example, reveal sustained relationships formed in the camp, noting the names and personalities of those with whom they were confined.

Diaries were not solely a place for contemplation during the war. As well as the material impact of the conflict, the blank pages could be spaces on which to draw illustrations and diagrams that depicted landscapes, battlefields, or peoples. Others, becoming almost like autograph books, revealed encounters recorded in another form, written in by those whom the author met. The diary of an Australian private shows where an Indian sepoy signed his name in English, Gurumukhi and Urdu, a textual site of language exchanged.

Archived diaries open up the moments of inwardness and reflection captured in their pages to new audiences, in an attempt to understand private and precarious existences during the First World War.

Anna Maguire