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World War One diary (creative writing)

22 Jun 2016

Our Subjects / Ā Mātou Kaupapa:
English, History, Society and culture

How do I write a diary for a World War One soldier? What do I do?

LEVEL: Intermediate / Secondary

Writing a diary for a World War One soldier can be a really interesting project. Like many authors of historical fiction, you should be using a mixture of what you know about World War One, and your own imagination.

Authors who write historical fiction (such as diaries of fictional soldiers) do lots of research before they start writing. A really sensible place to start is by finding real diaries from real soldiers! This will tell you what life was like for the soldiers, and can also give you ideas about the sort of language they used. Remember that some of the slang we use today was not around back then!

We have a ManyAnswers entry about primary sources for World War One. Primary sources are things like diaries and documents written during the war. One useful link for this topic is the World War One Document Archive. To find the diaries select diaries, memorials and personal reminiscences. Here you can find diaries from different nationalities. Most of these diaries have been transcribed, meaning that they have been typed up and are easier to read than handwriting!

HOT TIP: A website’s address (URL) can give you a hint about how reliable it is. Look for addresses in the results that include .gov or .edu in the URL. These are quality sites from overseas government or educational organisations. 

Some of the diaries linked to from the World War One Document Archive come from The Archive of War Diaries. Click on the link at the top to The Great War (another name for World War One). You can also narrow down to New Zealand diaries by choosing New Zealand Expeditionary Force which will take you to the diary of Lieutenant Ralph Doughty. Click on 'Daily Diaries', then 'Diary One', and you will be able to read his actual diary from 1915.

HOT TIP: Note that these diaries come from a range of different websites where they may not be much information about who has created the site. Be sure to check factual information in introductions or explanatory pages against other sources.

In NZHistory you can find excepts from ANZAC diaries by New Zealand soldiers William Malone and George Bollinger. To find them from the home page:

  1. Click on New Zealand at War.
  2. Under the heading First World War, click on Commemoration.
  3. Next, choose ANZAC Day.
  4. Along the right hand side of the page, click on all images and media. Now you can find the link to William Malone and George Bollinger's biographies (including excepts from their diary) as well as photos and biogrpahies from other New Zealanders involved in the war. Click on any first names you see to explore.

Christchurch City Libraries have digitised diaries and letters from World War One soldiers in their World War 1 digital collection. Here you will find diaries, letters and cards from several different soldiers including Cecil Malthus, Arthur Francis Lester, Barry O'Sullivan, Edward Herbert Aubrey, H. H. Stevens, plus postcards and more from William Brown.

Another great source of New Zealand diaries is DigitalNZ, which collects together the digitised collections of museums, libraries and archives from all around New Zealand. Try doing a keyword search on 'world war one', 'first world war' or your own keywords.

To narrow the results down to diaries use the 'more' drop down menu and select 'manuscripts' (hand-written documents). You will find diaries such as that of John Reginald Graham. To view the whole diary select 'view at Tapuhi', scroll down til you come to a link called 'see original record' and then choose the 'view archived copy online' link. For diaries which don't come from the National Library (most do!), there may be a different method to getting into the full record - experiment and have a play.

HOT TIP: Writing from around 100 years ago can be difficult to read - take it slowly, and look out for letters and words you can recognise and compare them with ones you're not so sure about. If the handwriting is too messy, search for transcripts (where other people have typed the letters out).

Finding out more about daily life for soldiers in the war will also give you ideas about what to write. One place to look is The Long Long Trail. From the menu choose 'Soldiers' and then 'A solder's life', which takes you to a number of links such as life at the front, wounded soldiers and training. The articles are quite long, but contain lots of information about daily life and events that soldiers' experienced. 

HOT TIP: Websites that have .net in the address can have good information, but you need to assess how reliable it is. Check the ‘about us’ link on the website, if you can find one. That can tell you what the website’s mission and values are.

The School Journal is a collection of resources supported by the Ministry of Education for New Zealand school students. Their issues from June 2014 contain lots of information about the First World War that are worth exploring. Some of the articles include accounts by soldiers of their experiences, along with stories of World War OneYou can either download pdfs of the entire Journal or pdfs of the article you are interested in. 

Another thing you can do to make your diary more realistic is look up slang terms used during the war, and use them in your writing. To do this, we did a Google search for 'world war one slang' and found a First World War Glossary.

There are heaps of other things you can do to make your diary more realistic, like researching specific battles of the war and writing about them (make sure you get your dates right). Check out all our other ManyAnswers entries about WWI and see what sort of information you can find and build a story around. Our ManyAnswers entry on Creative Writing might help you as well.

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