At the moment there is unsurprisingly an abundance of newly published source material being made available from the First World War, and this is certainly reflected in our latest New Books display. We hold an excellent range of primary sources from the conflict within our military collection, with diaries and correspondence from various perspectives forming a key aspect. The breadth of coverage within these holdings has just been strengthened further with the addition of two volumes from a series of War Diaries published in association with the Imperial War Museum, offering the viewpoints of two non-combatants – an army chaplain and a nurse.


In A chaplain at Gallipoli : the Great War diaries of Kenneth Best we are offered a gripping account from a padre who spent time on the front lines of two of the most brutal campaigns of the war – Gallipoli and the Somme. Kenneth Best, a Cambridge graduate, was ordained in 1913 and volunteered for the military chaplaincy on the outbreak of the war in the following year, and went on to spend time in Egypt, Turkey and France. He wrote candidly on the horrors he witnessed, but still managed to inject a bit of wit into his entries. As the Gallipoli Campaign intensified in May 1915 he wrote: ”Men’s hair perceptibly turning greyer under strain. I think my hair would turn grey if I had any to turn – clippers have done their work well. Several times a day one has a narrow shave from shell or bullet.”

Best’s diaries and letters, along with an informative supplementary chapter on British Army Chaplains in the Great War more generally, really highlight the important, varied and often conflicting role that the padres had. They not only maintained the morale of soldiers through their religious duties, but also took part in rescue missions and treated the wounded. There was a huge increase in the number of chaplains serving with the British Army as the war went on, rising from 117 in 1914, to 3745 in 1918, with 172 killed by the end of the war. It is a telling indication of what Best had been through that he proclaimed himself an agnostic in later life, his faith having been shaken by his experiences.

Again offering a different perspective to that of a soldier, we have A nurse at the front : the Great War diaries of Sister Edith Appleton. Edith Appleton had qualified and worked as a nurse for several years before the war began, and was quick to sign up for the highly regarded Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1914, proceeding to serve in France and Belgium. She kept a series of diaries throughout the war and right up until her demobilisation in December 1919, but unfortunately some of the original volumes are now missing, so they are not all featured in what is nonetheless an invaluable and well edited published edition. On the website where the diaries were first made available to the public, set up by descendants of Edith Appleton, you can find further material, including letters which fill in some of the gaps left by the missing volumes, photos of the remaining originals, and an index of all the names mentioned in them –

In her writing Appleton speaks generally about her day to day duties and how she spent her free time, often in a humorous and light-hearted way, but juxtaposes this with graphic descriptions of the countless wounded soldiers she observed and treated. Editor Ruth Cowen points out that this ‘unflinching account’ is all the more surprising considering the diaries were actually addressed to Appleton’s mother. Perhaps most significant are her reports of the new types of injury and illness being experienced, both physical and psychological, that we now associate so strongly with the war. She was very interested in shellshock, such a controversial condition at the time, and also bore witness to the first victims of chlorine gas-poisoning on the Western Front. Her entry from Ypres on May 5 1915 describes these victims: “They are fearfully sad to see. The slight ones look rather like pneumonia, and the bad ones are terrible – the poor things are blue and gasping, lungs full of fluid, and not able to cough it up. Today six have died of it in one ward alone.”

As with Best’s diaries, Appleton’s demonstrate the varied contributions and experiences of non-combatants during the war, and they both provide rare and fascinating sources for examining the period. We also have two new interesting examples of soldiers’ accounts: Nels Anderson’s World War I diary, from an American Mormon who went on to be an eminent sociologist, and 1914-1918 : Louis Audouin-Dubreuil, correspondant de guerre malgré lui, from a French explorer.

This has only been a snapshot of the type of material the Library holds relating to the First World War – check back for further posts we are working on to tie in with the IHR’s Anglo-American Conference this year, The Great War at Home.

Below you can find the full list of new books which feature on the current display:

New Book Display March '14 001