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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

World War One

Life and Death as a Soldier in World War One.

Are you:

  • studying the First World War at school
  • researching an ancestor who served in WW1
  • interested in military history

Use this learning unit to explore the extensive Durham Light Infantry archive. Bring history to life through the records of soldiers who were there.

Letters, diaries, maps and photographs all contribute to our understanding of what life and death was like for a soldier in World War One. These sources support KS3 History; QCA Unit 18 Hot War, Cold War. Why did the major conflicts of the 20th century affect so many people?; and Unit 22 The role of the individual for good or ill. Students studying war poetry in English will also find valuable background detail here.

Life and Death as a Soldier in World War One - Introduction

The First World War was also known as the 'Great War' and 'The War to End All Wars'. Great Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and it lasted until 11 November 1918.

Sketch of a tank by Rev. J.G.E Birch, c.1917 (D/DLI 7/63/2 (163)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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It is remembered in Britain, among other reasons, for the stalemate of the trenches and its high loss of life.

It also witnessed fierce fighting and the development of new weapons, including tanks and aeroplanes.

Photograph of Private O’Donnell and family, c.1915 (D/DLI 7/929/8) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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It was also the first time that conscription (see Recruitment) for a war had been used in Britain and the sheer numbers of men who fought (and died) shocked the nation.

Over 658,000 Britons were killed, over 2 million wounded and nearly 360,000 reported missing.

All of these men were sons, brothers, husbands and fathers and this meant that almost every family and every community in Britain was affected.

The war was not just marked by death and fighting, however. Long hours of boredom between fighting were common, and many soldiers' senses of humour, pride, and duty, and also their friendships, helped them through the battles.

The Leisure section of this website shows how the men kept themselves entertained.

These web pages show what life was like for these soldiers on the Western Front. Soldiers' letters, diaries, poems and sketches, along with photographs and official documents, will be used. Maps showing the locations of the places mentioned can be found by clicking the links. This unit was developed in 2006.

Soldiers Biographies