Postscript: Droitwich and saving the ‘Burnt Records’/the problem of whether to accept the return to the War Office of Soldiers’ Documents held on Ministry of Pensions Files (1940-1945)

1940: R. (Records) and War Office Priorities Before The Arnside Fire

A letter originally sent by York Army Record Office in June 1940 to Arnside Street reveals the priorities of the War Office when it came to service records. The letter from the Officer i/c Infantry Records asked whether the original attestations of deserters discharged in 1923, which due to pressure of work had not been destroyed in 1938 as planned (see The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/17735 War Office documents: retention periods: Destruction of Documents. Colonel A.M. Cutbill O. i/c Infantry Records York to the Under Secretary of State The War Office (11 June 1940) were to be retained by Record Offices. After consideration by R. Records with A.G.1. (Records) (interrupted by the Arnside Fire and the loss of the original letter), a reply was sent out to Army Record Offices in December 1940 by A.G.1. (Records) stating that ‘…it has been decided that original attestations should be retained to the end of the present war… (Ibid. Director of Organization to Officer-in-Charge, Infantry Records, York. Copies to All Officer i/c Records (24 December 1940)).

The decision was a practical one, presumably a response to the danger of leaving Chelsea as the only repository holding a copy of these records during wartime with the example of Arnside illustrating what could happen. The loss of mostly Nineteenth Century Royal Artillery Service Documents  ‘Due to enemy action’ in one of the air attacks suffered by the Hospital between 1941 to 1945 (click here for a list) demonstrates the wisdom of the decision taken.

However it is the address of A.G.1 Records which is most revealing about War Office priorities when it came to evacuation, ‘The War Office Cheltenham (Ibid)’.

The War Office’s priority when it came to removing a War Office branch based in London dealing with service records was to evacuate A.G.1 Records which dealt with the current problems facing Army Record Offices. Army Record Offices were needed to manage soldiers’ records in an Army undergoing massive expansion. The early evacuation of R. (Records), with over a thousand tons of pre-Army Number service records and old records from the Great War Army/War Office branches was simply not an operational priority, whereas A.G.1 Record’s work was much easier to move  (no archive other than its own papers) and contributed to the war effort.

1940 – 1943 R. (Records), the Burnt Documents and debate over whether the War Office should accept replacement Great War Soldiers’ Documents from the Ministry of Pensions

To summarise:

  1. The Ministry of Pensions (M. of P.) was anxious from August 1940 to reduce its holdings of British Army documents which had been passed to it as part of the documentation for either successful claims where the pensioner was now dead or the claim had been unsuccessful. After the Arnside Fire these documents take on a new importance, eventually providing the papers that form National Archives class WO 364.
  2. The War Office, following the destruction of all other records held at Arnside apart from a portion of the Service Documents, the so-called ‘Burnt Records’,  was at the very least lacking in enthusiasm for the Ministry of Pension’s proposal that the War Office accept many tons of Soldiers’ Documents from them. This reluctance is attributed by various War Office officials to the pressures of wartime logistics, the capacity of their new accommodation at Droitwich and their desire to avoid taking papers that came from the files of deceased pensioners when their work (as far as the Great War was concerned) was mostly related to enquiries from living ex- soldiers. There is also a clear idea that War Office officials such as W.H. Davison (click here for his career with R. (Records) who had had a long association with these papers saw them as a damaged fragment of the Service Document archive with little historical value. The Service Documents were clearly viewed by many of these men (another was V.G.F. Bovenizer who also had spent sometime with R. (Records) see here (letter 7) for his approval and signing of replacement Army Discharge and Character Certificates in 1934) mainly as a set of legal documents maintained for practical reasons for ex-service personnel which had lost much of their value when their comprehensive coverage was dramatically ended by the Arnside Fire. A document from 1942 (included below) and another related document from the same year mentioned in the commentary give a date for the completion of the first sort of the Burnt Documents and show how labour intensive the effort to sort them was.
  3. The Public Record Office under J.H. Collingridge (a Deputy Keeper at the PRO) had a clear sense of the historic value of the surviving Great War Service Documents, even if the PRO’s initial reaction in an October 1940 letter to the War Office was to chiefly lament the loss of the collection of maps and the legal records of the Judge Advocate General (J.A.G.). However this did not mean that the Great War Service Documents were not considered historically important by the PRO. The PRO’s appreciation of their value in 1943 prevented the eventual destruction of both the Burnt Records and the Service Documents eventually sent to the War Office by the Ministry of Pensions, which would have resulted if War Office ideas on the future of the surviving documents and low estimation of their historical value had been accepted.


The following analysis/commentary is based upon a range of surviving sources from the War Office, Ministry of Pensions and PRO (Public Record Office). The letters and minutes are presented in chronological order.

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From The National Archives (TNA) PRO 17/322 War Office: General. I Powell Ministry of Pension to Under Secretary of State War Office (9 August 1940)

Until the Arnside Fire in September 1940, the Ministry of Pensions copies of Service Documents were simply that, copies of little interest to the War Office with its own full archive of Service Documents. In common with the pressure put on Army Record Offices having to accommodate the records of the newly expanded British Army, the Ministry of Pensions faced demands to house the documents related to the records of the anticipated wave of war pensions and other benefits resulting from the Second World War.Burnt Records and Droitwich2

From The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Note to Mr Davison R (Records) (10 September 1940)

Apart from revealing the origin of the well-known list the note is useful in revealing the likely division of the floor space at Arnside into rooms.

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From The National Archives (TNA) PRO 1/387 War Office. Report of fire at repository in Arnside Street, Walworth. G.W. Lambert War Office to The Master of the Rolls (25 October 1940)

G.W. Lambert’s letter to Master of the Rolls (the Master of the Rolls being technically responsible at that time for oversight of the PRO and the Public Record Act as applied to Government departments) first mentions that Service Documents of the pre-August 9th 1920 Army were lost in the Arnside Fire. That these documents headed the list in his letter reflects their prominence as the largest single group of records stored at Arnside (click here for more details). His choice of the lost maps and the court-martial records of the Judge Advocate General as being the prime examples of the historic records lost from the records at Arnside is clearly reflected in the PRO’s response to this letter. It is also interesting that he does not mention that the 300 tons that he thought could be saved (the implication is that other surviving documents could not be saved, perhaps due to the continuing effects of water damage) were the remains of the Service Documents, later to be known as the ‘Burnt Records’.

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From Ibid. Unnamed official at the PRO to G.W. Lambert War Office (29 October 1940)

The unnamed PRO official reacts to Lambert’s letter by particularly regretting the loss of the maps and the legal records (mentioned alongside the Service Documents in Lambert’s letter), but makes no mention of the Great War Service Documents lost in the Fire. As already mentioned above Lambert does not mention that the Service Documents were the main (it seems only) records saved from the fire (or possibly the only records which were considered worth salvaging in their damaged state?). The PRO official is obviously unsure as to the fate of the maps (he displays no other knowledge than that shared by Lambert in the War Office letter) as he speculates whether they were lost or mutilated (so possibly burnt but in some cases salvageable). The letter also does not mention the losses to the Service Documents and it is likely that the view of the PRO official who wrote the letter (and possibly the overall view of the PRO) was that the damage to the Service Documents was not as important as the loss of the maps and J.A.G. records.

There was some historical justification for putting the loss of the maps among the most important losses from the Arnside Fire. Some items in the map collection such as the Eighteenth Century map of Gibraltar listed in the Arnside Fire list (see The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Records Destroyed At Arnside Street (list)) were irreplaceable (Arnside had a collection of just under 20,000 maps in 1935 according to Hampden Gordon, see Hampden Gordon (1935) The War Office. Putnam: London. p. 274)). The mention of the loss of the J.A.G. records would possibly also have appealed to the PRO’s historic focus on the preservation and publication of compilations of the legal records of the state.

The comments about an unheeded warning of the risk of fire and the skill of Nelson (J.R. Nelson, head of R.(Records) and its predecessor C2 Disposal of Records until 1937, before 1915 he was a PRO official, click here for more details), is in part a rebuke to the War Office for not taking the risk of fire (perhaps also by implication the likelihood of bombing of an area like Walworth) seriously enough.

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From The National Archives (TNA) PRO 17/322 War Office: General.Unsigned copy of a letter from the War Office to the Ministry of Pensions (16 November 1940)

The belated response by an unknown War Office official to the 9 August 1940 letter from the Ministry of Pensions conveys the message that the War Office would like the Service Documents on M. of P. files back at a future date (plus for permanent preservation), to help fill the gap left in answering Great War related service enquires because of the loss of the Army Book 358s and a then estimated 80% of the Soldiers’ Documents at Arnside. The comment about the possible use of documents returned from the Ministry of Pensions to answer enquiries is interesting considering the later War Office lack of enthusiasm in 1943 for taking the Service Documents of dead or unsuccessful pension applicants papers from the M of P.  The later ambivalence towards taking these documents was on the grounds that most R. (Records) Service Documents related enquiries related to living ex-soldiers rather than deceased ex-soldiers.


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From The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/9678 WAR OFFICE: Establishment (Code 1(C)): Report on Droitwich: Note from J.R. Wade Director of Establishments to Assistant Secretary Droitwich (3 November 1941) and The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Note to Mr Kerr War Office (28 August 1942). F9 was one of the financial divisions of the War Office.

A letter on file PRO 17/322, dated 22 January 1942 from an official at the PRO to W.H. Davison at Droitwich confirms that sometime between November 1941 to January 1942 R (Records) moved into the War Office accommodation (allocated by the Ministry of Works) at Droitwich.

The note dated 28 August 1942 from a War Office official to Mr Kerr (presumably a member of R.(Records)) is of interest as it shows how far the once complete set of Soldiers’ Documents had been reduced to a fragment, with a success rate of identifying papers of only 11%,, just over one in ten enquiries  (The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Note to Mr Kerr War Office (28 August 1942)). Earlier correspondence from the same file reveals that 413,000 papers had been sorted by May 1942 (Ibid. Note from unidentified War Office official to Kerr (20 May 1942)) and going back to the note from the 28 August we can see a suggestion that papers were perhaps given an initial rough sort by alphabetical order, followed by a more detailed sort within the particular letter.How many documents were left to sort or had been lost to complications caused by water damage since the Arnside Fire in September 1940 is not stated, with the list of losses from the fire in September 1940 giving an initial presumably visual estimate that ‘out of 6.5 million documents only 1.25 million have been saved’ (Ibid: Unknown War Office official to W.H. Davison (10/9/1940)).

How rough this sort was is revealed by yet another note to Mr Kerr from the 3 July 1942 stating that in a test search for the papers of 83 soldiers  (the term ‘finally arranged’ is used to refer to the list of 83 names, it probably means that the surnames were in letter groups where the sort had been completed) as 15% of these papers were found after six presskeepers (officials charged with retrieving and shelving documents) looked through 14,400 documents to put together the twelve sets of documents found. Each presskeeper looked through approximately 100 papers per hour, with 600 papers an hour handled by the team of paperkeepers according to the memorandum, or 24 hours in total spent finding the sets of papers. There is a conflicting statement made earlier in the same memo that ‘six presskeepers worked for an hour for 4 nights before completing this list’ (Ibid). When identifying the lack of surviving papers as well as finding papers is identified as a success in terms of giving a definitive answer over whether R. (Records) could help with the enquiry, the test exercise looks more of a success. That is 12 sets of documents were identified and 71 had been destroyed in the fire, the amount of time spent to answer an enquiry in terms of R. (Records) looks less demanding, with an average of 175 papers per enquiry stated in the memorandum as a result of dividing 14,400 papers by 83 (they must have rounded up to the nearest 5).

The difficulty of using the remaining records as sorted by August 1942 and the evident truth that they could not use the Burnt Records to answer most enquiries beyond stating that the records were no longer in existence probably contributed to the lack of enthusiasm displayed by R (Records) and War Office officials to the Ministry of Pensions offer of Soldiers’ Documents from redundant War Pension files. The difference in success between the various sorts also was an early sign of the differing levels of survival of different regiments and corps documents following the Fire.

That R. (Records) was still very much concerned with enquiries from Great War ex-soldiers is made clear in the statement that ‘…As regards enquiries coming in from Record offices these amount to some 30 a week, while Ministry of Pensions and A.G.4. Medals average 30 a week and 50 a week respectively…(Ibid. War Office official to Mr Kerr (28 August 1942)).’ There is also the mention in the same note that a backlog of enquiries to be answered had developed by 1942, with mention of an outstanding backlog of 6,000 names, of which ‘…3,300 names…have…[been] searched for (Ibid).’ It is unclear how long this backlog had taken to develop, but taking the above figures for average enquiries per week and then multiplying by 52 weeks gives a figure of 5,720 enquiries in a year and it would seem likely that a backlog would have formed whilst the initial sort according to alphabetical surname letters had continued, with enquiries probably difficult to resolve until it became viable to search through different groups of documents by the first few letters of the surname. According to the letter, searches to answer enquiries connected to surnames beginning with ‘P,R,S, T and W’ were only just beginning and it seems that other groups of surname letters must have been completed at an earlier date. The use of this system implies an earlier sort by first letter of the surname following the Fire before a more detailed sort within letter groups.

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From The National Archives (TNA) PRO 17/322 War Office: General. Unsigned copy of letter from the Ministry of Pensions to The Under Secretary of State War Office (25 January 1943)

The Ministry of Pensions letter dated 25 January 1943, written more than two years after the War Office letter asking them to look to preserve Service Documents in the light of the Fire, reveals that the main driver for the Ministry of Pensions’ actions continued to be the need to make space for more documents, with this need by now becoming urgent as with years of war active papers connected to Second World War claims needed to be stored. The urgent wartime need for the recycling of waste paper, including files was another main factor driving the destruction/pulping of old records across government departments.

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From Ibid. W.H. Davison R. Records to J.H. Collingridge PRO (8 February 1943)

Davison’s response to the Ministry of Pensions letter is of great interest considering both his past with R. (Records) and its predecessor C2 Disposal of Records (see beginning of this page) but also that although he acknowledges the great losses such as the AB 358s in the Arnside Fire (interestingly he also sticks to the estimate for the number of papers saved from Arnside given in the original post Fire list in September 1940) he does not believe that the Ministry of Pensions Soldiers’ Documents should be permanently preserved. His argument representing the War Office is grounded in the practical need to house the documents of the Second World War Army which will eventually become the responsibility of the War Office when sent on from the Army Record Offices. He also uses the fact that the 1922 Schedule (actually agreed with the PRO in 1922, published in 1923) did not include the permanent retention of Soldiers’ Documents (although as discussed in the page here on the 1923 Schedule it was envisaged that a change would eventually be made to the Schedule so that all of the documents of soldiers who joined from 1928/9 with the end of detailed AB 358 entries would be preserved). Davison’s statements that there would be no reaction to the public to the destruction of many of the Ministry of Pensions documents, as his suggested twenty year rule led to their pulping in the face of wartime paper needs and that the papers held at Droitwich were ‘a mutilated fragment…[which together with the Ministry of Pensions’ papers]…form a only a small portion of the documents of the Great War Army…’ reveals a practical disdain for what had been left following the fire. However when Davision says that ‘..Their historical value…cannot be very great…’ because of the loss of most of the documents he strayed beyond his principal argument based on the practical adminstrative value of the documents into one looking at their worth as historical records.

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J.H. Collingridge, apart from reminding Davison and the War Office about the terms of the 1928 agreement over the preservation of Soldiers’ Documents and the meaning of schedule item 183 (that it applied to the permanent preservation of Chelsea Pension related Service Documents only), masterfully and in a single sentence demolishes Davison’s weakest argument for the destruction of Great War Service Documents when he states that ‘…contrary to the view expressed in the last paragraph of your letter, – the destruction of the bulk of the service records, when your repository was burnt, has enhanced rather than diminished the historical value of the surviving documents…’. We owe the PRO and Collingridge much for the survival of the first set of records which became WO 364, as to the Ministry of Pensions they were simply records which needed to be removed to clear space for new records and to the War Office they were viewed as not being necessary either administratively or for the historical record (although as has been said lack of administrative need was the main objection of the War Office to their taking the records).


From Ibid. J.H. Collingridge PRO to W.H. Davison R. (Records) (15 February 1943)Burnt Records and Droitwich11Burnt Records and Droitwich12

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Minutes from The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/17735 War Office documents: retention periods: Debate over whether R (Records) should take Great War soldiers’ documents from the Ministry of Pensions (9 – 27 April 1943) and Ibid: Note from 1959 detailing removal of letters/papers on the movement of Soldiers’ Documents from the file plus number of documents involved in the transfer.

The War Office argument was clear, with a continuing lack of enthusiasm for taking the Service Documents grounded in wartime logistical difficulties and the need (although exaggerated) to provide space for other documents related to the Second World War. It is again interesting to see the attitude of War Office officials such as Bovenizer (see the beginning of this page for a link to his involvement with R. (Records) in the 1930s) and Wade towards the receipt of Service Documents from the M. of P. to replace some of those lost in the Arnside Fire. Wade had originally been involved with R. (Records) when it was in 1921 to 1922 under the control of C3 B, a War Office subdivision which he headed (correspondence from Wade with the PRO dealing with what became the 1923 Schedule can be found in The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/17735 War Office documents: retention periods: Destruction of Documents).  As discussed there was also a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the War Office about the records offered by M. of P. as they were the records of deceased ex-servicemen, not of great use to R. (Records) in its work answering practical enquiries from living ex-servicemen of the Great War.

The figures in the 1959 minute show the scale of what was eventually delivered by the Ministry of Pensions to the War Office and decades later passed to the PRO by the Ministry of Defence, 670,000 sets of Great War Soldiers’ Documents. The estimate from Mr Kerr in his 25 October 1940 letter to the Master of the Rolls (see above) that 300 tons of documents could be saved from an original 1,400 tons compares with a figure of roughly 267 tons (a figure based on the War Office estimate in 1955 of 1 ton per 60 feet of racking in use in at the Droitwich War Office Record Centre, 16,000 feet of racking was at that time taken up by Great War related Service Records) for the Great War Service Documents held by the War Office Record Centre in 1955 ((The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/15644 War Office Records Centre Droitwich: Report On Further Investigations Into The Possibility Of Moving The War Offfice Records Centre to Hayes, And The Central Moribund Accounts Office To Leeds (14 April 1955)). It is unclear whether this reduced Droitwich figure (in terms of the 1940 weight estimate of the post-Fire Great War Service Documents) includes the Service Documents that had come from the Ministry of Pensions, or whether they were included amongst the 9,200 feet listed in the Droitwich report for 1900/39 Soldiers Records (Ibid), which using the above formula represented roughly 153 tons of records.  The 1900/39 collection must have included the so-called Militia and Chelsea documents, with given the range of dates the inclusion of some inter-war period Service Documents either from Chelsea or the Army Record Offices.