The 1940 fire at Arnside Street

It is widely known that the majority of British WW1 soldier’s army service records went up in smoke when the War Office warehouse (the Army Records Centre) where they were stored was hit by a German incendiary bomb in an air raid in 1940. It is less well known that many other records were also destroyed. For researchers of the Great War, it was catastrophic.

Where was the warehouse?

The building in which the records had been stored was in Arnside Street, which was – and still is – in Walworth in south London.

arnside_1-297x300

This is an extract of a map of the Walworth area in 1894, and comes with my thanks from the excellent website Ideal Homes:a history of SE London suburbs. Arnside Street is not named on this map but it can be seen. The main Walworth Road runs top to bottom down the middle of the map. Just where it bends, three roads run off to the right and end at Queen’s Row. The middle one is Arnside Street.

It can be seen better on this extract from Google Maps:

arnside_2-300x263

This area was heavily bombed during the London Blitz, and it was on 7-8 September 1940 that the building was hit.

What was there?

A document held at the National Archives (reference WO32/21769) lists the various collections of documents that were destroyed in the fire. This document has been digitised and can be downloaded (small fee) from the Discovery part of the National Archives’ website.

This is an extract from the full list, picking out the key items of WW1 interest:

  • Great War soldiers’ non-effective documents up to 7 August 1920 inclusive
  • Soldiers’ documents of the Machine Gun Corps up to disbandment in 1922
  • Card index of nurses
  • Confidential reports on nurses
  • Complete medical history of the war and a card index to it
  • Almeric Paget’s records (massage services)
  • Various records of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service
  • Medal receipts
  • Medal rolls of the King’s African Rifles
  • Chaplain’s records
  • Chemical warfare files
  • Officers’ pay lists 1914 to 1921 and later
  • Card index of staff employed (militarily)
  • All intelligence records including those of missions to Russia, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Black Sea, Italy, Portugal, Persia and Egypt
  • Officers’ commission cards
  • Confidential reports on all officers 1870-1880 and 1910-1938
  • Card index to honours and awards
  • Roll of Victoria Crosses awarded since commencement
  • Blueprints and drawings
  • Stationery (9 tons of it)
  • Confidential documents dealing with officers’ examinations
  • Munitions inventions files
  • Volumes of the leading London newspapers going back over 100 years
  • Secret cipher telegrams
  • Lists of unclaimed bronze plaques and King’s Certificates
  • Casualty returns
  • Court martial proceedings
  • Officers’ records of service (all that is left now is a miscellaneous file)
  • Officers strength returns
  • Rolls of various munitions factories
  • Card index of foreign honours and awards
  • Books containing rolls of officers of the Royal Army Medical Corps
  • Army Lists from 1775 onwards
  • Records of horse breeding
  • Records of Medway coast defences
  • Packages of photographic plates for the Great War period
  • Files and card index on the Irish rebellion
  • Embarkation returns
  • Nominal rolls of the Black Sea Labour Corps
  • Records of Russian and Portuguese Labour Corps
  • Company rolls of the Labour Corps
  • Nominal rolls of colonial regiments
  • Officers’ and men’s casualty cards
  • Files from General Headquarters in France
  • Books and card index of Royal Artillery officers
  • Card index of officer unit and demobilisation
  • Card index of deceased officers
  • Card index of officers and men taken prisoner of war
  • Card index of prison camps in Germany
  • War diaries of nearly all regiments
  • ‘Grey books’ of officers and men killed in the war (not sure what this was)
  • Nominal roll of pre-war and Great War volunteers
  • United States’ and South African Royal Army Medical Corps records
  • Chinese Labour Corps records
  • Documents relating to Harrow Schools
  • Documents relating to Egyptian Expeditionary Force
  • All Army Forms AB72, AB216, AN358 and AB359
  • Part II Orders of all branches (this loss was disastrous for researchers as the daily Part II Orders named all men arriving at a unit, being posted, promoted, punished, becoming casualties etc)
  • Reference books of the various ammunition columns
  • Reports on German atrocities
  • Various records of the Royal Air Force
  • Reference books of the Young Soldier battalions
  • A complete summary of all documents held at Arnside Street
  • Copies of King’s Regulations 1912-1923
  • Documents relating to the Camel Corps and the Zion Mule Corps
  • Reference books of widows’ pensions
  • Card index of military hospitals
  • Documents and registers of the Royal Hibernian Military School

The documents states of that of the soldier’s army service records, “out of 6.5 million documents only 1.25 million have been saved”