Bringing History to Life: Primary Source Documents for World War I Lessons

World War 1 soldiers marching cement finish main

If you’re interested in learning about or teaching World War I, primary source documents are an excellent place to start. These documents provide a firsthand account of the events that took place during this pivotal time in history. By reading primary source documents, you can gain a deeper understanding of the causes, events, and consequences of the various aspects of the “Great War”.

There are tens of thousands of primary sources covering World War I. These documents were written by people who lived during the time of the revolution, and they offer a unique perspective on the events that unfolded.

I’ve chosen several sources that address parts of the war most teachers cover in their content.

To access a copy of these documents, simply click on the button below.

The Zimmermann Telegram (1917)

The Zimmerman Telegram was a secret message from the German Foreign Secretary to the German ambassador in Mexico, proposing a military alliance against the United States.

The Treaty of Versailles (1919)

The peace treaty that ended World War I and imposed heavy penalties on Germany. Following are some key excerpts.

The Balfour Declaration (1917)

A letter from the British Foreign Secretary to a prominent Jewish leader, expressing support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Lusitania (1915)

The sinking of the Lusitania was one of the primary causes of the United States’ entry into the war. Following is an excerpt from a German lieutenant’s diary describing what he saw from his submarine.

As a complimentary document, this is a photo from the mass burial of Americans who died on the ship.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

A letter from a soldier who participated in the spontaneous truce on the Western Front.

For a compilation of first–person accounts of the Christmas Truce, as well as a 12-minute audio clip of witnesses you can check out this site.

The War Effort at Home

There are so many great posters and examples of pro-war propaganda available. Following are 2 posters encouraging the war effort and a photo of a German-American who was tarred and feathered, ostensibly because he did not support the war bond effort.


I hope these primary sources got your juices flowing with lesson ideas! Students can spend an entire period analyzing just one source or take in several during a gallery walk. The possibilities are endless.

One thing is clear, however. Utilizing primary sources in your classroom increases rigor and an appreciation for a bunch of “old dead guys”.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.