Before the start of WW1, the British Army comprised of approximately 700,000 men of which 250,000 were regulars, 250,000 territorials and 200,000 reservists. By the end of WW1, it’s estimated that 8.7 million men and women had served in the British Army. So, the chances of you having an ancestor who served in WW1 is extremely likely. Whether you can find their records is a different matter entirely.
Like all thing’s genealogy related, start with what you know. You could have inherited Grandad’s/Great-Grandad’s WW1 medals, or you might have an old photograph of a Soldier in a Uniform and that’s all you know. By carefully piecing together the information, you can slowly build up a picture for your Soldier.
So, where do you start?
Sadly, not all of the records from WW1 have survived, ironically a large proportion of the records were design by enemy bombing in WW2. Roughly 60% of the Army records from WW1 were destroyed, but that does not mean that we can’t find our ancestors records in the remaining 40%. These records have been transcribed and are searchable on subscription websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past.
Did your Ancestor survive the war? Sometimes it’s easier to trace those who died in the war, than those who survived. Details of casualties were well recorded, and the military units, date of death and location of their burial or commemoration were all kept. If your first world war ancestor died while serving with British armed forces, he or she will be remembered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on its Debt of Honour register. You can search this database free of charge from the CWGC home page.
Was your Ancestor a POW during WW1? The Red Cross has a wonderful database listing over 5 million casualties on their website which is free to search WW1 POW’s.
So, let’s assume your Ancestor was one of the fortunate ones who survived the war, but sadly his records were destroyed in WW2, does that mean we can’t tell his story? There are still further records we can access that can help build up a picture of your individual ancestor’s war story. Medal cards and medal rolls are another source and can be searched online at the national archive’s website as well as subscription sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past.
Every individual who entered a Theatre of War on active service, in the First World War was issued with one, two or three campaign medals, depending on their service.
Medal Rolls are the lists of the individuals eligible for a medal, which give the name of the person and the reference number for the issue of the medal or medals. The Medal Rolls are listed by regiment or corps.
There is a medal card for each individual soldier receiving one or more medals during the war. The relevant references from the Medal Rolls were included on each card. This card index is known as the Medal Index Card collection or the Medal Rolls Index.
The Medal Rolls and Medal Index Cards can be searched to find an individual Soldier and the Medal Roll or the Index Card will confirm details including regimental number, military unit and medals issued. If the individual entered a Theatre of War during 1914 and 1915 the date will usually be included on the card. From 1916 onwards the date of entry to the Theatre of War was not generally included on the card.
There is also another medal awarded that you might not be aware of;
The Silver War Badge was issued to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness from military service. The badge, sometimes known as the “Discharge Badge”, the “Wound Badge” or “Services Rendered Badge”, was first issued in September 1916, along with an official certificate of entitlement. If your ancestor received this badge it will not show up on a generic military search on Ancestry. You will have to search specifically within the Ancestry card catalogue itself and then search for your ancestor.
Also consider what happened after the war, Pensions were paid out to Soldiers and their families, if they were injured or died during the war or as a result of the war, these records can be searched online. This database contains service records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks who were discharged from the Army and claimed disability pensions for service in WWI and they can be searched on ancestry under the description WO 364.
Ancestry also has a set of records called ‘UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929′ which can often give next of kin for those soldiers that died. This will help enormously with confirming if the Soldier you have found is the ‘right soldier’ and indeed your ancestor. You can also use this record to loosely calculate back to the month and year the man enlisted, based on the amount of the war gratuity. It goes on rank and time served.
Once you have found your ancestor in the records and established what, if any, records have survived for him, you can start to build up a timeline of his war experience. Even if you only have a medal card, by researching soldiers of your ancestor’s regiment, who have similar service numbers to your ancestors, you can piece together their story. If you are lucky, other soldiers’ records will have survived who were in the same regiment as your ancestor and you can trace their war stories, which will have been similar to that of your ancestor. They would have most likely served on the frontline together.
Regimental war diaries and trench maps can help you gain a much better understanding and perspective of your ancestor’s wartime experiences.
Unit war diaries are the official military accounts that give day-by-day details of the action, locality, conditions, etc of the battalion. They are unlikely to mention your ancestor by name, unless they were an officer, but they make valuable reading about what daily life would have been like for your ancestor. These are available on The National Archives website.There are also a number of helpful guides available online at the national archives website.
Another great resource for finding your ancestor are newspapers. Probably one of the most under utilised resources for family historians. Your ancestor is likely to get a mention if he was wounded on the frontline or sadly killed in action and these are available to search at both the British Newspaper Archives and FindMyPast websites.
This blog only touches on a few of the resources that are available to you, by digging a little deeper into the records you will be surprised at what you discover. A few years ago, I put my ancestor’s name into google only to find that my ancestor was mentioned by name in a book about the Gallipoli campaign. You just don’t know what’s out there unless you look!
Below are some useful links that will help you with your research, good luck!