As the 100 years since WWI draw to a close, there is a fresh focus on the war and the lives of our ancestors at the time. This article from the Federation of Family History Societies claims that it has never been easier to research the Great War experiences of our ancestors. I have not been able to copy in the automatic website links, but I have highlighted websites in bold. No doubt you can find them. (Brian Symonds, 18 September)
What can you find out about fathers, grandfathers and great uncles who served in the First World War? It does vary, but over the last four years many more records have been digitised meaning that it has never been easier to research the Great War experiences of our families.
A good place to start to find deceased relatives is the Commonwealth Graves Commission, which will give details of burial place, unit and place and date of death. The Lives of the First World War database lists all those who served, including those that survived.
Medal rolls are an excellent resource. All those who served overseas gained the British War and Victory medals. If they’d been sent overseas prior to the end of 1915 they also received a Star medal. The medal cards cataloguing who received which medal are digitised on Ancestry. The unit and regimental unit is also recorded. You can view these for a fee online or free at The National Archives were they comprise the WO 372 series. There is useful information on what the abbreviations on the cards means on the TNA website.
A limited number of service records still survive and are accessible, though sadly many were destroyed in a fire in 1940, so that only around a third still exist. Those that remain can tell you details about family members, such as occupation before enlisting, age and address. FamilySearch has WW1 service records from 1914–1920 which comprise The National Archives WO 363 and WO 364 records. You can view them for free if you visit a family records centre or visit TNA. They are also available to view for a fee on Ancestry or Findmypast.
A limited number of officers’ service records (1914–22) are still in existence and comprise the WO 339 and WO 374 collections at TNA. You can search and order them from TNA. Officer appointments, promotions and resignations were published in the London Gazette.
Once you know which regiment your person served in and the dates, do read the regimental war diary, available on The National Archives website. These only usually mention officers by name, but they do give detailed accounts of the regiment’s activity, providing great context and they are a fascinating read.
Other useful resources:
– Local war memorials (see the Centenary Events section)
– Our Really Useful Information Leaflet (download) has a long list of useful websites, many of which are WW1 related
– Soldiers were encouraged to make wills, so seek those out
– Newspaper reports are also worth a look
– To commemorate the WW1 Centenary, in 2014, professional researcher and writer Simon Fowler produced a guide for the FFHS, Researching Your First World War Ancestors, which is available as a pdf download. It gives a more in-depth overview of how to trace WW1 records
– The National Archives publishes an informative First World War Guide
– View the fascinating digitised film: ‘the Battle of the Ancre and Advancement of The Tanks’ to see soldiers going about their day-to-day activities on the Western Front.