Researching WW1 Service Personnel

© IWM – HU 102923

Some of you may wish to research soldiers etc involved in the Great War and for those with little experience I thought I would provide some guidance as to where I have found information.

Firstly, if you wish to research someone fully it can get to be an expensive business as a great deal of the information is held in ‘Pay’ sites and unfortunately there is not one site that holds the complete information. For myself, I have a ‘Research Buddy’ from Canada who has membership of certain sites and I have membership of others sites and we help each other out on looking into individuals. This may be an option for anyone who wishes to keep the costs to a minimum.

Who To Research?

The first question is who do you wish to research? The person you choose could be from a grave you are tending or a family member you wish to research or my preferred route is to find some evidence then research the person in full. For example, an excellent website to find FREE evidence is archive.org which provides many Rolls of Honour without the need to spend any money. An example of these could be The Morayshire Roll of Honour, The Arbroath and District Roll of Honour, Aberdeen University Roll of Service and any other publications you wish to search for. One of my own favourites is De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour which if I can recall can be found in 6 volumes. Although some of the many Rolls of Honour books only provide brief details, there are others which provide a biography of the individual and sometimes a photograph. Another route is to go via what the Imperial War Museum classes as Additions to a Grave which is where a soldier etc is buried on foreign lands or lost at sea and the family wish to remember them on the family grave. This has the benefit in that it instantly gives you the details of parents and some siblings and usually the date of death, although from experience, this date can sometime be slightly incorrect.

FREE Sources

Some other Free research sources include the following:-

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Usually one of the first points of research which is pretty easy to use, don’t forget to look at the documentation at the bottom of the webpage which may give you additional information.
  • Lives of the First World War – This was a project started by the Imperial War Museum and was available to input information onto it for the duration of the Great War Centenary period, each person who served in WW1 had a profile page created from various data dumps, e.g Medal Index Cards. Much to the frustration of the volunteers this website was frozen in its current state in 2019 so it is really a hit or a miss if there will be much information on it but it is certainly worth trying.
  • The National Archive – Although this site is generally not free, currently in lockdown the system allows you to download items up to 100 items in a 30 day period with no cost as long as you register with them. Before you download on the system it also allows you to have a preview of the documents. For myself I find this excellent for research especially with regards to the Battalion War Diaries which are available for France / Flanders. The system can be a little awkward to search. To search for the War Diaries I would recommend the following – In the search field it will give you two options, these are Search Website or Search Records, choose the Search Records one. If you enter WO 95 followed by the name, e.g. “wo95 Scots fusiliers”, this should give you the various different battalions from that regiment. You can then add them to your basket and proceed to checkout once complete, just remember to log-in to make the process free. The N.A. can also be good for looking at Medal Index Cards if you do not wish to go to a Pay Site. The War Diaries for Gallipoli Campaign are not available on The N.A., they are available via Ancestry.
  • A Street Near You – Set up by an ex-colleague from the Lives project, this site can be helpful by bringing links together for an individual from various sites, it is also linked to the CWGC and Lives site, so I tend to go here initially and follow the links to some other sites. Although currently it is only for those who died over the Great War period.
  • The London Gazette or its partner the Edinburgh Gazette. This publication can provide information on Promotions, Gallantry Awards, Transfers etc. During the earlier part of the war the gallantry awards were often accompanied with the citation for the bravery award but later on these were omitted. It can be searched with a service number for Other Ranks which makes the search easier to conduct. With Regards to officers with no number but just a name, then you may need to play around with names before you get the entry eg John Ponsonby Smith may be relatively easy to find, but then he may be listed as John P Smith or just J P Smith.
  • Long Long Trail – Although this site will not tell you information on an individual, it will tell you the structure of various units and their movements throughout the war and if they amalgamated etc It is a great go-to site to find out additional information about the structure of the army. I also find it useful when finding out where medical units were at certain dates to find out where an individual died.
  • Find a Grave – This site is provided for photographs of headstones to be added and a great many military ones have been. On occasions people have also included links to siblings or parents or photographs of the deceased.
  • RFC / RAF Casualty Cards – This card set is very helpful when researching those who served in the Royal Flying Corps, what they were flying, the courses they did and how they died.
  • The Great War Forum – This is a very helpful group who offer advice from their various interests in the Great War. You can look through the previous topics or ask a question of your own. I recently used the forum to ask a question on the Somaliland Camel Corps when I was struggling to understand something and was given a fantastic response.
  • Canadian Expeditionary Force – The Canadian Records are fantastic, there is a choice to view the first two pages of the Attestation Papers as these were digitised first but now it may also give you the option to view the whole record which has a wealth of information.
  • Australian Imperial Force – The Australian WW1 Records are also fantastic and can easily contain up to 70 plus pages on some of the individuals.

Information from Pay Sites

There are several Pay sites I use, namely Ancestry and Find My Past, they both have positive and negative aspects and as I said previously there is no one go-to site which has everything. There are other sites available too but I have no experience with them.

  • Service Records – As many of you will know the majority of the Service Records for the soldiers were destroyed in the Blitz of WW2, however, on occasion some have survived although some partly burnt. These are beneficial for names, addresses, parents details, description of individuals, postings and many other facts, if you manage to trace one, you are well on your way to obtaining a great deal of information. If I have any recommendations for them, I would say to create a timeline as a great deal of the information is all over the place and not necessarily in order.
  • Medal Index Cards – These Cards are a good way of finding the Units and Service number of the individual and also their rank. As the name indicates, it also tells you the medals the recipients were entitled to, whether that was the 1914 Star, 1914-15 Star or the Victory and British War Medals. If they have received the 14 or 14-15 Star the card will also include the date they went to the first Theatre of War and also which location that was i.e.(1) France. It may also mention SWB (Silver War Badge) for those who were discharged through illness or injury. It may also include if he was Mentioned in Dispatches. Guide to Medal Index Cards.
  • Medal Rolls – These Rolls were not issued on a specific individual but were a list of soldiers in a Unit and their entitlement to a medal, the information on these are very similar to the Medal Index Cards but I tend to look at these primarily, as on occasions they say if the soldier was in different battalions within the same regiment. Guide to Medal Rolls.
  • Soldiers Died in the Great War – This list was put together following the GW, it doesn’t hold a great deal of information but it can be helpful for providing a place of birth and place of enlistment, although I wouldn’t believe it 100%. If you have little information on the soldier it can be helpful. Guide to Soldiers Died in the Great War.
  • Register of Soldiers Effects – This is available online only via Ancestry – and was a ledger which on the death of soldier was created to allocate his outstanding payment to a family member, often mentioned as a ‘Legate or Sole Legate. I find this ledger useful for identifying family and it sometimes also mentions the hospital or Casualty Clearing Station the individual died in. Then I would go to the Long Long Trail and find out the location of the Hospital or CCS at the time of the death. Guide to the Register of Soldiers Effects.
  • Pension Cards – These can be very useful for information on family, next of kin, children including their dates of birth and addresses. On occasion it even tells you the cause of a death. I researched a soldier for someone who thought they were killed in action and the Pension Card was the only document I could find that said he had shot himself with a revolver. There are often multiple cards. These are accessible via The Western Front Association which I would recommend which is an annual membership and they send you excellent magazines on a quarterly basis. The Cards are also available on a pay site called Fold3.
  • Silver War Badge Register – This register is available both on Ancestry and Find my Past and gives details of enlistment and discharge dates, it also gives the cause under the Kings Regulations why the individual was discharged and the Silver War Badge number which each badge is stamped with. I have found the register sometimes difficult to search as sometime the numbers are inputted inconsistently and often requires perseverance. Guide to the Silver War Badge.
  • Census Records – These are available on both Ancestry and Find my Past. The Censuses which are generally relevant are 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911. In these you will find the names of who was in the family household, address, a circa year of birth and the occupation and relationship to the head of the household. One thing to note however, the 1911 Census for Scotland is not available in the previously mentioned sites but is on the pay site, Scotlands People.
  • British News Archive – This is another pay site which includes a large number of local Newspapers from throughout the U.K., it is by no means complete for example they are currently missing the war years for the Banffshire Newspapers but it is certainly worth investigating for photos of those killed or injured and biographies too. It is often my starting point, in that I look through an article and choose someone who has a biography and research the information after that. Many of the local newspapers are of course also free to view from your local library when they are open as another option.

These research tools are by no means the full scope of the facilities available, however, they offer a good grounding to be able to complete a research on an individual.

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