Reproduced with permission from the Centre for First World War Studies (see www.firstworldwar.bham.ac.uk)
The WFA, in common with The Centre for First World War Studies, receives many enquiries about tracing the records of British soldiers who served in the Great War. We do our best to help, but there are some useful standard routes for research that should be followed first. Here are some of the basics.
1) Soldiers Who Died
Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC]
The most complete record of soldiers (and others) who died in the Great War is contained in the Debt of Honour Register of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is available on line: http://www.cwgc.org/
Information contained in the Debt of Honour Register includes the location of the soldier’s grave (or his commemoration, if he has no known grave). Otherwise, information is patchy, being dependent on material supplied (or not supplied) by relatives during and after the war. The Register is also not free of errors.
Soldiers Died in the Great War
The compilations Soldiers Died in the Great and Officers Died in the Great War were originally published in 1921. Soldiers Died are listed in 80 volumes organised by regiment or corps. There is a set in Birmingham Central Library. These lists often give information that is not available in the CWGC Debt of Honour Register, including place of birth, place of residence, place of enlistment and any former regiment.
These works are now available as a searchable CD-ROM, published (albeit an expensive option) by Naval & Military Press (http://www.naval-military-press.com/).
Since February 2006 1837online.com have made it possible to search Soldiers Died in the Great War on line. It is also possible to access the registers of war deaths. http://www.1837online.com/
Rolls of Honour
Many businesses, organisations, schools and towns created Rolls of Honour after the war, as did the University of Birmingham. Many of these are now available on-line, including the University of Birmingham’s: http://www.firstworldwar.bham.ac.uk/memorial/ww1/intro.htm
2) All Soldiers
Soldiers Personal Files
All British soldiers who served in the First World War had a personal file. Unfortunately, about half of these were destroyed in the first German air raid on London on 7/8 September 1940. Those records that survived were released to the National Archives of the United Kingdom: Public Record Office at Kew in November 1996 (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/). The original documents were so fragile that only microfilm is available for inspection. Whether an individual soldier’s file survived is entirely random.
Officers’ files had a higher survival rate. Some 216,000 were released to the National Archives in February 1998. The criteria for release were: that the officer had served in the British Army between 1914 and 1920 and that he had left the Army by 31 March 1922. It is often possible to locate an officer’s file on line, by typing the surname into the National Archives Catalogue accompanied by a record class number. Officers’ files are mostly contained in record series WO 339 or WO 374 (especially Territorial officers).
The contents of both soldiers’ and officers’ personal files are unpredictable.
The Medal Index and Medal Rolls
Besides a soldier’s (or officer’s) personal file the other major source of information is the Medal Card Index, also in the National Archives. This is the most complete listing of British service personnel in the First World War. The National Archives has now completed the digitizing of the Medal Index. The online version is available at http://www.documentsonline.nationalarchives.gov.uk/default.asp.
Most soldiers who served with the British Army in the Great War qualified for campaign medals, normally the 1914 (or 1914-15) Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. If all three were awarded, they were commonly referred to as ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’. If only the British War Medal and Victory Medal were awarded, they were usually referred to as ‘Mutt and Jeff’. The Army Medals Office recorded soldiers’ medal entitlement in lists known as rolls. The Index Card available on line provides the reference to where the soldier is listed on the Rolls, which are organised by regiment or corps.
The information found on the Medal Card will include the soldier’s name, rank and serial number, his regiment or corps, sometimes (but not often) his unit (such as his battalion or Field Company RE), his date of entry into a Theatre of War (uncommon after the end of 1915), his date of death (if he died during the war), the campaign medals he was awarded and the reference numbers that allow the soldier to be traced on the Medal Rolls, which are not available on line.
It is important to check the actual Medal Rolls because they can give extra vital information about a soldier, such as his battalion, that allow further research to be undertaken. This is particularly true of soldiers who served in the cavalry, yeomanry and infantry, but much less so for the larger corps, such as the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and Army Service Corps.
Once a soldier’s unit has been identified it is possible to find out more about it. All units from battalion level (and the battalion’s equivalent in other corps, such as a Field Artillery Brigade) upwards were required to keep War Diaries on active service. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives: Public Record Office, Kew, in record series WO 95. War Diaries rarely mention ordinary soldiers, but they do provide a detailed account of the unit’s movements and activities.
Many infantry regiments and battalions also have published histories. A list of these may be found on the Centre for First World War Studies’ website on the ‘Books About the Great War’ page: click on ‘Unit Histories’, then ‘British’. For higher, formations, such as Infantry Divisions, click on ‘Formation Histories’, then ‘British’.
Absent Voters Lists
Absent Voters Lists were compiled by local authorities at home. They show the names of soldiers and sailors who were absent from their normal homes because of World War I service. The lists are organised in ward and street order. They are particularly valuable, as they give the man’s rank or rating, unit, battalion, ship, etc and his service number. These details are the key to further research on WWI servicemen. In order to find the relevant List you would need to know a person’s actual address during the period 1914-18.
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps
The National Archives announced on 9 March 2006 that it is now possible to search and download the service records of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (1917-1918), later Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (1918-1920). Over 57,000 women served in the Corps. An air raid in 1940 destroyed many of their service records but over 7,000 survived:
3) Further Information
The National Archives Website contains a mass of useful information about researching Great War soldiers: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/.
Please see the WFA Links Page which maintains a growing list of links to sites on The Great War.
The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War, a superb website maintained by Centre for First World War Studies’ Member Chris Baker, has an excellent section called ‘Research a Soldier’(http://www.1914-1918.net/grandad/grandad.htm).
William Spencer’s Army Service Records of the First World War (3rd edn., Richmond: Public Record Office, 2001) is essential. See also, Norman H. Holding, World War I Army Ancestry (Plymouth: Federation of Family History Societies, 1982) and The Location of British Army Records: A National Directory of World War 1 Sources (Plymouth: Federation of Family History Societies, 1984).