Tracing your World War Ancestors
How to trace First World War ancestors
By Martin Purdy
Frank Williams who was my great-grandfather, was a sergeant with the kind of straight-backed pose and well-groomed moustache that appear to have been obligatory for men of rank in the Edwardian age.
I first became interested in “finding Frank” after accompanying a friend on a tour of the Great War battlefields. The preserved trenches and bits of rusting militaria that had been uncovered in the undergrowth impressed us both immensely, but it was the image of those rows of matching white headstones that were what really stayed with me. I was also left with a burning question: how did the man in the family photo album escape the same fate?
For the record, Sergeant Frank Williams of the Royal Engineers won a Distinguished Conduct Medal at Passchendaele for carrying in wounded comrades when badly wounded himself. He was quite a man, and you may have such a “hero” in your own family.
Researching a soldier is not as daunting as you might fear. It requires patience and time, but the internet means much can be done at your leisure.
How to trace First World War ancestors - Continued
Step one: Talk to your family
Find out as much from family members as possible – the man’s age, where he was living and the names of his parents could prove crucial in ensuring that you are not researching the wrong person.
Finding his regiment and army service number are vital. If there is a photograph of him in uniform, the cap badge, buttons etc should reveal his regiment if taken to a helpful source (try the nearest branch of the Western Front Association www.westernfrontassociation.com/branches). Also, medals are inscribed on the edging with the name of the regiment.
Step two: Did he die in action?
Did he survive the war? If you know he was killed then you can go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (www.cwgc.org) and click on “Search our records”.
Try searching under the man’s first name and his initial. Make a list of all of the possible candidates. Clearly, if you know his regiment, age etc, it will help narrow the field. Also click on the names themselves as you sometimes get further information about who parents were and where they lived. Hopefully, you will not have too many possibilities left.
There is also a CD-Rom called Soldiers Died In The Great War 1914–1919, available in most reference libraries. This can provide further clues as to where the men were born, where they were living when they enlisted and the town where they joined up. Using your list of names from the Commonwealth War Graves’ site you should be able to cross-reference and further reduce the number of likely candidates.
Step three: What regiment was he in?
If you still have a long list, the task becomes more difficult. The reference library in the area that your man lived in now becomes key. This is also relevant for those of you with men who survived and of whom no regimental details are known.
Many libraries have indexes of soldiers’ surnames mentioned in local newspapers. This is particularly relevant for men who wrote letters home that were subsequently printed in the paper, men who won gallantry medals, and obituaries. If there is no index system you will have to resign yourself to searching the microfiches of old local newspapers.
You could also see if the library has an absent voters’ list for the General Election of 1918, as those men who were serving overseas will be on it, possibly together with their regiment and army service number.
The pension records of almost one million First World War soldiers can now be searched online at www.ancestry.co.uk/military which can be very helpful for finding out details of men who survived. If your man is here, you will discover a great deal about him – but if you are not a member you will need to pay a fee.
If at the end of all of this you still haven’t got a regiment or army service number, your search has probably reached a conclusion.
Step four: What battles did he fight in and was he decorated?
You can go to the medal index and find out what “ribbons” your man was entitled to. If there is a gallantry medal, you will be able to find out the details of why he won it. The medal record will also tell you the battalion he served with, which opens the door to more useful records.
Each battalion kept a daily war diary, the majority of which are held at the National Archives at Kew, London. You can make an appointment to view the diary for free and find out where the battalion was on any given day of the war. There are also plenty of internet sites (such as www.1914-1918.net) that will tell you details about a battalion’s actions.
At the National Archives, you can also see if your man’s service records survived. These provide answers to most questions, but be warned that 70 per cent were destroyed in the Second World War.
Step five: Fleshing out his story
Many of you may find a visit to the museum of the regiment he served with an interesting and rewarding experience. You will need to have discovered his regiment to make this possible – but, I’m presuming that if you’ve got to this stage on the five-point plan, that won’t be a problem.
The amount of material that each museum contains varies, but many families left the medals, letters etc of relatives to the museum covering his regiment. Some museums have very helpful books, with lists and pictures of men. However, I would stress that turning up with a fistful of questions is not always the best way to go about it as the staff are often volunteers and have their hands full.
Find the right museum for your man’s regiment (www.armymuseums.org.uk), call them and explain what you are looking for. Many museums have regimental historians who will be happy to help you out if you arrange to drop in at a convenient time.
Useful online resources
www.westernfrontassociation.com/branches - If you are unsure of his regiment but you have a photograph of him in uniform, the Western Front Association could help you identify his regiment. Use this site to find your nearest branch
• www.cwgc.org - If your relative died in action, try the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to find out more about him
• www.ancestry.co.uk/military - If your man survived, search for him at Ancestry to find out more
• www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/medals.asp - Discover if your relative received any medals, and what he received them for, at this medal index
• www.1914-1918.net - If you want to find out more about his battalion’s actions, try this site
• www.armymuseums.org.uk - Piece more of his story together by visiting the museum of his regiment
• www.worldwar1.nl - One of the oldest sites on this topic, it provides a wealth of links to specific areas
• www.culpitt-war-diary.org.uk - Look at a personal perspective online – Diary of Private George Culpitt, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, between 1916 and 1918.
• www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar - Narratives of the war and an introduction to some of the records available
• www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/ - Detailed site with broad range of general information - from movies to captioned maps