Researching World War One Soldiers
The greatest difficulty facing the researcher is the loss of some 60% of soldiers’ service records in 1940, the result of fire damage during the blitz. It is unfortunate that as a result, one has considerably more chance of finding records of an ancestor who died than one who survived. There is, however, a wide range of possible sources in which you may find information which will help in your research. The following notes summarise in brief the principal sources but those considering research in this area are recommended to consult one or more of the books listed at the end of this paper.
The Medal Rolls
All who served in a theatre of war during WW1 were entitled to at least two medals. The Victory Medal and the British War Medal. In addition, those serving at the outbreak of hostilities were entitled to the 1914 Star and those who enlisted before the introduction of conscription were entitled to the 1914-1915 Star. In addition medals were awarded for gallantry. Awards were listed in rolls and there is a card index to these. The index cards have been digitally scanned and can be found at www.ancestry.com (subscription service) or at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/medal-index-cards-ww1.htm (pay-to-view service) The information provided by the medal cards includes the soldier’s name, regiment and service number and medals awarded with a reference to the roll in which they appear. The original rolls have not been digitised but can be consulted at The National Archives, where they are deposited in document class WO329. The rolls may provide information concerning the battalion in which the solder served, though otherwise little which is not on the index card.
The index cards will usually also indicate in which theatre of war the soldier served (though not the specific places) and the date on which they entered this theatre. A soldier's date of death or discharge is often recorded. It is worth examining the back of the card since this very occasionally may contain useful information such as a home address.
As stated above, some 60% of records were lost but those which survive have been digitally scanned and are available online at www.ancestry.com (subscription service). The records have been indexed by name, rank, regiment and service number. Soldiers' records may include a variety of documents including forms relating to enlistment and discharge and records of service. These records can provide detailed personal information such as a physical description, home address and former occupation as well as details of next of kin (usually a parent or spouse). The service record provides a dated record of the soldier's military service including promotions, training and hospitalisations. Details of postings will also be given, but these are generally limited to a country or theatre of war. They will not tell you in which battles the soldier was involved.
Although many of the original service records have been lost, a small percentage of soldiers who survived the war were awarded a pension. At this time copies were made of their records and these were stored separate from the originals and so not affected by the 1940 fire. These have also been digitised and are available at www.ancestry.com.
Indexes to Soldiers’ Deaths (General Register Office)
The deaths of soldiers who died during hostilities or as a result of their wounds as late as 1921 should be recorded at the General Register Office. Indexes to these (separate volumes for officers and other ranks) are available at Archives+ at Manchester Central Library (from March 2014). The indexes are also available at www.findmypast.co.uk (subscription service). The index will give the regiment and service number. Certificates can be ordered but will usually give little more information, beyond the date of death, than the index. They will not usually give a precise place of death.
Soldiers Died in the Great War
Eighty-one volumes were published in 1921 listing the names and brief details for each soldier killed. The original books, available on microfilm at Archives+ at Manchester Central Library (from March 2014), are organised by regiment and can be difficult to search. A fully searchable version on CDROM has been published by Naval & Military Press. The records are also available at www.findmypast.co.uk (subscription service). Details for each soldier include Regiment and service number, date and place of enlistment, date died and theatre of war.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, has published registers of war graves including personal details of those killed. Copies of these are available at Archives+ at Manchester Central Library (from March 2014) but since they are arranged by cemetery and then by name, are difficult to search if the burial place is not known. The Commission have always responded to written enquiries but more recently have made their registers available on the internet at www.cwgc.org (free). CWCG records include regiment and service number, age, date of death and cemetery or war memorial. In many cases, the name and address of the next of kin will also appear.
National Roll of the Great War
Following the end of the war, a commercial attempt was made to compile a full list of soldiers who took part but this failed. Several volumes were, however, published including two for Manchester and Salford respectively. These are now rare and expensive but the books have been digitised and can be viewed at www.findmypast.co.uk (subscription service). The entries usually include details of rank and regiment (though not service number) and a brief outline of service including engagements in which the soldier was involved. Date and place of death are included if relevant and an address for the soldier or his next of kin is also given. Since there was a charge for inclusion, many soldiers' names are absent, but where a soldier is included, this publication can provide information which is difficult to obtain elsewhere.
Access to local newspaper accounts is seldom simple as there are few indexes and searches over long periods can be tedious. If, however, a date of death or award of a gallantry medal is known, this may narrow the search sufficiently to help you find an account. Local newspapers are usually available on microfilm at local studies units. A small number of local newspapers covering the years of the war can be found and searched at the British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (subscription service). These include the Manchester Courier although only up to 1916. MLFHS has published a CDROM with details of soldiers whose names appeared in the Oldham Chronicle*.
The memorials on war graves record only name, regiment and service number and date of death (though the CWGC records will usually provide more details). If the soldier was buried in England (for example if he died of wounds after returning to England), a more detailed memorial may be found. The CWGC should have records of soldiers killed in action but buried in English churchyards or municipal cemeteries. It is not uncommon, however, for a soldier who died overseas to be recorded on a family memorial and so wider research into the burial places of other family members can sometimes prove fruitful. There is little of this information available online.
Although many museums do not have much information about individual soldiers, particularly “other ranks”, it is nevertheless worth making an approach. The Museum of the Manchester Regiment at Ashton-under-Lyne, for example, has a database of soldiers for this period.
Published Rolls of Honour
Many institutions including regiments, schools/universities and commercial organisations published rolls of honour of members who fought. Some record only those who died, others all soldiers. These can be found in libraries and some record offices. The Manchester City Battalions Roll of Honour was published in 1916 and includes both lists of the soldiers in the 16th to 23rd Battalions of the Manchester Regiment and rolls of honour published by many Manchester organisations. The book is now scarce but the regimental lists (and photographs) have been published on CDROM * by M&LFHS. A second CD contains the listings compiled by local businesses.
War memorials were established both by local authorities and public/private organisations. They will seldom contain much information but can identify the regiment in which an ancestor served. There is no national index and a visit to the area is usually necessary (though some lists have been published on the internet). MLFHS is compiling an index to all the names on memorials in the Greater Manchester area and this can be searched (free) at www.mlfhs.org.uk/data/war_memorials.php
Index to Soldiers' Wills
A number of soldiers left wills and an index to these can be found at https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/ The index is free to search but there is a charge to order a copy of any individual will. Although many soldiers had little to leave, these wills can still contain valuable personal information.
Beginners researching WW1 ancestors may find it useful to do some preparatory reading. The following titles may be helpful:
My Ancestor was in the British Army (M. J. & C. T. Watts) Society of Genealogists Publications
Sources for WW1 Ancestry (Norman Holding) - possibly out of print
More Sources for WW1 Ancestry (Norman Holding)*
Army Service Records of the First World War (Simon Fowler) Public Record Office *
Identifying your WW1 Soldier from Badges & Photographs (Iain Swinnerton)*The National Archives publish some useful information on their web site.
British Campaign Medals 1914-2005 (Peter Duckers)*
* Available from the Manchester & Lancashire FHS Online Bookshop
30 September 2013 - John Marsden