Researching Army Ancestors 1 - World War One

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.php 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. Microfiched copies of record cards recording each soldier’s awards (in name order) are available at the Public Record Office (PRO). The information includes the soldier’s regiment and service number.

Soldiers’ Records
s stated above, some 60% of records were lost but the remainder have been microfilmed and are available for consulatation at the PRO in Class WO363. Records for a small percentage of soldiers who survived the war and were awarded a pension are also available at the PRO in Class WO364. Content of records varies but the Attestation Papers will usually include details of age, birthplace and next of kin as well as a physical description.

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 the Greater Manchester County Record Office (GMCRO) at Marshall Street. The index will give the regiment and service number. Certificates can be ordered but give little more information, beyond the date of death, than the index.

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 Manchester Central Library (MCL), are organised by regiment and can be difficult to search. More recently a fully searchable version on CDROM has been published by Naval & Military Press. Details include Regiment and service number, date and place of enlistment, date died and theatre of war. A copy of the CD is held by M&LFHS.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
The Commission, at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, has published registers of war graves including personal details of those killed. Copies of these are available at GMCRO but since they are in cemetery order, are difficult to search.The Commission have always responded to written enquiries but more recently have made their registers available on the internet at CWCG records will include regiment and service number, age, date of death and cemetery or war memorial. In many cases, details of next of kin will be found.

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 two local volumes are now available on CDs, copies of which are held by M&LFHS. The entries will include details of regiment 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.

Local Newspapers
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.

Memorial Inscriptions
he memorials on war graves record only name, regiment and service number (though the CWGC records will provide more details). If the soldier was buried in 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 often prove fruitful.

Regimental Museums
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 Manchesters 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 of the company listings is planned.

War Memorials
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).

Useful Reading

Beginners to 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 a number of useful reader guides which can be obtained either from TNA at Kew or from their web site

* Available from the Manchester & Lancashire FHS Online Bookshop

Amended 3 January 2011 - John Marsden