Researching the First World War: Introducing Tommy Atkins

By Patricia Dark, Archivist at Southwark Local History Library and Archive

This is the first post in a series exploring ways to find out more about the part your family, school, workplace, or neighbourhood played in the First World War.

War memorial, Mill Pond Bridge. October 1921 (PB01254)100 years ago, our ancestors would have known the First World War as simply the “Great War”. It changed the lives of almost every family in Britain, and around the world. Men and women saw active duty as military personnel – in the slang of the time, a “tommy” – or served as civilians in medical aid units overseas or working on the home front. Millions of people were taken prisoner of war, interned as enemy civilians, or fled their homes as refugees.

In the UK, nearly a million service personnel died and more than half again were injured. In addition, more than 100,000 civilians died in the conflict – most of malnutrition and disease brought on by the war, but nearly 15,000 members of the Merchant Marine died at sea, and about 2,000 from air and naval attacks. In fact, there are only 52 communities in the UK – all in England and Wales – where all the service personnel who left for the front survived; they’re known as “Thankful Villages”. France, which saw nearly a million and a half combat deaths has only one such village without a war memorial – Thierville, in Normandy.

The First World War touched every family and community in Britain – which means that it’s an indelible part of the history of every community in Britain today. You may be interested in finding out more about the part your family, school, workplace, or neighbourhood played in the Great War: we aim to explain what information you may be able to find, where it is, and how to access it. We’ll also tell you the information you will need to know find out more.

Places to start

The First World War was the first truly global war, and so is the commemoration of its centenary. If you are looking for an overview of the Great War, or information on its impact and aftermath, the UK national First World War centenary website or Wikipedia may be able to help. However, if you’re interested in more specific stories – for instance, the experience of your neighbourhood or members of your family – you will probably need to look in surviving archival records; to do that effectively, you will need to have specific information that will help you weed out false leads.

Generally speaking, there are a few critical pieces of information you will need to pick your tommy out of the pack. These include their full name (maiden surname for women, who usually left wartime service on marriage), date of birth, and (for military personnel) service number. The more you know about someone – date(s) and place(s) of service, call-up date(s), occupation(s), unit name(s) – the easier it can be to match records to the person you’re looking for. In some cases, knowing details of someone’s religious/philosophical beliefs, occupation, and nationality can be extremely helpful.

One excellent place to look for clues is in your own family’s records and collections of heirlooms. Uniform items, medals, and souvenirs from the front can give you information about dates, places, and units where someone served – this information is vital to find out more. Collections of family papers may contain official paperwork (like call-up, recruitment, discharge, or pension papers) that provide leads, or diaries, personal letters, photographs, and other documents that open a window into life in wartime.

To take these leads further – to discover what your ancestor did during the First World War, or how it affected your neighbourhood, you will often consult other surviving records; if you are interested in fleshing out a story, you may find objects surviving from the period very useful.  Heritage institutions like archives and museums hold records and objects, and are invaluable for following leads. There are almost as many archives and museums as there are organisations (and what they hold and how they operate varies by country), but some are especially useful for researching the First World War. We’ll take a look at these in the next post in this series.

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