By Patricia Dark, Archivist at the Southwark Local History Library and Archive
This is the third 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.
Millions of men – and thousands of women – served king and country in uniform during the First World War. Men served in the Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Marines. The Great War saw the creation of the Royal Air Force, after the 1 April 1918 merger of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Women served in non-combatant roles, freeing men for the front. These were either in the auxiliary forces of the Army, Air Force, and Royal Navy, or in the Army, Navy, or Air Force nursing corps.
With the basic information outlined above – full name and birth date and place – you should be able to find a tommy’s campaign medal record. While these records – originally large index cards – are not very detailed, they can often provide a broad outline of your tommy’s service. More importantly, they also provide your tommy’s service number, which can be very useful to find other records.
The most important of these other records is his or her service record, which may contain details of rank and regiment, promotion, moves between units, evaluations from superiors, next of kin, pension, or medical status. The Silver War Badge, noted in the campaign medal records, was awarded to all military personnel released from service due to war-related injury or sickness; if your tommy received one, pension records may provide more details of service and medical history. Pension records also record details of the families of those killed or missing in action.
War is a surprisingly bureaucratic process, and records generated by military units at home or at the front also survive. As well as official reports and forms, units created photographs and even newspapers and magazines! The most common unit record to survive is its official war diary. They collected operational information for the official history of the war – that could also inform command decisions and tactics. They chart the day-to-day life of a unit, and provide a wealth of details about life and death on the front lines. Although these are not personal diaries, they do sometimes refer to individuals, particularly those being considered for a commendation.
Unit war diaries are series WO95 at TNA. By joining Operation War Diary, you can help make unit war diaries accessible by highlighting useful information in 1.5 million pages of digitised records. You may find other records generated by military units in local record offices or regimental museums.
If your tommy was reported missing, he or she may have been one of the some 200,000 service personnel who spent time as prisoners of war (POWs). The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) formed the Prisoner of War Bureau in 1914. The Bureau took responsibility for tracking POWs, keeping their relatives updated on their welfare, and keeping communication lines open between POWs and their families in most theatres of the war; it delegated this task to the national Red Cross of neutral Denmark for the Russian Front, while information about prisoners on the Italian Front went directly through the Italian and Austro-Hungarian governments. The ICRC also inspected POW camps and interviewed prisoners to monitor camp conditions.
The ICRC’s Grande Guerre website provides more information on POWs during the First World War – including a searchable database of their records. You may also be able to find more details of POW conditions and of individual POWs at the National Archives, the British Red Cross archive, or a local record office or regimental museum.
Cemeteries, war memorials and Rolls of Honour
The First World War killed on an industrial scale. Society struggled to cope: individual commemoration at home and repatriation were both impossible. Instead, in 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) buried the fallen in specially-created war cemeteries near aid stations or the front lines. Rudyard Kipling provided the epitaph “Known Unto God” for those bodies that couldn’t be identified, while memorials to the missing served as a symbolic grave for men whose bodies couldn’t be found. Pilgrimages to these cemeteries quickly became popular with those bereaved who could afford it.
In 1960, the IWGC changed its name to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC); however, it retains its role overseeing war cemeteries and memorials to the missing. On its website, you can search its databases of cemeteries and war memorials and of war dead and missing from Commonwealth countries.
However, many more relatives had to grieve at home rather than a war cemetary; private organisations and local governments created mass memorials in response to this need. Some, like the Cenotaph in Whitehall, were sculptural. Others, known as Rolls of Honour, were lists of those killed; some Rolls were plaques installed in the public areas of buildings, while others took the form of hand-written or printed books. These memorials often give the name, and possibly the service number, rank, and/or unit of casualties.
You can generally find Rolls of Honour in the local record office of the area they cover, or in the archives of the business that created them. Some were published, and may be available in local libraries. It is important to remember, though, during the Great War itself “Roll of Honour” often referred to lists of people (like members of an organisation or employees of a business) who were on active service – not necessarily lists of those who had died.