Researching the First World War: Searching for civilians

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

This is the fourth 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.

Civilian men and women served on the home front, either in their usual jobs or in war service. The largest group of civilian men involved in the war effort were the officers and men of the Merchant Marine, hundreds of whom died at sea.

Women were vital to the war effort, entering the industrial workforce in large numbers to free men for combat. In some cases, they simply stepped into jobs men going to the front left behind, as they did on the Tube. The Women’s Land Army aimed to boost agricultural production by training women to work on farms. “Munitionettes” made and filled artillery shells with TNT: the chemical stained their skin a distinctive yellow, giving rise to their other nickname, “canary girls”.  Hundreds of them died, either in workplace explosions or from exposure to toxic chemicals. The Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) of the Joint War Committee trained civilian women in first aid and general nursing. Most VADs served at home in support roles, but some, like Vera Brittain, saw service overseas.

Personnel records for civilian workers can be very patchy. In some cases – like the Women’s Land Army or munitionettes – they simply don’t survive. Some Merchant Marine records were not systematically kept, while others were lost in the Blitz; you can access surviving ones via the National Archives, Find My Past, or Ancestry. The British Red Cross (and to a lesser degree St John Ambulance) hold VAD records. Once again, knowing the basic information of full name and birth date and place is vital to search these records; knowing date(s) and place(s) of service helps as well.

Civilian internees

As the lights went out in Europe, thousands of civilians (both visitors and expatriates) became “enemy aliens”: citizens of a country at war with their country of residence. Their hosts viewed them as potential saboteurs – men were particularly dangerous, since they could boost the enemy’s fighting strength if they went home. To prevent this, enemy aliens were usually held in internment camps, similar in purpose and conditions to POW camps. By the end of 1918, more than 100,000 German men were interned in Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man; among the approximately 5,500 Allied internees at Ruhleben near Berlin were English international footballer Steve Bloomer, future Nobel Prize winner James Chadwick, and media personality Prince Monolulu. The ICRC held oversight of civilian internment camps, and you can search their Grande Guerre website for more information on camps and individual internees. Very few British records on internees survive, but those that do are at TNA; they don’t usually contain details on individuals. As well as the basic information of full name and date of birth, you will need to know the nationality of the person you’re looking for. As with civilian war workers, knowing date(s) and places of internment can make searching easier.

Camberwell during the First World War (p22945)

Military service tribunals and conscientious objectors

As the war dragged on, central government instituted the draft in March 1916, as well a system of local military service tribunals. In theory, these tribunals could authorise non-combatant status, civilian service, or an absolute discharge from military service to applicants; in practice, the need to provide men for the front – and the active-duty officer on the tribunal – dominated, and their decisions overwhelmingly favoured active service.

In most cases, men applied because they were medically unfit, were already doing vital war work, or their conscription would cause undue hardship for family or business. Some 16,000 men, however, applied to the tribunal as conscientious objectors (COs). For them, being forced to serve and to kill would violate their deeply-held personal religious or philosophical beliefs. About 2,000 COs declared themselves absolutists: unwilling to be drafted, unwilling to follow orders, and unwilling to do any war-related work.

Tribunals usually viewed and treated COs as cowards, or even traitors. Often, absolutists received non-combatant status they could not accept; a CO who refused to submit to military discipline usually was sent to gaol. More than 5,000 COs spent at least one spell in prison: 35 were formally sentenced to death. More than 100 imprisoned COs died as a direct result of their imprisonment.

Records about military tribunals, and especially about COs, survive in a variety of places; however, the Ministry of Health destroyed the vast majority of files relating to individual COs in 1921. TNA holds records of the Middlesex appeal tribunal and the Central Tribunal. The Library of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) holds records of the Friends Ambulance Unit, staffed mostly by COs; the British Red Cross also ran similar ambulance units. The Peace Pledge Union archive has personal papers of COs and records of CO support organisations. Southwark Local History Library & Archive has files of presscuttings related to local tribunals.

As well as full name and date of birth, you will need to know the person’s place of residence and/or call-up date(s) to search the records for a conscientious objector. The tribunal probably focussed on, and may mention, details such as family circumstances, occupation, or religious/philosophical beliefs. Knowing some or all of these may make it easier to find someone who went before a tribunal, especially if they have a common first or surname.

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