Researching the First World War: Searching for someone outside the UK

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

This is the fifth 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.

The First World War was the first truly global war, and you may be looking for someone who lived in the wider British Empire, one of the Allied countries, or in one of the Central Powers who fought on the opposite side of the war. Many of the important points discussed in the second part of this series – major types of heritage organisations, digitisation of primary sources, and the challenges of using historic records – are true for records relating to the experiences of people in the Empire, Allied nation, or the Central Powers. You will also usually need to know the same basic and specific information, like full name and date of birth, service number, date(s) and place(s) of service, as you would to find British military personnel or civilians.

However, there are some challenges unique to using foreign records. In order to use undigitised foreign records, you will need to travel abroad or hire a local researcher to consult them for you – this includes many Commonwealth countries, who took responsibility for service records on achieving independence. Language may also be a challenge, both in terms of accessing documents and finding a local researcher. Finally, not all countries hold military service records in a central archive. This means that you will need to know where the person you’re interested in enlisted – and may need to travel to the appropriate regional archive to do research.

British Empire Forces

Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force

When the First World War started in 1914, Britain administered a world-spanning empire (whose symbolic successor is the Commonwealth).  Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa were self-governing units known as Dominions: each Dominion had its own legislature and made local laws, but the UK controlled their international relations. India had a more complicated system that was, in practice, similar to Dominion status; for this reason, all six of these states entered the war in August 1914. Colonies in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies had more limited self-government, and their casualties were accounted with that of UK forces.

Since the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has a Commonwealth-wide remit, you should be able to find troops from all over the empire in its database of war dead; however, it’s important to note that men from the colonies are included under “United Kingdom forces”, Newfoundlanders under “Canadian”, and all troops from the Indian subcontinent under “Indian”. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) also has a Commonwealth-wide remit, and you can find details of those who served with imperial forces on the Lives of the First World War website.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, and South Africa also have their own war museums (not all founded in the immediate aftermath, however); similarly the website Soldiers of the First World War provides access to digitised service records for Canadian and Newfoundlander troops; Discovering Anzacs, the AIF Project, and New Zealand Anzacs in the Great War do the same for Australian and New Zealander service records. Indian Army records for the time are generally at the British Library, and are not available online. You can also find some Indian Army unit diaries at the National Archives’ Operation War Diary website. South African records are available through the South African National Defence Force Documentation Centre; records of the King’s African Rifles, a unit based in Kenya, are available at the National Archives.

Allied Forces

Records of “doughboys” – American military personnel of the First World War, who joined the war in 1917– are held by the American equivalent of TNA, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They were badly affected by a catastrophic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St Louis, MO, in 1973: many of the surviving records are available on Ancestry or Family Search. The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) is the equivalent of the CWGC, and its website allows you to search for burials in American military cemeteries. It’s important to note that, in contrast to British policy, American policy gave bereaved families the choice of whether or not to inter war dead in battlefield cemeteries. This means many American war dead are buried in their hometowns, and so don’t necessarily appear on the ABMC database. You may also find useful information on the website of the American National World War I Museum.

In France, the Ministère de la Defense (the Ministry of Defense) is in charge of service records, while the Ministère des Pensions (the Ministry of Pensions) is the official war graves agency. For poilus – French military personnel of the First World War – the Memoire des Hommes website provides access to digitised military and war graves records. Some of its background material and database fields are in English, but most of its results are in French and may require knowledge of that language to use.

Italy also fought on the side of the Allies in World War I. Service records there are held at regional centres, and most are not digitised; you can find more information on how to access them at Family Search. Russian records are particularly challenging to use: records are scattered, fragmentary, and generally not online. To make use of them, you will need to have good knowledge of Russian and read Cyrillic. One place to start is the World War I project of the Russian genealogical society Союз Возрождения Родословных Традиций (Union Revival Bloodlines Traditions, SVRT).

Central Powers forces

If you are searching for an ancestor who was in the military forces of the Central Powers, the situation is more complicated. At the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires broke into pieces; like British colonies, the military records of different newly-independent areas became the successor states’ responsibility. Many of these nations also hold military records on a regional, not national, basis; many of these records were lost in the bombings of the Second World War, and relatively few of them are online.

Ottoman service records are likely to be held by the archives of the Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Millî Savunma Bakanlığı (Republic of Turkey Ministry of National Defense). These records are likely to be very difficult to use unless you are familiar with Ottoman Turkish and its Arabic-based script.

Service records of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included modern Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, and parts of Poland, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, and Montenegro) are held regionally; the vast majority of them are handwritten in German. The Österreichisches Staatsarchiv (Austrian State Archives) leaflet on military genealogy (in English) contains an overview of resources available at the Kriegsarchiv Wien (Vienna War Archives), as well as contact details for regional archives. The Österreichisches Schwarzes Kreuz (Austrian Black Cross) is the equivalent of the CWGC: you can make a research request for information on an Austrian war grave. The Hungarian equivalent of the Kriegsarchiv Wien is the Hadtörténelmi Levéltár (Hungarian Military History Archives) in Budapest: its website is entirely in Hungarian.

Many German service records for the First World War did not survive the 1945 destruction of the Prussian military archive, in Potsdam, near Berlin; however, records for some semi-autonomous German forces (Bavaria, Saxony, and Baden-Württemberg) are held at regional archives. Ancestry provides online access to Bavarian service records, and the Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe (General state archive, Karlsruhe) provides digital copies of service records for Baden-Württemberg. You may also find useful information on the First World War centenary website of the Bundesarchiv (German federal archive), including their introduction to military genealogy leaflet (German language only). The website of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission), the German equivalent of the CWGC, allows you to search for a soldier buried in a German war cemetery.

This is the final post in a series exploring ways to research the First World War.

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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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Researching the First World War: Searching for military personnel

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.

First World War recruitment (P5601)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.

Silver War Badge awarded to William Thomas Graham, Rifle Brigade (LDCUM2009.009.001)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.

Unit records

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.

 

 

POW records

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.

War Memorial on Jamaica Road to the 22nd Battalion, The Queens (pb02322)

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.

Researching the First World War: Introducing Archives

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

This is the second 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.

The National Roll of the Great War: 1914 - 1918If you are interested in discovering more about an individual’s service, or what happened in your community, during the First World War, you will most likely need to study surviving records or artefacts from the period. These are usually held in heritage institutions like archives and museums – there are lots of different types, but we describe some of the most useful below (we’ll look at non-UK sources later in this series).

Central government archives hold records of national-level central government bodies. They will hold foreign service and diplomatic records that explain why and how the country went to war, military records that describe how the country fought the war, and civilian and military service records for millions of people in and out of uniform. The UK’s central government archive is the National Archives (TNA) at Kew: its website on World War I and research guidance on First World War personnel have useful background information.

War memorial museums collect, preserve, and display objects, documents, photographs, and film that record the experiences and commemorate the service and sacrifice of service personnel and civilians. The UK’s main war memorial museum is the Imperial War Museum (IWM), founded in 1917 to record, collect, and display material that recorded the experience of the peoples of the British Empire in the Great War.

Local record offices and museums hold records and artefacts relating to a specific geographic area. Their holdings may include local governmental and organisational records, audiovisual material, personal papers, and other reference material like newspapers, medals and personal letters. Many local record offices also hold records of individual military units associated with that area. Examples in the UK are the London Metropolitan Archives, the Cuming Museum or the Southwark Local History Library & Archives.

Camberwell during the Frist World War (P8868)

Other organisations, including businesses (like TfL or John Lewis), charities (like the British Red Cross or St John Ambulance), schools (like Dulwich College), or universities (like London South Bank  University) may have their own archives or museums that safeguard the organisation’s heritage. Alternatively, another archive or museum (often local government or university) may look after their records and artefacts. Specific military units, usually at the regimental level, often house artefacts and records of that unit in their own museums. The National Archives’ Discovery service can help you work out if an organisation’s records survive, if they may help your research, and which repository holds them.

In fact, many records are now available in digital form on the internet: you can see a copy of the original document – which were almost always hand-written – as well as a typed-out version of the information, known as a transcript. While some organisations put digitised records on their own websites, it’s much more common for them to be on pay-to-view genealogical aggregator sites like Ancestry or Find My Past.  Another excellent starting point is the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website.

Sidney Cox postcard from Germany, 1918

There are two important things to note before you begin your research:

First, many records simply did not survive the hundred years between the First World War and today. Some UK central government records – especially military service records – were destroyed when the Public Record Office in Holborn was blitzed in 1940. Other records, like those of the Women’s Land Army or the military service tribunals (which we will discuss in the next few posts), were deliberately destroyed after the war.

Second, you may need to spend money or time to view these records. Some organisations make digital records available on a free-to-view basis; libraries in Southwark (and many other library services around the country) also provide free-to-view access to Ancestry on-site. However, if you want to use Find My Past, or to view Ancestry at home, you will need to pay. Other records are not on-line, so you will have to visit the archive that holds them to use them. Some archives will answer enquiries, but do not provide searchroom facilities for on-site research access. If you are interested in non-UK records (more about them later in the series), you may have translation or transcription costs, as well as travel costs.

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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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