As the numbers of those who fought in the two world wars diminish, there is a danger that the answer to this question may not be forthcoming. It is all too easy, especially for young people who may not have a direct connection to the history of those events, to become bogged down in textbook statistics and forget that the names remembered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on headstones and memorials, or the faces that stare out at us from sepia-tinted photographs, relate to real people, called upon to do a difficult and sometimes terrible job.
...never forget the price paid for the freedoms we enjoy...
Gaining an insight into the lives of those who served and died in the two world wars, or those who survived, is a tangible way to ensure that we never forget the price paid for the freedoms we enjoy. But how does one go about such research in what can be, no pun intended, an information minefield?
The Early Records Enquiries Unit at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission No matter how much information you begin your search with, a good starting point is to read a basic history of the two world wars to gain some understanding of the events and terms you will come across during your research. Numerous books exist on the subject, as well as useful web-based resources.
Unfortunately, one of the problems with researching military records, particularly in the United Kingdom, is the widespread physical locations of the material. The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, West London is as close as you will get to a 'one stop shop' and an excellent place to start. Their informative website at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk has details of the services on offer, as well as detailed research guides and a growing collection of online records. While some research can be done online, most requires a personal visit to TNA, or, if this is not possible, you can engage a freelance researcher.
If all you have to begin with are scant details - perhaps just a name - one of the best places to start is the medal rolls. Virtually every serving soldier, sailor or airman qualified for a campaign medal and that entitlement is recorded within the rolls. One of the most popular series of records used by genealogists is the World War One Campaign Medals Index, which can be searched online at The National Archives website (the correct link is www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/medals.asp). As with all such searches, common names may present problems.
Once you have identified which medals the serviceman was entitled to, you should be able to identify the campaigns he was engaged in and the regiment or units he belonged to. Armed with this information you may want to read the regimental war diary, which can help to build a daily picture of war service. The content of these diaries varies, but they often mention the battles in which the men were engaged as well as the more mundane duties required of a unit in the field. However, it is uncommon to find individuals other than officers mentioned by name unless they did something extraordinary; most are included in the sometimes frustrating term 'other ranks'. Even so, it is possible to identify quite precisely where a unit was at any given time during the war and what happened to it. Original war diaries can be found at TNA, and a growing collection is available on the TNA website.
It is uncommon to find individuals other than officers mentioned by name in regimental diaries unless they did something extraordinary...
Next, visit your local regimental museum, one of the other service museums or national museums to build up a good picture of what life was like for your ancestor during their period of service. A regimental museum may have images of the men who served or letters home, and will almost certainly have an expert on hand to bring dates and events to life. A guide to regimental and corps museums can be found on the National Army Museum's website at: www.armymuseums.org.uk.
Medals awarded for acts of gallantry can also help to build up a picture of an individual's wartime service. The citation text explaining why the award was given can sometimes be found in archive copies of the London Gazette - again available at The National Archives or online at www.gazettes-online.co.uk. Gazettes are the official newspaper of the state and contain information about officers' commissions, honours and awards.
A sad fact, perhaps, but information about those who died during the two world wars is often the easiest to trace. In part, this is because of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, whose records are readily available to the public, but local war memorials, parish records, newspaper archives, Honour Rolls and other publications greatly assist the researcher engaged in this particular field.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is perhaps best known for the maintenance of the cemeteries and memorials in its care, but through its public enquiry service it also makes available details of the places of burial or commemoration of the Commonwealth's 1.7 million service war dead. The Commission also keeps a roll of honour recording the names of some 66,400 civilians who died as a result of enemy action during World War Two.
The Commission's military records were compiled from contributions by the service authorities of what would now be known as the Commonwealth governments. In 1995 the Commission computerised its paper records to safeguard the original documents and to tackle the ever-increasing number of enquiries and the growing complexity of requests. The resulting database enables the Commission's enquiries department to respond quickly and efficiently to approximately 40,000 postal and telephone enquiries annually, as well as provide more specialised services such as searches on family name, regiment or home town as criteria - increasingly important for schools and researchers.
...never assume the information passed down verbally by your family is correct...
A simplified 'search by surname' version of the database was made available at the Commission's website - www.cwgc.org - in 1998 and this is a good place to search for your ancestor. The Debt of Honour register, as it is known, has been deliberately kept as simple as possible and contains sections on frequently asked questions, advice and useful addresses.
However, a word of caution that applies to all research in this field: never assume the information passed down verbally by your family is correct. Always try to corroborate with medals, newspaper cuttings and letters.
What information does the Commission have?
A typical casualty record includes the name, basic service details, the date of death and, if the Commission was provided with the information, age and next of kin details. This will then be followed by the relevant commemorative information which gives details of the cemetery or memorial, how to find it, and the grave number or memorial panel. Finally, there is a history of the cemetery or memorial, sometimes including a brief summary of the actions fought in the region. For holders of the Victoria Cross or George Cross, the Honour Rolls text for the award is also recorded. The Commission does not hold detailed service records, so for the next step in the journey we must look elsewhere.
Service records rarely hold as much information as people think. They are paper records which follow the career of the individual and in most cases make no reference to engagements or theatres of operation. It is also important to know that in most cases, records of service for individuals who served during World War Two will only be released to next of kin. Third party researchers may request access, from the Ministry of Defence, but must have written permission of, or the death certificate for and proven link to, the next of kin and enclose this in their application.
Army service records for World War One are available at the National Archives, and many are online at www.ancestry.co.uk. Sadly, about 60% of the records were destroyed during bombing in 1940, and others suffered badly from fire and water damage. You must therefore be prepared for the possibility that the file you are interested in may not have survived.
Service records rarely hold as much information as people think...
As the area of records research, even when confined to military history, is a huge field, I have restricted the content of this article to the two world wars. However, much of the information and recommended archives will still apply to searches outside these periods.
The area of military records and research is a fascinating field. It is generally true to say that a wealth of information exists just waiting to be found. Numerous organisations are only too happy to help with that search and although there will inevitably be disappointments along the way, the benefit of enhancing one's understanding of the achievements and sacrifices made by our forebears far outweighs these minor setbacks.
Tracing Your First World War Ancestors by Simon Fowler (Countryside Books, 2003)
World War I Army Ancestry by Norman Holding and Iain Swinnerton (Federation of Family History Societies, 4th Edition)
Air Force Records by William Spencer (The National Archives, 2008)
Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors by Phil Tomaselli (Pen and Sword, 2007)
Tracing Your Naval Ancestors by Bruno Pappalardo (The National Archives, 2003)
A Guide to Military History on the Internet by Simon Fowler (Pen and Sword, 2007)
Family History in the Wars by William Spencer (The National Archives, 2007)
My Ancestor was in the British Army by Michael J Watts and Christopher T Watts (Society of Genealogists, 2009)
British Military Medals by Peter Duckers (Pen and Sword, 2009)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website: The CWGC provides information about the location of graves and memorials around the world. The Commission has details of all service personnel who died between 4 August 1914 and 31 August 1921, and 3 September 1939 to 31 December 1947. The CWGCís website at www.cwgc.org contains an indexed database. Details of the burial places of soldiers who died outside the dates covered by CWGC are held by the Ministry of Defence. They also have some details relating to soldiers' wives or children who may have died outside the United Kingdom.
The National Archives: Houses extensive collections of military records, some of which are available on its website: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
Public Record Office Northern Ireland: Holds some copies dating to before 1835 or those that have been passed on by the Colonial (or Foreign) Office Registry. They also hold operational records for World War One and service records of soldiers up to 1913. www.proni.gov.uk
The Ministry of Defence (MOD): Army service records for World War Two, and all records of service from the early 1920s onwards, are held by the Ministry of Defence and are not yet on open access. However the next of kin can apply to view their ancestorís records. Go to www.veterans-uk.info for more.
Royal Air Force: Records of those who served in the RAF during World War Two are also with the Ministry of Defence, and ex-servicemen or their next of kin can request their relevant record by applying to RAF Disclosures, Room 221b, Trenchard Hall, RAF Cranwell, Sleaford, Lincs, NG34 8HB. For earlier records, your first port of call should be the RAF research guides on the National Archives website.
Royal Air Force Museum Website: www.rafmuseum.org.uk. There is a section of this site dedicated to the Department of Research and Information Services.
Merchant Navy: Once again, the first port of call for Merchant Navy records is the National Archives, and there are some excellent research guides on its website at: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue/researchguidesindex.asp#m.
The Fleet Air Arm: The Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset is the acknowledged centre of expertise for this branch of the services. The museum holds a wide range of documents related to British Naval Aviation, from both official and private sources. They cover areas such as aircraft, ships, equipment, air stations, operations and personnel. They also hold some service documents for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines from before and during World War One www.fleetairarm.com.
Published on 1 February 2020
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