Our family trees will include ancestors who lived through and died in the First and Second World Wars. Let’s explore some of the resources we can use to find out more about those who served in the conflicts.
If you have any relatives who were alive during the Second World War, begin by calling them and chatting about their memories and experiences. You could also chat to your older relatives again, as they may remember names of those who died in conflict or stories from those who experienced wartime.
Sadly, it is easier to find out about those who died at war rather than those who returned home. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) “honours the 1.7 million men and women who died in the armed forces of the British Empire during the First and Second World Wars and ensures they will never be forgotten.”
You can search their database of all those who died: https://www.cwgc.org/
Go to the website and select:
- Find War Dead and Cemeteries
- Then select, Find War Dead
This results in a very straightforward search form. You can add in a name and select the conflict and search.
I thought I would continue with the Wilson family and try a search. Turle Barber Wilson, born in Poole, is one branch of the Wilson family tree. He lost his life in the First World War. I searched last name Wilson and first name Turle. I also selected First World War. As you can see, he is the first result of 291. If you click on the record you will discover more including; his date of death, brief information about his service, some family information and you can also download a commemorative certificate.
The information is brief but useful when searching additional records and resources.
Next we’ll have a look at the National Archives. During lockdown the National Archives have made their digitised records available for no charge. This is great for researching wartime ancestors. Go to https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
If you do not already have an account, you need to register here to access the free records. This is quick and easy https://secure.nationalarchives.gov.uk/Login/Register
Once registered, you will be able to view the records which are digitally available.
As an example, I wanted to find more information about Turle Wilson. From the homepage select Help with your research. This gives a variety of resources. Today we’ll stay with the First World War. After selecting First World War scroll down to Royal Marines’ service records 1842-1925. The CWGC results showed that Turle was a Royal Marine so this is a good place to find out more. In the search box put Turle and Wilson and click search. You can see that there is one result and if you are signed in you can download it free of charge. The record contains:
- date and place of birth
- date and place of enlistment
- physical description
- names of ships and shore stations served on
- details of conduct or promotion
- medal entitlement
So this will add some invaluable information to Turle’s story.
Explore the military records on the National Archives, search those that are relevant and available, and you will add some real colour to your family tree. You may be able to find records of those who survived the war within these resources.
For example, within the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Service Records 1917-1920 is Blanche Churchill, born in Poole. Her record is 52 pages long and contains a wealth of information. These records can typically contain a variety of material on several different forms.
Enrolment forms include:
- parents’ nationality
- marital status
Statements of service include:
- rank – known as grade
- name and address of next-of-kin
Other documents in a woman’s file could include:
- identification certificates
- references from employers
- application forms
- casualty forms
- clothing history sheets (with details about the uniform issued to each woman)
With each record set the National Archives adds a brief guide and details what you can expect to find. Have a go at searching within the First and Second World War sections for your wartime ancestors.
Those of you with access to Ancestry will also be able to search the military records available on there. From the homepage:
- Click on search (the search on the top bar)
- Scroll down to by location
- Select England
- Click see more about England
- Select England Military
Some of the record sets you can access are:
British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920
The Medal Index Cards collection is the most complete listing of individuals who fought in the British Army in the First World War, containing approximately 90% of soldiers’ names. The Index Cards were created in order to keep in one place details about a soldier’s medal entitlement.
British Army WW1 Pension Records, 1914-1920
This database contains service records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks who were discharged from the army and claimed disability pensions for service in the First World War. These were also men who did not re-enlist in the army prior to the Second World War. Approximately 5 million men served in the British Army in World War One (WW1) and these records contain many of them, especially if they claimed a pension.
This is useful for tracing ancestors who did not die in the First World War. If a record exists it often contains a wealth of useful information including previous addresses, next of kin and physical descriptions.
British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920
This database contains the surviving service records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks who served in the First World War and did not re-enlist in the army prior to The Second World War. The British Army World War One Service Records are War Office (WO) records also known as the WO363 records and the ‘Burnt Documents.’ In 1940 there was a World War Two bombing raid on the War Office in London where the records were held. During this raid, a large portion (approximately 60 percent) of the 6.5 million records was destroyed by fire. The surviving service records have become known as the ‘Burnt Documents’.
Although many of these records suffered water damage following the bombing raid, all surviving service and pension records were microfilmed by The National Archives, where both collections are held, as part of a major TNA conservation project.
Finally, local studies libraries and local museums are also great places to find information about your wartime ancestors. Many local studies libraries will have the local newspaper from wartime. The newspaper is an invaluable resource. The local newspaper is a primary source, a first-hand account of the time and provides a variety of information. For example; information about individual servicemen - which sometimes includes a photo, letters from those in service, information about the community and their response to war and a local view of national events. The newspaper can be accessed in different ways - on microfilm, digitised files and printed files of significant events.
Some places may have put the information online. For Poole ancestors you can access the Poole, the First World War and its Legacy website. Here is the entry for Turle Wilson https://www.pooleww1.org.uk/people/964/private-wilson/ You can see the image from the local newspaper and also links to further information. There is also a blog about Poole and the First World War https://ww1poole.wordpress.com/ with articles about many different subjects. If your ancestors are not from Poole, search the internet for their locality and you may find more resources.
I hope this information is useful and provides a starting point for uncovering details about your wartime ancestors. Let us know if you have any questions or find any interesting stories firstname.lastname@example.org