With the centenary of the Great War in full swing, interest from genealogists in the role played by their ancestors in the conflict has never been higher, and one of the questions I am frequently asked by people is whether I can help them find their ancestors military service record.
Sadly, the answer is often ‘no’, due to the fact that only a percentage of military files from this period are available, and the reason is quite complicated.
Historically, the British Civil Service was renowned for it’s record keeping; files were created and kept on every aspect of administration of the British Empire, and the military was no different, every soldier who served from around 1900, had a personnel file created about them. This file contained their attestation papers, medical reports and records, disciplinary records, conduct reports, as well as miscellanea of other items relevant to the soldier in question.
By 1914, the regular and reserve army in Britain numbered about three quarters of a million men, however by the end of the war, more than seven million were thought to have served.
Following the conclusion of the war, the records were retained in the War Office Records Store, located in Arnside Street, London. The building was however hit by a high explosive bomb in September 1940 during the London Blitz, and although the initial explosion did not destroy the records, the subsequent fire would do. About 60% of the service records were completely destroyed that day, those that remain fit into the following categories
The Burnt Collection
About one third of the records were retrieved from the ruins, and put in storage, extensive work later took place to preserve and restore these remaining records, they are about 2 million in number, and are available on microfilm at the National Archives, or by subscription on Ancestry, originals are not permitted to be accessed due to their fragility.
The Un-burnt Collection
About 750,000 records escaped destruction being stored as they were in a different building.
Therefore unfortunately most people will find that they are unable to locate their family record of military service. If you can, you are lucky.
Records for personnel who served after the war and in WW2 are still restricted and will not be completely open access for many more years.
Local newspapers are a valuable source for any family historian, but as any genealogist will know, sitting at a microfilm reader scrolling through page after page of grainy images to search for relevant information is a long and arduous process.
The British Library have therefore been working for a couple of years on digitising their collections of local newspapers, undertaking OCR (character recognition) and releasing fully searchable copies on to a specially designed website
For a relatively small monthly subscription (£12.95), you get complete access to more than 700 titles, and nearly 18 million pages, this increases each week as more scanning is completed.
Through this project you can read how newspapers across the county reported on key events from the past 200 years, and can also track down ancestors (particularly if they have had a suitably notorious past to catch the attention of the press).
The project to digitise and catalogue onto an online hub the entire personal archive of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman is now underway.
Every single letter and diary has been meticulously scanned at John Rylands’ Library, Manchester, and an internet kiosk has been designed by software company Crivella West Inc. of Pittsburgh.
The kiosk project is the first of its kind and when completed will provide complete online access to the Newman collection. It is hoped that it might lead the way to other projects particularly within the world of Catholic archives.
The project is a collaborative effort between the National Institute of Newman Studies, attached to the Pittsburgh Oratory in America, and the Birmingham Oratory where the archives are held.
The Newman Institute is a purpose built residential research library and centre providing previously unprecedented
access to Newman’s life and works, the Institute also fosters the advancement of Newman scholarly research by inviting scholars to utilise the resources of the Newman Research Library in order to pursue academic work specifically related to Newman Studies, and in partnership with Duqesne University has set up scholarship programmes to this end.
To keep up to date with progress, follow the Newman Institute on Twitter @NewmanStudies
Or visit their website
For many people researching their Irish genealogy, the destruction of the Dublin record office in 1922 during the civil war, has left huge gaping holes in what information is actually available.
The Public Record Office of Ireland, at Four Courts, Dublin had in fact been occupied during the Easter Rising, however remarkably no serious damage had been done to the archives, famously the only record had actually been destroyed, that being the 19th century will of an Irish soldier. However six years later, on the 3rd June 1922, the record office was blown up, with one enormous explosive device.
Eye witnesses recall that on that day, it literally rained archives in Dublin city. The smouldering remains of a thousand years of history, held in parish registers, census records, wills, court records, minute books, proclamations, etc. were scattering the streets. Some were retrieved and rescued, some handed in to the authorities, and other kept by private individuals.
The 1922 explosion and subsequent fire destroyed the national census records from 1821-1851, half the parochial registers of the Church of Ireland (Catholic registers were stored elsewhere), all pre 1900 court and government records, and centuries of wills, the irreplaceable loss will always hamper the efforts of individuals attempting to trace their Irish ancestry, however we should pay tribute to the Irish Genealogical Research Society formed in 1936, when its members set about attempting to find surviving records, rescued, but still held in private hands. Through their efforts much material was repatriated into the National Archives, and thanks to their tireless efforts, records previously thought lost have now been preserved for the future. Their website linked above, is always a good start for anybody wanting to find out more about their Irish ancestors.
During the 1900s and 1910s large numbers of young men emigrated from the slums of English cities to start new lives in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
When in 1914, War broke out, these men enlisted with their local regiments, and returned to Europe to fight for King and Country.
While 2/3 of the WW1 army service records of English regiments were destroyed in the blitz in WW2. The service records of Australian, Canadian and New Zealand regiments have survived complete and intact, and have now been digitised online, where they are free to view.
The website Canadian Great War Project provides a wealth of sources on all soldiers who served with Canadian regiments. Both those who died, and those who survived.
The National Archives of Australia have released all their regimental records on their website.
The New Zealand National Archives have also produced all regimental records on their website
The Lancashire Catholic parish of St Hubert, Great Harwood have transcribed and published their sacramental registers on their website. The parish began in 1857.
The work has been undertaken by parishioner Maureen Barton.
See the church website for more information.
The historic archives of Co Offaly are being digitised and published online to make them widely available across the world.
It is hoped that when the project is completed, people with ancestry in this Irish Midlands County will be able to easily trace their history.
See the website ‘Discovering Offaly’ for more information.
The website irishgeneaology.ie are about to publish free online the fully digitised Irish BMD indexes.
The new database which will include all births over 100 years ago, marriages over 75 years ago, and deaths over 50 is to be launched later today.
See their website for more information.