Twenty years ago I spent a number of afternoons in a library sitting on the floor working my way through a set of the â€œWar Graves of the British Empire.â€ I was looking for Corporal S.L. Nuttall, my maternal grandfatherâ€™s brother. I was new to genealogy; if there was a quicker way to find Corporal Nuttall, I did not know about it.
How things have changed! Not only can I locate my great-uncleâ€™s grave, I can find the same information at the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission where I can read the details of the inscription, find his fatherâ€™s name, and look at a plan and a photograph of the cemetery.
Ancestry.co.uk is another website presenting records of the first World War. In cooperation with the National Archives of the United Kingdom, it has recently added British Army WWI Pension Records, 1914-1920. Documents for surnames beginning with A and B have been uploaded in the first phase and the remainder will follow over the next eighteen months.
A Remarkable Collection
Without advances in digital imaging and the capabilities of computer indexing, this collection might have remained in obscurity. The building housing the records was bombed in the World War II; many of the records were destroyed and others suffered fire and water damage. The National Archives website states that the odds of finding a soldier ancestor in these records are 40 percent–the percentage of material that survives and can be read. Those are pretty good odds and certainly worth the time for a careful search.
When uploading is complete, you will be searching War Office 363, British Army Service Records; and War Office 364, British Army Pension Records. The records appearing first are the early pension records concerning soldiers discharged because of sickness or injury. The medical records are included.
The first one I examined concerned a man with both deafness and partial facial paralysis. The conditions are described, including the fact that they existed before enlistment but were aggravated by the stress of military service. The man was judged to be 50 percent capable of doing a civilian job and was granted a pension for approximately one year. The file included details of service as well.
There is a huge benefit to having this material digitized and indexed. You can search for a soldier ancestor without first having to know his regiment, rank, and service number. You need to know his name and be alert to variants that may have been used at the time or that may occur due to indexing errors.
If the name is a common one, you should know several additional details in order to spot your ancestor among many of the same name. You can do a little advance preparation for this situation; before beginning your own search, browse through several records and note what information is supplied.
If you find a family member among these documents, you are likely to know more of this particular person than most, including physical description, medical record, civilian occupation, and the nature of his military service. Some of you will want to follow the detailed history of his military unit.
Begin research into military background at the website of the National Archives, the exhibit titled the First World War, Sources for History. There are timelines of events for each year of the war, maps, and five major topics, one of which includes the records being made available for online research.
For many more ideas, visit this page at the GENUKI website, scroll down a little, and follow the links to Military History and Military Records.
Put your own research in context and you have a greater chance of success as well as a more meaningful experience.
Those of you researching names at the beginning of the alphabet are in luck–you can search right away. Everyone else needs to keep watch for later additions of images and indexes. Whether or not you can begin a search right now, take a little time to browse data currently available, read the additional information at AncestryÂ and at the National Archives website, and explore some of the history.
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Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two-year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.
Sherry Irvine has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of online courses. For more information, visit Pharostutors.com.