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A brief guide to researching the life and service of a soldier of the Great War

By Anthony CHILD

 

HOME > ARTICLES > Brief Guide to reaserching soldiers

 

These notes - brief as they are, will be helpful to anyone who is considering researching into the Great War service of a family member. They are only a brief guide and are not by any means exhaustive but the information contained within will be of immense benefit and might well stop you going down many a blind alley as I did when I first started.

Firstly, a few notes about myself - I am a colleague of Stephen Miller, one of the founders of this site and I have quite a bit of personal experience in tracing the life of my grand-uncle George, who was killed in the Great War - my research took me the length and breadth of England and over quite a bit of the old Ancre battlefields near to Arras in northern France and due to my perseverance, I was able to locate the site of his old army hut on Cannock Chase, the site where he was mortally wounded and ( believe it or not), the spot on the road where he stopped for a pot of tea shortly before - the information is there - it is just a matter of knowing where to look.

None of what follows is copyrighted - feel free to use it as you wish. For practical purposes, these notes assume that your soldier lived in on near to Leeds.

1 Firstly, find out as much as you can from older relatives - bear in mind that they will be 'knocking on a bit' and their memory might not be what it was - if your soldier died in the war, then for anyone to have any 'memory' of them, they will have to be over 90 themselves. In my case, the family 'story' was that he was wounded, was getting better and then died when the hospital was bombed - this piece of accidental misinformation cost me a lot of time and work so, listen to what people tell you, write it down, but don't take it as gospel. Ask also about other family members , such as his siblings and parents - details of these can be useful when you are trawling through the various archives looking for old addresses ( By looking up the details of George's sister, I was able to discover two addresses that were not previously recorded).

2 If you are fortunate enough to have any letters or other documents, take copies of them and then store the originals in the clear plastic wallets and keep them in a cool dark place - old documents don't take kindly to being handled and to light. They will most likely be quite brittle, so be careful. Keep the documents in chronological order for ease of reference.

3 Contact the local press for information - my request unearthed the sister of his old girlfriend. The YEP was particularly helpful

4 Contact his old regiment if they are still in existence- if not. Contact the British Legion - they might be able to tell you quickly what happened to the Regiment, when they ceased to be and with whom they amalgamated. Most Regiments will be pleased to help although they don't as a rule keep records of individuals - they might however have copies of the War Diary which will help you trace his movements


5 Go to the Central Library. There you will find the 'Absent Voter's list - I think you can also find it via the 'Leodis Website' and from there you will be able to trace the address where he lived during the war. You will probably be able to see a picture of it on the Leodis site and, if you then look at a map of the area, you will find the local schools that he and his siblings probably attended - people didn't travel too far in those days.
It is then worth a visit to the Leeds Archives at Sheepscar, ( 2145814 - book first) to look up the school records where you will find details of his starting / leaving and transfers to other establishments - have a quick look in the 'punishment book' - one poor little sod received six of the best for singing 'ta ra ra boom di ay', whilst another was chastised for taking his younger brother out of school and to Roundhay Park for the day - did right too!

5 Do join the Western Front Association.
This is a must! If you don't join anything else, join this - sadly, I'm not on the internet at the moment, so I can't give you the address, but, put 'Western Front Association' in the 'box' and I'm sure you'll find it.
The WFA is an organisation filled with like minded individuals and a letter to them appealing for help will, I'm sure bring a positive response. They also issue two good quarterly magazines and will, for a reasonable charge, supply copies of old trench maps - invaluable for when you go over to see where your soldier fought (Trench maps are easy enough to read - any problems, please do feel free to get in touch)

6 Consider contacting the Liddle collection at Leeds University ( main switchboard 2431751) I am informed that this is a good collection of memoirs, recollections etc and they may be able to help ( unable help me at all though) - book first.
Be warned - when I went, I was asked 'if I would like to donate to the collection', the original documents that I had - give them copies by all means - any documents that you have are priceless heirlooms and should be kept safely within the family

7 If he died, borrow the CD ' Soldiers Died in the Great War' - try to find if anyone else from his regiment and battalion died on the same day - it's easy enough (see also point 8)

8 You will be able to find his grave or commemoration on the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at www.cwgc.org - it's simple, even I could navigate though it. If he has a known grave, have a look in greater detail at the cemetery where he is. Try to find out if there are any other soldiers of the same regiment, company ( or platoon if you're lucky) buried there at around the same time ( point 7) This will help when you go to …….

7 …. The Public Records Office at Kew ( 0181 392 5200) to see if you can find his army records - be prepared to be disappointed though - a lot of records were destroyed when the building storing them was bombed in WW2. The surviving ones are on microfilm It might be worth writing to the Army Records Office, Bourne Avenue, Hayes , Middlesex, UB3 1RF
tele 0181 573 3831 beforehand. They will send you a form OF26B. Fill it in as best as you can and send it of with the payment - about £30 last I heard - and they will then have a look and see if they hold particulars of his military service. If they write back and send you a resume (can't find the accent - sorry), of his service, it means that the records are in existence and you will POSSIBLY find further details if you go to Kew.
Even if they don't have records of your relative, it is well worth going to Kew to have a look around - it is also well worth looking at the records of any other soldiers from his battalion who died at the same time - there may be details on their records of hospitals, postings etc which may have some relevance to your own research.
If you do get copies of his records, these will be the most important documents that you will come across - to go through the enormous amount of information contained in them would take pages and pages - if you do manage to get them, get in touch and I'll go through them with you. If you do get copies of his records, watch out - the microfilms are not of the greatest quality and sometimes the copy can lose a bit of quality and detail which is visible from the viewing screen - it's a good idea to check the copies you have made with the original microfilm and fill in any missing bits with a pencil .

If his records are not available, its not the end of the trail. You will find that the battalion war diary is still in existence - how long it takes to plough through it depends how long you chap was in the battalion - I was 'lucky' - poor George was only with them a matter of six weeks before he was killed and to look through the diary for that time took about 30 mins. If he died in a specific action, you might be lucky enough to find, at the end of the months entry, an 'operational order', giving map references, platoon / company dispositions etc - from finding the op.order of George's last action ,I was able to locate, within about twenty yards, the place where he was wounded
If he ' died of wounds' there might be some record of the hospital / dressing station / aid post who were looking after him at the time - well worth checking their diary also

BE AWARE - THE 'SOLDIERS DIED ' CD AND THE PRO MICROFILM RECORDS ARE NOT NECESSARILY CORRECT - IN MY CASE, BOTH SHOW GEORGE TO BE WITH THE 1/4TH BATALLION OF THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON'S (WEST RIDING) REGT WHEN IN FACT, HE WAS IN THE 5TH - LONG STORY HOW I FOUND OUT, WON'T BORE YOU WITH IT NOW.

Not exhaustive - there is a lot of work to do, but it is fun. You will meet a lot of kindred spirits who will give their time and expertise freely - you'll also meet one or two pompous prigs .
Get yourself over to France or Belgium or wherever and retrace as far as you can, his footsteps - marvellous experience
Finally, anything else, please let me know.

Have fun.

 


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