Researching WWI servicemen

| November 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

 By Clive Harrison.

Next year, 2014, will see many events commemorating the commencement of World War I. War between Britain, Germany and its allies was declared on 4th August 1914.

Everyone was, of course, affected by the war in some way. The majority of families would have had a member in the armed services and it is possible to find what they actually did during the conflict.

Those Army service records that survived World War II (the building they were stored in was bombed during the Blitz and approximately 60% were destroyed) are searchable on Although a subscription is required to access these records from home, they are available for free at local libraries. If you are lucky enough to find an army service record, it could contain as few as three pages or as many as 30 and, again with luck, will reveal personal details of the soldier (including a physical description), his injuries and illnesses, his regiment and service number, his movements, his promotions (if applicable), how his service ended and much more. If he survived there may be a pension record.

All soldiers who saw action in the various theatres of war (France, Belgium, Italy, Balkans, Egypt, Africa, etc.) were automatically issued with medals. These were sent to their last known address or, in the case of casualties, their next of kin. Details of the medals awarded are contained on a Medal Rolls Index Card, again viewable on It is not always easy to find the card relating to a particular soldier, as some of them just show a surname and initials. If you know the regiment you will have a better chance.

All soldiers received a British War Medal (pictured) and a Victory Medal. These medals have the name, rank, service number and regiment of the soldier engraved on the rim. For those fighting in France and Belgium before 23rd November 1914 there was also a 1914 Star and for those fighting between 23rd November 1914 and 31st December 1915 there was the 1914-15 Star.

British War Medal

British War Medal

Another award was the Silver War Badge, which was issued to soldiers discharged from the forces due to wounds or sickness after September 1916. Each bears a unique number and the Medal Rolls Index Card will be noted “SWB” if a soldier was entitled to one.

Alas, many servicemen did not survive the war and records of casualties are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on their free website This shows the serviceman’s name, rank, service number, regiment and names of next of kin, if known. It also shows where the serviceman is buried or, if no known grave exists, where the serviceman is commemorated. From this website you can also obtain a commemorative certificate bearing a picture of the cemetery (but not the actual grave) or memorial. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission are responsible for maintaining all war graves in perpetuity. Bingley Cemetery contains many war graves, which are easily identified as the grave stones are of a standard format, and a notice on the railings indicate that it is a War Graves site.

Records of those men serving in the Royal Navy, Royal Flying Corps (up to 31st March 1918) and the Royal Air Force (from 1st April 1918) are not as easy to obtain but they are held by the National Archives – Look for “Search our catalogue” and enter a name, then keep you fingers crossed. You may need to be patient as there may have been many men with the same name and sometimes only a surname and initial are shown. has a muster roll of all men who were registered with the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918, showing their rank and trade before and after transfer from the Royal Flying Corps, their service number, rate of pay and when they joined the service. has lists of Royal Navy sailors, showing what medals they were awarded.

These are just a few of the more popular and useful websites containing information about individuals. Look out for information about World War I generally in future editions.

Please bear in mind when researching servicemen ancestors that some young men (more correctly boys) lied about their age when enlisting, so a date of birth may not agree with your ancestor’s. Also, some young men gave false names (see the June edition for an example), especially if their parents did not approve and they did not want to be prevented from joining up.

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