Spurred on by the impending World War One Centenary — there are an increasing number of people starting to take a real interest in tracing their military ancestors. And who wouldn’t want to discover a war hero in their family? They fought for our freedom, after all.
It is a sad fact that it is often easier to trace a relative from the First World War because of the great loss of British life this conflict caused. It touched almost every family back in Blighty — it is highly likely that you’ll have military connections in your family tree.
If your ancestor was a casualty in the First World War their death will most likely be recorded with the details of his military unit, date of death and location of burial or commemoration which is why researching war graves and memorials can be a great starting point for your genealogy research, especially if you have limited information. You can then work backwards and start to trace their military involvement by searching other records like rolls of honour and memorial registers that we hold on our site.
Commemorating the lost generation
The great loss of life during World War One had created a strong desire to commemorate this lost generation so the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was established in 1917 and responsible for maintaining the graves of the fallen.
The Commission also began to erect memorials to commemorate the missing including Menin Gate at Ypres and the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme, which list thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.
By 1939 the work of the Commission was nearly at an end and more than one million men and women from Britain and the Empire had been commemorated from every theatre of war. Over 2,000 cemeteries were constructed in Belgium and France alone.
The same commemoration followed when World War Two broke out and this time the numbers were smaller but cemeteries were spread around the world.
The IWGC was renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and it continues to maintain the cemeteries and memorials commemorating 1.7 million men and women in more than 150 countries to this day.
Basic information about the fallen soldiers was taken from military records at first and then other details like: next of kin and age were obtained by ‘Final Verification Forms’, sent by the CWGC — however, many didn’t reply so the information remained fairly basic. You can find a grave or memorial by visiting the CWGC website and searching using the details you have.
As well as war graves – local monuments and memorials in British villages, towns and cities were erected so that as well as being commemorated on the battlefield servicemen’s names also appear on memorials in the places they were connected to in the UK. Visiting war memorials, monuments, cemeteries and graves is a way that you can honour your ancestor’s great sacrifice.
Even with a small amount of information you can usually find out something about a person’s World War One military service. Your family tree can quite quickly blossom as you find unexpected information that leads you to other findings, including awards, declarations and onto other family members.
Start looking today — use our site, search our records and ask our experts about any military genealogy queries you may have.
Finding records on your ancestors can be revealing, but Forces War Records also understand that diaries and personal reports of war can provide precious insights that sometimes other records and genealogy sites just don’t provide. We are always adding to their ‘historic documents’ library, which contains a wealth of original documents, periodicals, manuals and newspapers.
As well as records concerning World War One, Forces War Records also hold databases on World War Two, The Crimean War, Boer War, African Wars, Indian Mutiny, and the Napoleonic Wars (including Waterloo and Trafalgar). You can also search medal rolls, individual battle data and Prisoner of War Records, Royal Marines Databases, Fighter & Bomber Command Losses, and Fleet Air Arm Data among lots more.