Soldiers and Sailors: Following In Your WWI Ancestor’s Footsteps

It would be hard to find a family that has not been touched by war at some level or another and many people have ancestors who served in WW1.

If you want to go on a voyage of discovery and find out more about the men and women from your family who served in the war or even want to read some of the fascinating and touching stories that have come to light, there is now more information available than ever before.

Popular sites such as Forces War Records and Made from History are always a good research source to consider and here is a look at some of the numerous resources available that could help you to find out a bit more and reveal some amazing stories along the way.

Pieces of the puzzle

Getting started on tracing the war history of one of your ancestors is a bit like starting a new puzzle but without knowing whether all the pieces are there or not.

Many of us only have limited information or even just rumours or hearsay to rely on as a starting point. Even with just a modest amount of detail to work with, you can soon start to piece together a few pieces of the jigsaw, and you will be on your way to some potentially amazing and fascinating discoveries.

The centenary of the First World War that started in 1914, prompted a surge in the number of people trying to find details of their relatives and a good place to look for some initial details is Forces War Records and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

They both offer some helpful filters to narrow down your search by being able to use their service number if you have it but you can also carry out a search using data like their rank.  A search that uses broad criteria will of course produce thousands of results, so try and get as many details from family records to filter your enquiries more narrowly.

Family records and memories

It is definitely worth asking other family members whether they kept any correspondence from loved ones serving on the front that may have been passed down.

It is an incredible statistic to consider that about 12 million letters were delivered to the front every week and by the end of the war, some two billion letters and 114 million parcels had been despatched to soldiers eagerly awaiting their contents.

With so many letters and parcels having been sent, there is a good chance that a letter sent back from the trenches could reveal not only a personal perspective on the war but some vital clues to help with your search.

The National Archives have a First World War portal where you can view the contents of soldier’s war diaries and build a picture of what their daily life was like. Registering with Forces War Records allows you to browse through a historic library of over 2000 publications, which includes exclusive collections. You can also hire a specialised researcher and share research with other members in the forum.

Tour of duty

Many people feel that they want to visit the scene of battle and maybe pay their personal respect to a relative if they paid the ultimate sacrifice whilst serving in the war.

There are now many opportunities to join the growing number of visitors who want to visit the battlefield sites of notorious places like the Western Front in Belgium and France. Specialist tour operators now offer you the chance to follow in the footsteps of an ancestor and take a trip to places like the Somme and Ypres.

When you take a tour with a specialist company, you normally get the services of knowledgeable guide and historian and a good example of this would be to take a Rifleman Tour into the notorious Flanders Fields which are set in the now tranquil and beautiful landscapes of the Somme.

Poignant moments in history

It may transpire that one of your ancestors was directly involved in one of the key battles that became a poignant moment in the history of WW1.

A lot of special events and tours are arranged on the appropriate commemoration day so you could visit the scene of events like the Battles of the Woods which looks at the attack on Mametz Wood, High Wood and Delville Wood.

The recent surge in interest relating to WW1 events combined with the fact that many archives have now been organised in a more accessible format as a result of the digital age, mean that you have a very good chance of discovering details about your family’s military contribution and history.

There are many truly inspiring and heroic tales to be told about World War One and you may find that one of your relatives has a story that you were not previously aware of.


Forces War Records would like to thank Eva Andersdon for her guest post.

Eve Anderson is a history buff and occasional writer. Now retired, she is starting the search for her ancestors and creating a family tree. She enjoys sharing her research and discoveries online.


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