Neil Oliver, archaeologist, historian and author of the ‘Two Men in A Trench’ books, pens the last of his trio of Blogs for Forces War Records, describing how to learn more about your soldier ancestor's world. Take a look back at his first and second blogs now!
It’s exciting when you discover a new ancestor. An extra piece to the puzzle, a fresh leaf on the family tree, suddenly opening up new avenues of investigation and potentially leading to even more family members. With military relatives, the first thing to come to light is often a named record, which might mention a regiment, rank, and if you’re lucky perhaps a service number, date of birth and details of next of kin. So far so good… but what does this data really tell you about who they were, or what they went through in the war? Very little, but thanks to our country’s many cherished regimental museums, libraries and military archives, a few scant pieces of information could prove to be the key to unlocking a veritable treasure trove of detail.
Once you know your ancestor’s regiment, why not take a look in the National Archives, the relevant County’s Record Office or the regiment’s own museum for a Regimental War Diary or Operational Record? Prior to World War One there weren’t official diaries, but officers often kept unofficial notes while on active service, and some histories were later published. From 1914 onwards official diaries were kept, and the notes of even the most concise of clerks will reveal where the regiment was at each stage of the war, what battles it took part in, and potentially who died or was honoured. Once you know what the unit was doing on a particular date, history books alone can tell you a lot about what they might have gone through. Of course, it can be difficult to prove that your ancestor was present – he could have been wounded or on leave – but medal index cards, POW lists, Red Cross records, hospital admission and discharge registers, or perhaps even records of gallantry awards or mentions in dispatches, can help to pinpoint certain individuals.
Local newspapers often carried details of local troops killed or reported missing, or trumpeted honours granted to men or units, so it’s always worth checking local libraries for listings of your relative. Resources like Forces War Records’ Historic Documents Archive, too, may contain original personal accounts by members of that unit – hugely valuable in revealing the sort of thoughts that might have entered your ancestor’s head. Rolls of Honour can provide more detail than you ever dreamed of finding. Schools, universities, work places and even Councils sometimes compiled these; many list just the basic details of those who gave their lives in battle, but others devote a page to each man who died, or sometimes even each man who served, with a photograph and paragraph describing their full war service. It can be harder to find information about relatives in the Royal Navy, as logs often went down with a ship or recorded only navigational detail, but the Royal Air Force and many ancillary services also demanded that officers keep diaries. With World War Two ancestors, meanwhile, such records tend to be held by the MOD, and can be requested in writing.
Once you’ve found your relative, doors of this sort will start to open if you think outside the box and explore as many different avenues as you can. It will take time and effort, but as your ancestor starts to develop a face, a personality and a tangible past, it will all seem worthwhile! Start enriching your research today at www.forces-war-records.co.uk.