For years you’ve listened with half an ear to your granddad talking about ‘when I was in the war’. You’ve focussed in on one or two key events he was involved in – perhaps the evacuation of Dunkirk or the D-Day invasion – but other than that, you really don’t have an idea of how, where or why he served. And then, one day, he’s gone. This scenario is becoming more and more common as the First World War soldiers have died off, with Henry John ‘Harry’ Patch being the last to go, aged 111, in July 2009. Now every day the papers seem filled with reports of Second World War veterans passing away too, and it’s time to ask about the past before the memories of that dreadful conflict are lost.
The first step to learning about your military ancestors is to ask elderly relatives what they know about the family. Those stiff-looking people in the black-and-white photographs on the wall may be alive in their memories, and it will save a lot of time if vital information such as names, dates, events and locations can be recalled without your having to search for them. Of course, the memory can play tricks, and conjecture can become fact in family folklore. Remember that word of mouth information should be used to guide further research, but never be taken as the gospel truth. For example, your father might think your grandfather served in the Devonshire regiment in World War One, because he lived in Devon; not necessarily the case, since only the Pals battalions guaranteed entry into a local regiment. Still, it is always worth asking what relatives know, and preferably asking several people for accounts of the same event to verify the accuracy of recollections. Prepare yourself with a clear list of questions to keep the conversation rolling, but be aware that you may be raking up painful recollections, and that your relative may not want every bit of information that they can give to be shared with others.
The key to starting your family tree off with a bang is to get your basic information lined up. You’ll be well ahead of the game if you know your ancestor’s first, middle and last names, dates of birth and death, forces enlistment and discharge dates, regiment, service number, rank and date of death if applicable. The Forces War Records site allows a search by name, so it’s possible to get some or all of this information without knowing anything else, though further details may be required if your ancestor’s name is especially common. Ideally you’ll know their rank and regiment too. Family keep-sakes can help you to collect this information – birth or death certificates, engraved medals, a uniform complete with cap badges, stripes, emblems or other distinguishing marks hidden away in a drawer, or letters giving clues to your ancestor’s arena of service or involvement in a particular campaign. If you’re lucky, you may even find an old diary or photo album. Old photographs can help to identify when your ancestor served, in what arena and with what branch, or even which regiment, provided you know what you’re looking for. To get free help gleaning information from your family album, download your photo here: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/photo-expert. Discharge papers, pension books and even ration cards may also provide vital clues, such as the period of service, rank and regiment.
Once you have all the basic information, and your files of documents are neatly arranged to be easily searchable, it is time to note gaps in your knowledge and decide which one to look at filling first and what your next step should be. Service Records are full of information, summarising your relative’s entire army career. If you can find your First World War relative’s Service Record in National Archives consider yourself lucky, as their collection, ‘War Office: Soldiers’ Documents, First World War’, or WO 363, is woefully incomplete. Many pre WWI records were destroyed intentionally by the War Department when being placed into limited storage space in the 1930s, and many more were destroyed in the Blitz of 1940. Sadly, only between 20-30% of the total now survive and the originals are not accessible, but it is worth checking to see if this paperwork exists. Those looking for World War Two Service Records will have to apply for them from the Ministry of Defence, and pay £30 besides, since these documents are so detailed that they count as ‘sensitive’. They will only be released to a direct relation – that is, a mother, father, child or spouse of the serviceman – and otherwise will remain confidential until 2020 at the earliest, 75 years after the end of the war.
Don’t despair if you can’t find your relative’s Service Record, though, there are plenty of other avenues to explore. You may be able to find their medal index card on our site or in the National Archives, which will give details of their regiment(s), unit(s), rank their Service Number. Once you know your relative’s regiment, chances are there’ll be a regimental or regional museum that may give more details about the movements of the regiment, and potentially retain Unit diaries and photos from that time that will help give an idea of the experiences your relative may have gone through. The regional library, meanwhile, may have contemporary news reports archived giving accounts of particular heroics by troops in the regiment, while the library in your relative’s hometown might well detail the local dead, wounded or missing, and explain what family they left behind. If not, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission carries a list on its website of everyone killed in the World Wars and where their graves can be found.
The regimental summaries on our site can give an idea of the movements of particular battalions, while our Historic Documents Archive contains general history books outlining the course of various battles, as well as newspapers and original diary accounts. The National War Museum and Imperial War Museum also contain much information of this sort, and are well worth visiting, while those with relatives in the Royal Navy shouldn’t miss the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and those with pilots in the family should visit the RAF Museums in London, Hendon or Cosford, or the airfield that their relative flew from if possible. Ships Logs will be of great use to naval historians, and Operational Record Books to those wanting more information on RAF missions. Those whose female relatives were in the Forces should check the museum of the relevant service, e.g. WAAF, while Home Guard listings, arranged by command area, can be found at the National Archives. Alternatively, our site has an exclusive list, searchable by name, of all Home Guard Officers and another of those in the Home Guard Auxiliary Units.
In summary, the key is to collect as many basic details as you can, verify those details to ensure they are correct, organise your information to decide what gaps there are in your knowledge that you’d like to plug, then think carefully about how they can best be worked on. Forces War Records is a great place to start, providing records, background information, and advice on what to do next. Good luck with your search!