Researching WW1 Ancestors

Military Genealogist Simon Pearce provides an insight into a personal research journey and shares some hints and tips for researching your WWI ancestors

My love of military genealogy was sparked by the journey I took researching my 2x great uncle Howard George Cheeseman, who was killed in action during the First World War. I was captivated by the information I was able to uncover and the intimate details I gleaned from military records and family memorabilia. Today, the day of posting marks 107 years since my ancestor lost his life in the Gallipoli Campaign.

Howard George Cheeseman
             Howard George Cheeseman               

Researching your ancestors’ military service is an incredibly rewarding and exciting part of family history. Knowing where to begin can be challenging, but I hope my journey will provide you with some useful hints and tips to help you make your own discoveries. 

I found that speaking to family members was a great starting point. The smallest piece of information may help to spark your research or point you in the direction of particular records. I was fortunate that my family were keen to talk about great-uncle Howard’s military service, and their remembrances provided me with further context and a greater connection to my ancestor.   

Check family albums and collections; if you are lucky enough to have a photograph of a family member who served during WWI, spend time studying the photo. There are often many clues you can learn from a photograph; their uniform, cap badges, rank patches, medal ribbons, wound stripes or overseas service chevrons, helping you to narrow down your searches or target specific records. 

The photo in my family collection contained a wealth of clues. I established that my ancestor was serving with the South Wales Borderers (SWB), was a lance corporal and was wearing a pre-WWI uniform, suggesting he joined up before war broke out. 

Family stories suggested that Howard lost his life during the war. There is a wealth of information available for casualties of both world wars. As you can see from Howard’s entry in our IWGC/CWGC Registers Collection, he was killed in action on 28 June 1915. His rank, service number, regiment and battalion are listed, useful clues that helped me search other military records. Next of kin names and addresses are often recorded, crucial if you are researching multiple candidates with the same name.

Scrolling down the page of this entry, you may notice the Actions and Troop Movements (ORBATS) map. The ORBATS data transcribed by Forces War Records has allowed us to produce an exclusive and ground-breaking interactive map, enabling you to track the progress of units throughout the course of WWI. Army records that have the battalion listed are very likely to include this exciting feature. Alternatively, you can search the ORBATS by battle, battalion or unit name here.

This unique tool allowed me to track my ancestor’s movements from the point that his battalion landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915, right through to his death in June that year. The ability to visualise an ancestor’s movements during the war offers an even more personal experience. The movements are also accompanied by information from official histories of the war, adding further context to the unit’s actions and engagements. 

I was determined to make further discoveries about my ancestor’s wartime story, like when and where did he enlist? Howard’s service record would have answered my questions, in addition to providing an unparalleled insight into his military career. Unfortunately, around 60% of WWI service records were destroyed or badly damaged during a German bombing raid in September 1940; this included Howard’s service record. All was not lost, however, and I was able to fill in some gaps using other military sources. 

A useful source for further information is the Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-1919 database. Howard’s entry notes that he enlisted (recorded as Resided Town) in Chatham. Enlistment location is a great feature of this collection, providing another crucial piece of the puzzle. 

I still wanted to establish when my ancestor enlisted. Remember the photograph I mentioned earlier? Howard was wearing a pre-WWI Number One Dress British Army uniform, dated around 1908-1910. A little digging online and into regimental histories revealed that the 2nd Battalion SWB was stationed in Chatham in 1910. 

To narrow his enlistment date down further, I turned my attention to his regimental number (10441). During this period, regimental numbers for regular army enlistments were generally issued in blocks, sequentially. I browsed surviving service records for soldiers of the 2nd Battalion SWB who were issued service numbers around Howard’s, as they should in theory have enlisted at a similar time. By addressing the surviving service records for my ancestor’s comrades, I was able to place Howard’s enlistment between May and June 1910. Despite the absence of a service record, I could, with a little extra research, establish a starting point for his military story. 

There are other collections that stood out during my research journey. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) WWI prisoner of war database provided a surprising and poignant clue. The collection concerns Allied and Central Powers POWs, in addition to civilians who were interned too. Entries in the ICRC collection often contain useful, basic details about the individual.

You may be wondering why I consulted a prisoner of war collection when my ancestor was killed in action. In addition to prisoner info, the ICRC collection also contains enquiries made into the whereabouts of missing personnel, namely those deemed ‘missing presumed dead’. Like many individuals who lost their lives during the war, Howard has no known burial place and is commemorated on the Helles Memorial, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. My ancestor’s enquiry, although brief, appears to have been made by a family who billeted him while his battalion was stationed in the Midlands, prior to shipping out to Gallipoli. For me, this represented another fascinating entry in the timeline of Howard’s military service.

Oral testimony forms a useful part of military research and is an avenue worth pursuing when researching your WWI ancestors. The Imperial War Museum has a substantial collection of oral interviews with veterans of WWI, many of which have been digitised. While you may not find an interview with your ancestor, you may find an interview with someone who served in the same battalion or unit as them. I was able to identify an interview with a fellow soldier in the ranks of Howard’s battalion, whose wartime experiences may have been very similar to that of my ancestor. 

Of course, there are many collections available on Forces War Records to help you research your ancestors’ military service. These can be browsed via our Collections List. The advantage of using FWR for your military research is that we have transcribed millions of records and have significantly enhanced the information they hold to help you understand military acronyms, making it a smoother and more accessible research journey. 

 

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