Tracing Your Army Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians. Second Edition. By Simon Fowler. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. US Distributor: CasemateAthena 908 Darby Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateathena.com. $24.95. Australian Distributor: Gould Genealogy & History, P.O. Box 119, St. Agnes SA 5097. www.gould.com.au. AUS$34.95. 2013. x, 192 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.
British Army research is a vast subject. This book breaks it down into manageable pieces. But how one does research depends upon the time period, rank, service specialty and the specific war. So the book’s chapters cover: organization of the army in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the army before 1660; officers; other ranks – enlistment and conditions of service; medals; casualty rolls; discipline and desertion; pension records; militia 1757-1914; women; British in India; dominion and colonial forces; Boer War; First World War; Second World War; 1919-1969. Appendices address: army service numbers; problem solving; TNA research guides; and army ranks. Each chapter begins by providing historical and social context for the subject under discussion. This is followed by detailed guidance on the records, what they contain, how to access them and how to interpret what is found. Most subjects include bibliographies for additional reading. The chapters are well illustrated especially in terms of sample documents.
It should be noted that although there is a growing body of military records available online, it is highly unlikely that it will ever all be online. Many original records will need to be accessed in person, or through hiring another researcher, at The National Archives in Kew.
I have read and used numerous how-to-books over the last 30 years for tracing my military ancestors and can heartily recommend this one. With any good book on the subject there will be a mental interaction with the book saying “I need to try that” or “I need to check out that source”. As you do research you find more about your ancestors, and you learn more. You are in a constantly changing place, and hopefully you have tried the obvious, but maybe you haven’t because more records are coming online all the time. Reading a book such as this will give you additional clues, indexes, sources that need to be checked out making it a book worth reading again and again as you make progress. I know I marked numerous record groups, indexes and published sources that I need to examine for my growing number of army relatives.
Naval and Military Press has just released a Special Great War Catalog with over 400 titles in this one publication. It provides a full range of Divisional Histories all at 50% off. There are numerous Regimental and Official Histories, contemporary memoirs and more.
Some of the databases sold can be found online at some of the commercial websites so be careful. But this is a goldmine for readers wanting to know that a particular book even exists, or for those wanting to fill in the gaps in their personal library, or wanting to know more about the regiment or division in which their ancestor served, or learn specifics about the battles in which they served or died.
If you have an interest in World War One do download a pdf of the catalog, linked here. One of the benefits of downloading the pdf, or opposed to getting the newsprint version of the catalog which I was also sent, is that you can search it for any regiment, division, battle or word which is very handy in this packed catalog.
Here is a good newspaper article in today’s Online Telegraph by Jeremy Paxman looking at “The Path that led from the Playing Fields to Flanders Fields”. It especially examines the role of the public schools in England the role they had in providing officers for the military, and the effect on the schools and their staff – think lots of women coming into teaching for the first time.
Let’s take a closer look at the Scottish Soldiers wills so proudly announced as being available on ScotlandsPeople in the last post I made so we understand how and why the records were created, collected and how to search them – without wasting lots of money.
What’s there? – There are 32,932 wills in this collection. Approximately 26,000 wills from ordinary Scottish soldiers who died in WWI, another 5,000 from WWII, several hundred from the Boer War and the Korean War, with others from conflicts between 1857 and 1964.
How did they get there? – When a soldiers estate was settled by the Effects Branch of the War Office their wills were no longer required. All documents were then passed along to H.M. Commissary Office in Edinburgh under the Regimental Debts Acts of 1863 and 1893. Later they were deposited with the National Records of Scotland, now in SC70/8.
The majority of the wills, especially those from WWI were the page(s) removed from the soldiers Pay Book (Army Book 64), or an equivalent Army form. Other documents might include personal letters from soldiers, a testimony by witnesses, both of which could be accepted in lieu of a will. The majority of the wills were written by men below the rank of officers, who were domiciled in Scotland. The example is for Peter Trainer of the Queen’s Own Highlanders who died 25 Apr 1918 leaving everything to his father Robert Trainer of 88 Gloucester Str, Glasgow. The will is one of four images in the file, which is common, the other images being of the army’s sheet for the will, plus two envelopes (inner and outer).
It is estimated that this collection of wills represents approximately 20% of Scotsmen who died during WWI and about 17% of those who died during WWII.
The records begin in 1857, but there is only one will for 1857 and that is for Private Roderick Alexander of the 71st Regiment of Foot [71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry)] and his will is signed 19 Jun 1857 and importantly it is not the date he actually died, that is not stated on the document [SC70/8/7/1].
Performing a Search
You have the options of searching on surname, forename, date of death – from and to, service number, rank, battalion, regiment, theatre, and cause of death. The reality is most of us are going to use surname, in possible combination with forename if we get to many results.
Date of Death – this is a key searching point. If you know you are searching for someone killed in WWI then change the dates appropriately. Generally I would recommend leaving the defaults at 1 January 1914 and 31 December 1948 and it will search everything in the database and include them in the results, even when the event occurs outside these parameters or the date of death is not stated. Change either date and it does limit the search to the period chosen.
Let’s do a search for Hunter without adding or changing anything. I get 134 hits. Viewing the search results is free, so I could look at all 183. Instead I want to limit my options and I type ‘Jo’ (without ‘’) in the forename field and select ‘forenames that begin with’ from the adjoining menu. Now I have 18 options and that is a more manageable number, so I look at the results. Quickly scanning the list shows that I have found multiple Johns, a John Alexander, two Josephs and a Jonathan.
I have 15 John’s, or which 13 John’s died in WWI. At ₤2.50 or 10 credits for each will downloaded that is too many to just randomly pick. So use other options to eliminate some of the other choices. The best place to start, which is free, is the Commonwealth War Grave Commission website and search for the records of each of these soldiers. You are looking to see if there is mention of family members and or place of residence in the comments field. Look at my earlier blog posts for examples and explanation of how to do this (WWI – Finding the Dead – Commonwealth War Grave Commission – part 1 – part 2 – part 3)
Workaround for Results with Missing Dates –
In our results table you will see Jonathan Hunter, rank unstated, of the 91st Regiment of Foot, who died, with no date or place given. We know that regimental numbers were no longer being used by WWI, so we can safely guess that this is a pre-WWI soldier. That however is still a potentially big time period 1857-1914. So how can we narrow down our options to see if it is worth spending the money on getting the will?
Go to the free website of the National Archives of Scotland at www.nas.gov.uk and select Catalogues and Indexes from the top menu, then NAS Catalogue, then Search. You have three search fields – in the search for field type the name of the person you are seeking (surname or both forename and surname if too many results) – in the reference field type SC70/8 plus select the ‘starts’ button and this will search the collection of Scottish military wills – leave the date from field blank.
In my case I am going to search for Jonathan Hunter in SC70/8. I get one matching record which I can display. The full reference is shown SC70/8/2/3 with a title of “Will of 3938 unstated Jonathan Hunter, 91st Regiment of Foot, cause of death: died” all of which is given in the search on ScotlandsPeople. The one additional piece given is 20 Apr 1864, which is the date his will was signed. If this was your ancestor you could then return to ScotlandsPeople and download a copy of the will with more confidence that it matched the time frame for your ancestor.
Will of Jonathan Hunter.
The will on Form of Will, No.1 states “to be used by a Soldier desirous of leaving the whole of his Effects to one person. Jonathan Hunter No. 3930, of the 91st Regiment of Foot, do hereby revoke all former Wills by me made, and declare this to be my last Will. After payment of my just Debts and Funeral expenses, I give to my wife, Isabella Hunter of No. 5 Waterton Street, Mile End, Glasgow, absolutely for her sole and separate use, her receipt being a sufficient discharge; the whole of my Estate and Effects, and everything that I can by law give or dispose of.” The will is then duly signed by three witnesses.
At the bottom of the form there is a Declaration of the Medical Officer. “I declare that I was present at the Execution of this Will and that Jonathan Hunter, the Testator was at the time in a fit state of mind to execute the same.” Signed by a member of the Medical staff.
On the reverse, which is actually the outside of the document when it is folded is a summary – The Will of Jonathan Hunter of the 91st Regt. Of Foot dated 20 April 1864. W.O. Form No. 897.
Written faintly in ink on the side of the form, upper left, is the NAS reference number SC70/8/2/3. Interestingly this is the only place to find it. The reference number is not printed out on the image header. You can however figure it out from the full reference if you save it with full ScotlandPeople reference.
The last wishes of Scottish soldiers at the Front: The National Records of Scotland release Soldiers’ Wills from WW1, WW2, the Boer War, Korean War and other conflicts between 1857 and 1964
The wills of 31,000 Scottish soldiers are being made available online by the National Records of Scotland as part of commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. The poignant documents include the last wishes of 26,000 ordinary Scottish soldiers who died in the Great War.
The new records contain the wills for ancestors of some famous Scots. For instance, John Feeley, the great-great-grandfather of the Paisley musician, Paolo Nutini, is included. Private Feeley served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Arras on 23 April 1917. Feeley left all of his property and effects to his wife, Annie, who lived until 1964.
Researchers at the National Records of Scotland have also discovered the will of Andrew Cox, the uncle of Dundee-born actor, Brian Cox. A rope-worker before the war, Private Andrew Cox served with the Highland Light Infantry and was killed in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, aged 22 – sadly, his body was never identified. Like many unmarried soldiers, Andrew Cox left all of his possessions to his mother, Elizabeth.
The records are drawn from all the Scottish infantry and cavalry regiments, as well as the Royal Artillery, Royal Army Medical Corps, Royal Army Service Corps, the Machine Gun Corps and other units, and a few who served in the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF. Almost all the wills were written by soldiers below officer rank, but some wills for commissioned officers are also included.
In addition to the wills from the Great War, there are almost 5,000 from Scots soldiers serving in all theatres during the Second World War, several hundred from the Boer War and Korean War, and wills from other conflicts between 1857 and 1964.
Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs in the Scottish Government, said: “These small but powerful documents are a testament to the sacrifice in wartime made by thousands of Scots, not only the soldiers themselves, but also their families and loved ones.”
Tim Ellis, Registrar General and Keeper of the Records of Scotland, said: “We are privileged to be marking the centenary of the start of the First World War by making these remarkable records available. They give us a unique insight into the service of Scottish soldiers during the First and Second World Wars, but also in other conflicts before and since.”
Annelies van den Belt, the CEO of DC Thomson Family History, who enable the ScotlandsPeople website on behalf of the National Records of Scotland, said: “We’re very pleased to add this new set of records to the ScotlandsPeople site. These fascinating documents make for poignant reading and we’re sure that anyone who views the wills will feel a strong emotional connection to those who lost their lives in these conflicts.”
The Soldiers’ Wills are available at www.ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk, at the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh, and at local family history centres in Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Hawick and Inverness.
British Army WWI Pension Records – “Unburnt Series” – WO364. This set of records is incorrectly called the pension records for they are not pension records in the classic sense. After the destruction of many of the Army records during the Second World War the War Office needed to find a way to supplement the records that had survived in what is now WO363. An appeal was made to other government departments that might hold records of service. The largest collection, but not only collection, came from the Ministry of Pensions – thus this collection is commonly known at the British Army WWI Pension Records or the “Unburnt Records
The records typically relate to regular soldiers serving in the army prior to the war who were discharged at the end of their service, those receiving a war pension who had since died or whose claims were refused, or men who later claimed a disability pension from either wounds or sickness. The collection does not include soldiers who signed up for the duration of the war unless they received a pension on medical grounds since such a soldier was entitled only to a gratuity upon demobilization.
The image shows part of the results of a search for William Milner. I am looking for the William Henry Milner from the Hundred of Hoo in Kent with 8 pages in the file. This is a good example though of the problem with landing pages which I touched on in the first blog posting in this series. An algorithm was used to find the attestation papers and discharge papers in the file. However, in this case there are two sets of attestation and discharge papers for the one soldier in the file. The entry below, again William Henry Milner does not show a place of birth, but is actually the same soldier and this can be confirmed from the details in the files.
Let’s examine some of the pages in the file and see the value of what is in the records.
William Henry Milner, No. 93560, attested on 18 October 1892 (yes 1892), joining the next day the Royal Artillery at Dover, Kent. At the time he was 20 years 8 months, born in the Parish of the Hundred of Hoo in or near the town of Rochester, Kent. This is all on Army Form B. 265. At the time he is 5 ft. 6 ¼ inches, weighs 126 lbs, with a chest measurement of 35, expanding to 36. He has fresh complexion, brown eyes and hair and by religion is a Bethel Congregationalist.
Thankfully William has a Military History Sheet in his file. This shows that he was home (i.e. serving in England) from 18 Oct. 1892 to 8 Feb 1894. He then went to India from 9 Feb 1894 to 11 Dec 1896, then on to Aden 12 Dec 1896 to 29 Mar 1901. Back to England from 20 Mar 1901 to 20 Apr 1902, then went onto active reserve being finally discharged 17 Oct 1904. He served a total of 12 years but only had 9 years 185 of pensionable service. The same form shows that his next of kin was his father Henry Milner, Isle of Grain, Kent. However the form also shows that he married Elizabeth Lorden on 6 Nov. 1901.
So why is William’s record to be found in WO364 for World War One? The simple answer is he attested again on 25 November 1915 into the RGA – Royal Garrison Artillery as a gunner with a regimental number of 7491. He is by now 43 years 403 days old, and living at Lower Street, Leeds, Kent. The new attestation form mentions his earlier discharge after first period limited engagement. His religion is Wesleyan. His next of kin is his wife Mrs. Elizabeth Milner of Lower Street, Leeds, Kent. This form adds to their marriage date of 6 Nov 1901 the place of Lower Stoke, Kent. They also have two children Ruby born 14 Aug 1902 in Gillingham, Kent, and Violet Grace born 20 Apr 1914 in Leeds, Kent.
William was discharged from the army on 16 Dec 1916 as medically unfit. His cause of discharge is described – “originated 1900 in England. Suffered from bronchitis every winter since 1900. Is frequently laid up. Has a severe bronchial cough, + for his age, is much debilitated. Eyesight weak. Not result of, but aggravated by military service. Permanent. Prevents ¼.” He was admitted to pension on 6 Dec 1916 and awarded 5 shillings per week. On 11 July 1917 his award was increased to 8s. 3d. and 2s. 9d. for two from 4 Apr 1917 to 16 Jun 1917, then 50 Pounds gratuity. The gratuity is 25 pounds for permanent disability and 25 pounds for 10 years of service.
Some points to note. Because William Henry Milner did not during WWI serve overseas he will not appear in the medal rolls. He did not die in service so will not appear on the Commonwealth War Graves website. This may be the only mention of his WWI service. However, he was in the army prior to the war and therefore when a search in WO97 Soldiers documents for pre WWI soldiers his records of service are found there.
Searching for a soldier is always a matter of exploring what records may have been created by your soldier and searching to find which of them may have survived.
British Army WWI Service Records – “Burnt Series” – Case Study Albert Milner
The British Army WWI Service Records, the “Burnt Series” are in WO363. A little of the history behind this series was described in the last post. Here we will explain how to do a search at Ancestry.com and use a case study to show what the results might contain.
In searching I first select from the Search menu, specifically what I want – British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920. This allows me to search on a variety of fields, with the most frequent being last name and first name. But you also have the option of Keyword, Regimental number and Regimental name – the latter fields can be especially useful if you already know the number or regiment from other sources such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (discussed in earlier blog posts), or from the medal rolls (to be discussed in a future blog post).
For this case study we are going to search for Albert Milner. Nine results are provided. For some of the records the parish and county of birth are included in the index. The records themselves usually provide a parish of birth even if that information has not been included in the index. Helpfully for me the Albert Milner – full name Albert William Alfred Milner is identified, born about 1895 in Leeds in Kent. A total of 18 pages are included in the file.
The number of forms that survive in any given soldiers file varies greatly, and just in the nine soldiers listed here they range from 4 to 56 pages, though it appears there are multiple index entries for the same soldier.
One form that would have been in all soldiers files is his attestation form, created upon his enlistment. Ten different attestation forms are known depending upon the date of enlistment, period of service and terms of engagement.
In our example for Albert Milner he attests using Army Form B.2065 for Short Service (Three years with the Colours), however the fine print under question 17 states “unless War lasts longer than three years, in which case you will be retained until the War is over.” Albert is attesting into the Royal West Kent Regiment, with a regimental number of 4334. This form shows his full name as Albert William Alfred Milner, born in the parish of Leeds, nears Maidstone in Kent. He is 19 years 224 days old and a labourer. This is all completed on 9 November 1914.
Reading through the rest of the pages produces some valuable information about Albert William Alfred Milner.
He attested at the depot on the 9 November 1914, he joined the regiment at Maidstone on the 10 November 1914 and was posted to the 8th Battalion of the Royal West Kent on the 11 November 1914. He is reported as wounded and missing on 20 September 1915. He is presumed dead on the 26 September 1915. This information is confirmed by searching the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website where we learn he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial but no additional information is provided to further identify who this soldier is. This is an example of how using multiple records can pull the pieces of a soldiers life together and positively identify him.
Albert’s Medical History is recorded on Army Form B. 178. As on his attestation form we learn his age, place of birth and occupation. We now get a physical description – 5 feet 4 ½ inches, 119 lbs, a 37 inch chest with a 3 inch expansion. He is in good health, has no vaccinations marks, good vision, and needs some dental treatment. A later form in the file shows that in September 1914 he was inoculated twice.
There is in the file a Casualty Form D.P. issued 6 December 1916 addressed to the officer in charge of infantry records at Hounslow that for official purposes Albert W. A. Milner is to be regarded for official purposes to have died on 26 September 1915 and that papers are to be created to notify the next of kin if they have not already been notified. This is potentially a long wait for the family to learn anything about their son, and also a long time for the death to be reported in the newspapers.
A subsequent Memorandum form – Effects Form 118A, on which the written date has faded, provides an address of next of kin as Mrs. N. Milner, Back Street, Leeds, Kent. An additional address on the side of the form shows Mrs. N. Milner at what appears to be 36 Fasthorpe Street, Putney. Another similar form dated 14 March 1917 shows the next of kin as Mrs Nellie Milner, Priory Cottage, 23 Knightrider St, Maidstone. An extract from the Ministry of Pensions Rolls shows the name and address of the widow as 36 Fasthorpe St, Putney, confirming the faint address written on the memorandum form.
A F.3 – Form 50D, shows that on 29 June 1916, the widow of Alfred W.A. Milner, was awarded a pension of 10 shillings per week, effective from 10 July 1916 as Alfred had been reported missing.
His Casualty Form – Active Service – Form B. 103/1 repeats information found on other papers, confirms that he was wounded in the field, went missing and officially declared dead on the 26 September 1915 but the one new piece of information is that he embarked 30 August 1915
There is a receipt with the signature of Nellie Milner, dated 14 August 1921, acknowledging receipt of the A.W.A. Milner’s British War and Victory Medal and another receipt for the 1914-15 Star.
One of the last pages in his file is the Military History Sheet. This identifies where he was serving, which in this case was primarily at home in England, that he went to France on 30 August 1915 and died 28 days later on the 26 September 1915. It shows the medals he was eligible for, that he was wounded, and that his wife was Mrs. N. Milner at Priory Cottage, 23 Knightrider St. Maidstone. He married Nellie Kelly, a spinster on 17 July 1915, and she was widowed just over 2 months later. The place of the marriage should have been provided but it was not. For the name of the officiating minister it says Mar. Certificate, possibly implying that they were married in a registry office. Prior to the marriage Alfred’s next of kin, crossed out, was his mother Kathleen Sadler [?] of Back Street, Leeds, Kent.
To highlight the fact that the forms may not be in order, the last form in the file is the description form, completed upon his enlistment. We have his physical description as before on other paperwork but we also now learn that he has a fresh complexion, blue eyes, brown hair and is a member of the Church of England.
This file certainly shows how jumbled up the individual pages can be but by reading and extracting each piece of information about the soldier his life can be reconstructed, including parents and next of kin, a physical appearance, and some of life in the military.
The easiest way to access the records that have survived for WWI soldiers (not officers) is on Ancestry.com. There are two collections entitled – British Army WWI Service Records 1914-1920 and British Army WWI Pension Records 1914-1920. Let me explain what the difference is between the two collections before we get into examples in later posts.
British Army WWI Service Records – “Burnt Series” – This collection is in WO363. The War Office records repository was on Arnside Street, Walworth and on 8 September 1940 there was a fire. The majority of the records in the repository were either totally destroyed or badly damaged by fire and water. What survived is approximately 25% of the original quantity and is now at The National Archives, in Kew. There are theories but it is not clear what records were at Arnside Street, or how they were arranged. The fire though was a major disaster for those researching WWI soldiers. Typically the files are for men killed in action, those who died of wounds or disease without being discharged from service, were executed, discharged without pension, or soldiers who were demobilized at the end of the war. The collection includes Regulars, Territorials, New Army volunteers and conscripts.
The contents of the files vary greatly but may include attestation papers, discharge papers, medical records, disability statements completed on demobilization, casualty forms, and regimental conduct sheets.
British Army WWI Pension Records – “Unburnt Series” – After the Second World War the War Office needed to find a way to supplement the records that had survived in what is now WO363. An appeal was made to other government departments that might hold records of service. The largest collection came from the Ministry of Pensions – thus this collection is commonly known at the British Army WWI Pension Records or the “Unburnt Records” – currently in WO364. It is important to understand that even though Ancestry.com calls these the Pension records they are not ‘pension records’ in the classic sense, just that the majority of the records came from the Ministry of Pensions. The records typically relate to regular soldiers serving in the army prior to the war who were discharged at the end of their service, those receiving a war pension who had since died or whose claims were refused, or men who later claimed a disability pension from either wounds or sickness. The collection does not include soldiers who signed up for the duration of the war unless they received a pension on medical grounds since such a soldier was entitled only to a gratuity upon demobilization. The original arrangement of the records when received from the Ministry of Pensions by the War Office is unknown, but the records have now all been alphabetized.
The WO364 records contain some anomalies. The records include some soldiers who were discharged as early as 1875, long before WWI. There are files for British men serving in the South African Infantry of Australian Imperial forces who were discharged in Britain.
These original records in these two groups occupy 44,000 boxes of material, much of which is too delicate to be handled. They have all been filmed producing 15,000 reels of microfilm. These films are available for use at The National Archives and at the Family History Library, but care is needed as all the names are not in alphabetical order, due to the number of cameras used in filming (WO363) or four different alphabetical sequences (WO364) . However, searching on Ancestry.com is so much easier, but again care is needed to ensure you have the correct soldier and all the records for that soldier.
What is not included in either set of records is information for any other rank who saw service after 1920, or any officer after March 1922, or who left the army before these dates but were recalled or re-enlisted for service in the Second World War.
Important Search Reminder – It is important to understand how these records have been put online. The pages of a file were first microfilmed in the order they existed within the file. They have then been digitized. An algorithm was then created to search for the attestation papers (joining) or discharge papers (leaving). Making a search then tells you how many pages are in a file, and when viewing an image will generally take you to the attestation or discharge page. This is the landing image and may or may not actually be the first image in the file. In examining the file you need to move back and forth reading earlier and later images in the supposed sequence to see if additional pages actually refer to your ancestors.
In the last post we started to discuss the search options for the advanced search screen of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at www.cwgc.org. We discussed ways to search on Surname and Forename, so please do have a look at the last post. Let us take a closer look at some of the other search options and what they mean for your searches, and why you may want to use them.
Country – use this if you know where your ancestor is commemorated. France is not a good choice as there is hundreds of thousands who died there. But if you know that your ancestor died and is commemorated in Argentina, then you are in luck as there is only two options.
Cemetery or memorial – this is useful if you want to get a sense of context, or possibly see who else might be remembered in that location. If you start to type a place and there are multiple options a list will appear. For example, searching on Thiepval brings up four options, selecting Thiepval Memorial and searching on that location shows that 72,338 individuals are memorialized on this one memorial. These are the people for whom no identifiable remains were located to be buried. Corporal Robert Finnegan discussed in the last post is one soldier named on Pier 4D, face 5B.
War – this limits your choice to the First or Second World War
Date of Death – starting and ending – allows you to define a period in which your ancestor died, or to determine how many others died on a given day, possibly indicating if he died in a major battle or in a quiet time. For example, a search for the names of those who died on the 1 July 1916 names 18,708 individuals and obviously does not include those who died from their wounds over the following days. This was the worst day in British military history if you did not already know that.
Served with – lists the forces of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa. Be very cautious here as people from the United Kingdom may have served in any of the colonial forces, and many from the colonies did serve in the United Kingdom forces.
Served in – identifies the branch of service – army, air force, navy, merchant navy, civilian war dead and miscellaneous. The last category may need some clarification for this includes: munition workers, Red Cross members, Voluntary Aid Detachments, canteen workers, army cadets, ambulance drivers, war correspondents, etc.
Rank – as you start to type in this field a list of options appears from which to choose.
Service number – this search may be useful if you have this number from another source, such as a medal roll and want to identify where he is buried or memorialized.
Regiment – can be used to narrow a search, or used with dates to put a death into context. Again when you start to type a list of options appears. For example, searching on the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers for the 1 July 1916 shows that there were 833 deaths in this one regiment alone on this day.
Secondary Regiment – should be used with caution as the majority of records contain nothing in this field.
Awards – this enables you to identify those individuals who were awarded a medal (such as the Victoria Cross), or were Mentioned in Dispatches. Returning to the 1 July 1916, with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and identifying Victoria Cross recipients we identify Eric Norman Frankland Bell of the 9th Battalion. The descriptive citation is provided, adding more color to the day Robert Finnegan died, for the 9th Battalion preceded the 11th Battalion out of the trenches moving towards the German lines.
Additional Information – can be any term but it would need to appear in the additional information part of the database. It might, for example, be used to identify others from your ancestor’s village or street.
There is a lot of material in this database and some experimenting with the search options will narrow your options to find your ancestor, at the same time additional information can be gleaned to put your ancestor into context.
In my last posting I did a simple search to find my dead soldier – John Croudace. In this blog posting we are still working with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at www.cwgc.org website but let’s examine the advanced search options a little more closely. To find the advanced search you can either choose it from the simple search box on the home page, or you can select “Find War Dead” from the tab bar. Either way you end up at the same advanced search box. Note that you only need one entry in any one box to do a search.
Let’s start with the first and second boxes for surname and forenames as these are the most commonly used. You can type in any surname and search. The default for the forename is initials and I on the first pass leave the space below blank. Only if I get too many options do I insert an initial. Inserting an initial will pick up the entries in the database that use only an initial as well as those forenames beginning with that initial.
With surname it gives you exactly what you ask for, there is no sounds like or Soundex option. However wild cards are allowed. So let’s look at an example and see what difference it makes. I want to search for the name Finnigan, but did the army spell it this way, or with one “n”, or did they substitute an “e” for the “i” in the middle. If searches are made on these variations, limiting it to WWI we get the following results:
This gives me a total of 101 options. However, I prefer to get all my results at once. So searching on “fin*g*n” picks up all these and a few more for a total of 105. The additions are the names – Fingleton and Finighan. The results are presented in batches of 15 names.
With these numbers of results I tend to scan all to see if any are a likely possibilities, for remember you are also looking to trace the cousins, as almost every family in the United Kingdom was impacted by the war. In this search one entry jumped out at me on the first page – Finnigan, J – buried in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (St. John’s Westgate and Elswick) Cemetery. Looking at the details in the illustration he died 10 July 1916 and most importantly he is described as the son of William Finnigan, of 7 Back Hammond Street, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. A supposition, later confirmed, was that John Finnigan was wounded on the 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and that he was wounded severely enough to be evacuated back to England. He actually died on the transport ship returning to England, and was buried in his home town.
John was a private in “C” company, 11th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Interestingly John has a brother Robert, and when the rest of the list is examined there is a Robert Finnegan, who is a Corporal in the 11th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, killed on the 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In this case though there is no data entered in the additional information section. From this source alone I cannot confirm if this Robert is or is not the brother of John. He is, but other sources are needed to confirm that.
In the next blog posting I will discuss some of the other search options, why and when you might want to use them.