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Page last updated at 11:17 GMT, Wednesday, 11 November 2009
Tracing your family's military past

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

The death of the "last Tommy", Harry Patch, in July put an end to first-hand memories of the World War I trenches. But if Armistice Day pricks your curiosity about what your ancestors did in the world wars, there are many avenues of archives to explore.

Harry Patch
Britain's last survivor of the trenches, Harry Patch, died in July

The horrors of previous wars are even more personal to those whose own families took part, in conflicts such as the nightmarish trench warfare of World War I.

And according to Anthony Richards, archivist at the Imperial War Museum, interest in researching family military history is now more popular than ever. A major aspect of genealogy is often the involvement of family members in one or other of the two world wars.

"Considering the global scale of both conflicts, it is quite rare to find a family that did not have at least one relative involved," says Mr Richards. "Whether it was as a member of the armed forces, medical services, civil defence or perhaps even as a schoolchild evacuated to the countryside."

So should anyone wish to learn more about what part their own relatives had to play in the battles that shaped history, then Mr Richards recommends several initial lines of inquiry.

"You need to get hold of an individual's military service record. That will detail when they joined up or were conscripted, if they were wounded and any medals they were awarded.

Sgt William Bagshaw

"For WWI these are kept at the National Archives at Kew [London], which has information online or you can visit them. For WWII they're held by the Ministry of Defence in Glasgow. You must write to them and prove you're the next of kin."

Once you have details of a relative's military unit - a particular regiment for example - the next step is again to access the National Archives and obtain that unit's regimental war diaries.

These were kept by each battalion's adjutant - a staff officer who assists the commanding officer in issuing orders and also keeps records of its activities.

Such diaries form a day-by-day account of where a battalion was on any given date, any battles fought and any losses incurred.

"These were kept every single day and although they can be mundane they will contain much useful information, not least about troop movements," Mr Richards says.

Some amateur family historians, such as Alun Bagshaw, are simply blessed with luck. Mr Bagshaw, 48, recently discovered a diary written by his grandfather , Sgt William Bagshaw, who was captured in April 1918 on the French-German border.

This 31-page document disclosed details of his life as a POW and the harsh conditions the captives faced, giving Alun Bagshaw a unique insight into his ancestor's exploits.

British WWI soldiers marching
Military records can reveal plenty about one's family members

"I read the first few lines of my grandfather's diary and thought 'wow'," he says. "It was very emotional to see it and it's nice that his actions and his time has been recorded."

But for the luck of such a rare find, more detective work is required.

The increasing advancement of the digital age means increasing amounts of information is being placed online.

The latest example is once again from the National Archives, which has made available 99,000 RAF officers' service records online for the first time. They are available on a pay-per-download basis for £3.50.

For the first time, the records can be easily searched online by first name, last name and date of birth.

I wrote to the Imperial War Graves Commission with [my grandfather's] number and his unit, which we knew, and they wrote back immediately to say that he was buried at the Somme, with all the details we needed to find the grave
Rod Newman

The records were created with the inception of the RAF in April 1918, but many include the retrospective details of earlier service in either the Royal Flying Corp or Royal Naval Air Service.

Each service record typically details the date the officer was initially commissioned, subsequent promotions, units in which they served, type of aircraft flown, details of any honours bestowed and the date these were announced in the London Gazette.

Such records also note the date the individual resigned from commission, their retirement date, and, in several cases, when they died.

'Patience and elimination'

Retired bank manager Rod Newman's interest in uncovering family military history began when he started looking into his own.

"My grandfather was killed in the First World War and for one reason or another my mother and grandmother didn't know he had a grave," he says. "I wrote to the Imperial War Graves Commission with his number and his unit, which we knew, and they wrote back immediately to say that he was buried at the Somme, with all the details we needed to find the grave.

Soldiers in a trench
WWI battles still hold a fascination among the modern-day public

"I went to see his grave, and from that point on my interest in researching people's military history began."

Mr Newman has several sources he says prove useful in any hunt. The National Archives are a good starting place but he urges "patience and elimination" - two qualities, he says, that any amateur sleuth needs.

And as in Mr Newman's case, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has information should you already have details of a relative's military life, and death. The IWGC also recorded deaths of servicemen in the years shortly after WWI. Should they not have a recognised grave, there are many war memorials where names will be inscribed in order to remember servicemen and their sacrifice.

While many small ones are dotted around the various battlefields of Europe, the main ones for World War I, he says, are at Menin Gate in Ypres in Belgium, Tyne Cot near Ypres, and Thiepval near Albert in France.

But if information is scarce, then Mr Newman recommends trying bodies such as the Royal British Legion, which publishes regular periodicals which contain articles on how to research relatives.

Surprising results

Equally, if it is World War I history that is required, the Western Front Association (WFA) prints publications that has "an awful lot of information" about conducting research.

The WFA is dedicated to "study, learning and research into all aspects of the Great War" and has many local branches. Its website also has information and articles on how to trace family military history.

Even research outside the military realm can yield surprises. When Mr Newman accessed the 1911 census - the latest to made publicly - he discovered he had a relative who was listed in the census as being in the Navy.

"I wrote to the War Graves Commission and they informed me that he had died in a boating accident in Portsmouth Harbour in 1916.

"Even though he wasn't killed in battle they had kept a specific record of his death, because he was killed during wartime. I only discovered this because of my search of the census."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

No mention that only 40% of men's records from WWI survived bombing in WWII. No mention of Medal Roll Index Cards as first step for WWI research.
Ken Haywood

I researched my late father's WWII military service and found he was entitled to medals he had never received. All three turned up the week before Remembrance Sunday and I wore them on his behalf. I nearly burst with pride. Thank you MoD.
Peter Sas, Bath, UK

My grandmother died in 1971, never knowing what had happened to her only brother who was killed in 1918 at the age of 29. Thanks to the brilliant CWGC website in 2000 we were able to identify his grave in St Souplet and the following year, my late father laid flowers on his grave. It meant a huge amount to him to do this on behalf of his Mum and the family and also to pay his respects to the uncle after whom he was named, but never saw. I am now starting to research my great uncle's service in the war and the circumstances in which he was killed: a long journey, possibly without satisfactory outcome but eminently worth the time and effort.

Di McWillliam, Penzance, England

I've been trying to trace my grandparents' history. They who met in Serbia during WWI while working in field hospitals - my mother has grandma's medals and would like to trace citations. Unfortunately as she was a Queen Alexandra's Nurse, hers is one of the many records not evacuated in WWII and hence bombed off the face of the earth. At least in UK we share what is available - I tried to track down my uncle's WWII Legion d'Honneur citation in France, and apparently only immediate family can request information, and I don't count.
Sue, London UK

Today I sent my three-year-old niece a copy of my Great Uncle's military medal from the Medal Roll Index Cards, for her birthday. How do you tell a three year old that Poppies mean - "For the Grace of God go I"? One day, now Harry Patch and his ilk have gone, then I hope she will hold dear her two Great Great Uncles, that laid down their lives as teenagers.
John Rushworth, Falmouth, UK

I can't find my grandather George Oldfield's records, but I did find those of his younger brother, great uncle Bert, of whom I knew nothing until a few months ago. One piece of paper gave me some amusement. It showed that in May 1918 he was given 21 days hard labour for "Using obscene language to a non-commissioned officer" - who could blame him, he had been in France for over two years...
Rob Oldfield, York

To those who would like another website for all 3 UK armed forces to search, I would recommend the London Gazette - provided your surname doesn't appear as much as mine.
Richard Battle, London

My uncle has recently published a book about our great-grandfather's WWI. It's a work of fiction made from researching the movement of the regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, from recruitment to their return as broken men. More than that he has managed to capture the life of the people left behind, struggling at home with young children and scarce supplies. It's certainly made the war years much more real for me as, like most people, I had never really thought about a direct family connection to all those places that floated around the history classroom and were churned out on the news every November. It's called Made in Myrtle Street and is an excellent example of what can be done with material obtained from research into military records.
Helen McNally, Barcelona

I was researching my family when I came across my great uncle (father's side) who I knew died young. James Parsons was a gunner in the RHA and died 16 August 1917, aged 20. He's buried in Track X Cemetery new Ypres. I haven't got any further but found the headstone and cemetery on the CWGC website. I hope I can visit it as no other member of the family will have been there. It has really affected me and remembrance means so much more now and the loss of our young men/women in Afghanistan is all the more poignant. Lest we forget!
Linda Joseph, Cwmbran, UK

I obtained my great uncle's military war records and they were very informative. He's been an enlisted man from 1914-17, he then obtained a war time commission and was killed in action in France in 1918. Three of his brothers had emigrated to Australia prior to world war one. Two were killed in the Australian army, one at Gallipoli and the other in France. The third brother was wounded by a hand grenade at Gallipoli, however he recovered and was sent back to the war. He died in 1981 aged 91. I discovered all three brothers' military records on this site. It's well worth a look and hold all records of those who served in the Australian army during WWI. About 20% were British born.
Alan Macrae, Helmsdale, Scotland

What surprises me is that I have been able to obtain all of the military records of my great-grandfather's brothers who emigrated to Australia and fought with the AIF in WWI. Their records are available free online, and contains their entire file, including the application form, the medical, battlefield notes and even a record of the will. What is better is that they are photocopies of the original and you can print them off in the comfort of your own home. I just do not understand why if we in Britain wish to find out a little more of the great sacrifice that our family members made that we have to pay for them. I think everyone should have a right to see these records and for them to be available for free.
Jon Pinney, Lincoln

I also found the complete original military service records for my great-grandfather's two brothers, who had emigrated to Australia and fought for the AIF in WWI. These were readily available for free on the Australian National Archive website. One was killed in Belgium and the other was a double amputee as a result of wounds sustained at Gallipoli. The documents made for very sobering reading and seeing the originals made them all the more poignant. It's a pity access to similar records is so much more difficult here in the UK.
Liz , Kinross, UK

I managed to locate my Great Grandfather's military service records through the UK site. I agreed to purchase these at a cost of A$250 which I thought was atrociously expensive - even more so when they arrived some weeks later, consisting of just 6 photocopied pages with precious little information. Although he served for over 20 years and his conduct was shown as exemplary, he was never promoted above his entry rank of Private and never received any awards. Clearly the UK is making a fortune out of genealogy, despite the difficulties in tracing relatives particularly from abroad. I suspect that the charge levied on me, well exceeded what my GGFather was paid in the course of his 20+ years service.
Ken Stone, Wing Commander (Ret.), Jerrabomberra, NSW, Australia

When my father-in-law died and we were cleaning out his shed, we found a book all wrapped up in newspaper - it was a photographic record of his war, starting with a picture of the Queen Mary troop carrier, the ship he and many others sailed to the USA on, it showed Catalinas (flying boats) and planes he had flown, together with his flying journal. This was a treasure trove. His war was not like others so he did not speak of it much. His grandchildren now want to know more about it and he isn't here to share with them.
Rachel Bushell, Ross-on-Wye

You don't mention the Royal Navy - is there a specific place to search for Naval records?
Martin, Montreal

It's wonderful that so many British military records can now be accessed, but please don't forget the rest of us. In WWI, one grandfather was in an Irish Regiment that went to the Dardanelles. The other fought in the Russian Army against Germany, until the 1917 revolution and then fought against the Red Army, along with his elder brother - both junior officers - and their father, a general. Two did not survive, and as far as I know there is no means available to trace their fate. If anyone can offer any advice or help, that would be appreciated. I'm sure that there are many in the UK who are descendants like me, of non-UK soldiery from many wars in the 20th Century.
Still Searching, Bedfordshire, England

Still Searching, at that time Ireland was as muck a part of the UK as is Wales. The Irish Regts were part of the British Army, and as such they can be searched for in the docs mentioned. As for the Russian expedition...At the end of the war many British soldiers were sent to fight the Bolsheviks as part of an Allied attempt to reverse the revolution. It may be that your story has become garbled over the years.
Scrimnet, Surrey

My grandfather was an ambulance driver in WWI. We have not long discovered a diary he wrote, which not only indicates casualties moved but also when the ambulance was having its clutch changed.
Ian Briscoe, High Wycombe

I was able to find my Gran's little brother's details by putting his name into the CWGC website a couple of years ago. He had been killed in the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914 and no body was found. The website pointed to the panel recording his name on the Menin Gate in Ypres and recently I was able to go there and be photographed beside it. We knew he was in the Irish Guards so contacted their official historian and for a small fee they sent a copy of his service record. The most poignant entry was the only "blemish" on his record. He was due back in barracks in London at 2100 on 9 August 1914 and turned up at 2200. No doubt celebrating the chance to go off and fight, not knowing he would never see another Christmas, or his family, again. Nor would they ever have a body to bury. He is the reason I wear a poppy each year.
Des, London, UK

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