Newfoundland: as for Canada
New Zealand: www.archives.govt.nz
South Africa: www.national.archives.gov.za
For other countries, please see the WFA Links Page.
The National Archives, Kew
This contains records of both men and units, although many of the men's records were lost in the Blitz in September 1940 when an incendiary bomb destroyed the South London warehouse where they were stored. The website, ww.nationalarchives.gov.uk, contains indexes of the contents of each class of documents but in order to search the records themselves, either a personal visit to Kew, or the services of a researcher, will be required. Do not be discouraged from making a personal visit if you can: it is basically just a giant reference library and the staff are very helpful. On your first visit you will need some identification in order to obtain a reader's ticket, a process which is free and only takes a few minutes.
Soldiers' Personal Service Records
The soldiers' records now available at the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office), Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU on microfilm comprise two categories: the so-called "Unburnt Documents" and "Burnt Documents". The former are about 8 to 10% of the whole and relate principally to those men who were discharged with a pension during the course of the war, usually as a result of wounds. These documents were held by the Ministry of Pensions in 1940 and thus survived the Blitz. They have recently been released at Kew and are in class WO364.
The "Burnt Documents", amounting to perhaps 30% of the whole, are still held by the MoD at Hayes. They are charred, water-stained and jumbled, just as they were rescued by firemen in 1940. The project to microfilm them at Kew is now complete, the microfilms being in class WO363. The last batch of microfilms contains mis-sorted records. The actual documents will never become available to the public as they are far too fragile to handle. The remaining 60% or so of documents were irretrievably lost in the 1940 fire.
Records Of Naval, Air And Women's Services
These are also held at the National Archives at Kew, in different classes from those given above. The Microfilm Reading Room contains a series of useful leaflets to guide you through the process step by step - it is similar to the corresponding procedure described above for the Army - and the National Archives staff are well used to helping visitors with such enquiries.
A very recent addition to the Kew website: www.documentsonline.nationalarchives.gov.uk is a set of the medal roll index cards, which should include every officer and soldier who saw active service. The actual cards were scheduled for destruction after having had their faces digitally scanned, but are currently held in secure storage by the WFA which is seeking to keep them available in some form for researchers to use.
Soldiers who served in a theatre of operations abroad were normally entitled to two medals: the British War Medal 1914-1920 and the Victory Medal. In addition, those who served in France before 22 November 1914, or abroad before 31 December 1915, were entitled to the 1914 Star (the "Mons Star") or the 1914-15 Star, respectively.
The actual medal rolls are available on microfilm at Kew in class WO329. They show soldiers by the regiment or corps in which they last served abroad, but also show each regiment (and battalion, for infantry) in which a man served abroad. It is the first such unit which is shown on the medals themselves.
Example: Edward Clifton of Halifax, West Yorkshire was conscripted in August 1916 and joined a labour battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. This battalion went to France and was transferred en bloc to the Labour Corps in April 1917. In September 1917 he was transferred to the Royal Engineers, Waterways and Railways Section, to continue his peacetime job of laying railway track. He appears on the RE medal roll:
WR.23643 Spr CLIFTON, Edward 17/York & Lanc.Rgt. 30545
Labour Corps 18039
Royal Engineers 309738 and his medals are inscribed "30545 Pte E Clifton Y & L".
Note that, during the Great War, there was no such thing as a unique "Army number" so familiar to WW2 soldiers: each regiment had its own numbering system and if a man was transferred between regiments or corps (but not between battalions of the same regiment) he received a new service number. In addition, to remove some duplication which had arisen, soldiers in the Territorial Force (TF) were given fresh numbers in 1917 in the 200000+ range.
In contrast to other ranks whose remaining records are on microfilm or microfiche, officers' records survived the Blitz and are held at Kew as original files, in classes WO339 (for most officers) and WO374 (for officers of the Territorial Force). Class WO338 contains an index to WO339. Around 90% of the records have survived, a notable exception being those of TF medical officers, including Captain N G Chavasse VC*, which were destroyed in the 'weeding' process which takes place when records are first transferred to Kew.
If the officer was commissioned from the ranks, his earlier service record was normally placed in his new file: for example, WO339/114296 which contains the record of 2/Lt WRG Burfield MC, Tank Corps, also includes his pre-commissioned service in the Army Service Corps in which he reached the rank of Sergeant.
There are selected files of some senior officers (and Wilfred Owen) in class WO138.
Records Of Those Killed In Action, Died Of Wounds, Or Missing, Presumed Killed
These are held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and can be fully searched on their website, www.cwgc.org which holds the "Debt of Honour Register." It includes casualties from both WW1 and WW2, including the Dominion dead. For those with known graves, the cemetery reference of the grave is given, together with advice on how to find the cemetery. For those with no known grave, similar information is given in respect of the Memorial to the Missing on which they are commemorated.
The CWGC website also contains details, including plans, of the cemeteries and memorials.
Gallantry Awards: The London Gazette
The London Gazette is also available at Kew, in class ZJ1, and indexes to the 1914-1918 editions are also on open shelves in the Microfilm Reading Room. Many larger municipal libraries also have sets in their reference sections.
The indexes are in quarterly sets so that, for instance, "1917 Volume III" covers 1 July to 30 September 1917. Look in the first section of each index, headed "State Intelligence" and you will find awards under the first letter of the name of the decoration e.g. M for the Military Medal. Mentions in despatches will be found under W for War Office. In each case the names are listed alphabetically.
Gazette entries were normally made some months later than the actions for which they were awarded, so be prepared to examine at least two and possibly three volumes of the year's index in each case. These will direct you to a page number in the main
Gazette itself (the numbers started afresh at 1 on 1 January each year). For the Military Medal (awarded to other ranks only) and "mentions" the entries themselves will not give any details of the conduct which earned the award, simply the soldier's name, rank, number and regiment.
For awards of the Victoria Cross, and usually for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (other ranks only) and Military Cross (junior officers and warrant officers only), a citation is printed describing the act for which the award was earned. The same applies to awards of the Distinguished Service Order (officers only) when given for acts of gallantry, but the DSO and MC could be awarded for generally distinguished service over a period: these awards were included in the New Year or King's
Birthday (June) Honours Lists and there are no citations in these cases. Note that for the DSO, DCM and MC it is not uncommon to find two entries: one for the award itself and another a few weeks later with the citation.
Award citations, other than for the VC, rarely give any indication of the date or place (or even country) of the act which earned the award. For these it is usually necessary to refer to his unit War Diary, e.g. "Ptes Bloggs and Smith awarded the MM for their actions on 1.1.17", on a date some weeks earlier than the notice in the Gazette, and reference to the diary for the still earlier date may give more details of the actions in which the men distinguished themselves. Although the MM was the commonest award during the war - about 120,000 were issued, including bars - it most certainly did not "come up with the rations" and if your ancestor won it, you have every right to be proud of him. If he won the VC, DSO, DCM or MC you can be even more proud.
Awards of other decorations such as the Order of the Bath and (from 1917) the Order of the British Empire, as well as naval and air decorations, are also given in the London Gazette. There are usually no citations for these, except for those naval and air decorations corresponding to the DCM and MC. The VC and DSO are common to all three services.
The next section of each index after "State Intelligence" is "Military Appointments and Promotions." These can be used to trace the first commissioning and subsequent promotions of officers, although beware of duplication of common surnames, as the index does not give the regiment or corps. Note also that appointments in the TF are given separately from those of the Regular and New Armies. Wherever possible, any details of an officer's progress in the London Gazette, whilst definitive as to dates, should be checked against his service record at Kew if there is any doubt as to whether the details all refer to the same man.
Unit Records: War Diaries
A soldier's medal records normally only give his regiment or corps. To trace his actual unit, e.g. the battalion in an infantry regiment, the brigade and/or battery in the Royal
Artillery, the company in the Royal Engineers or Army Service Corps, you may need more information from family sources such as letters home, or his pay-book (AB 64) or discharge papers if these have survived in the family. Infantry battalions are normally included in the medal rolls in WO329 but not always on the medal index cards.
Each unit serving in a theatre of operations abroad was required to keep a daily War Diary on a special form, Army Form C 2118. These were normally kept by the unit's adjutant or another junior officer, although for smaller units they were kept by the commanding officer. They were maintained in duplicate, normally written in indelible pencil, and once a month one copy would be sent to the Adjutant-General's Office at the Base, Rouen. These latter copies have survived and are at Kew in class WO95. The other copies were retained by the unit, and some of these survive in regimental museums.
The stated purpose of keeping a War Diary was to compile a contemporaneous record from which, in due course, the history of the campaign could be written, and indeed the Official History was written with reference to these diaries (as well as other sources). For this reason, and also bearing in mind that it was often compiled late at night, sometimes after a full day's fighting, it contains little information on individual soldiers. The comings and goings of officers (including casualties) are usually recorded individually but it is rare indeed to find other ranks mentioned by name. A notable exception is for gallantry awards, as mentioned above. War Diaries normally begin on the first day of disembarkation so information on the unit's training and service in the UK is only given in rare cases.
The sequence in which WO95 is kept follows the "order of battle." This means that units and formations in France come first, then those in Italy, then those in Gallipoli, and so on through the remaining theatres of operations. Within each theatre, records of General Headquarters (GHQ) and attached units come first, then those of Armies and attached units (France only), then of Corps and attached units, then of Divisions. In the latter case, the divisional HQ diaries come first, then those of divisional troops (i.e. arms other than infantry), then those of each infantry brigade (HQ, four battalions, and usually a machine-gun company and a trench mortar battery). Records of Canadian, Australian, Indian and other overseas formations come after those of the corresponding British corps and divisions within the relevant theatre.
War Diaries of headquarters and units on the Lines of Communication (the rear area behind the fighting troops, as far back as the ports) are shown after those of the divisions in the relevant theatre. These are mainly hospitals and other medical units, the railway service, base depots and workshops, and the offices of the Base Commandants and staff at the ports.
Some War Diaries are incomplete, especially for the period of the German 1918 Spring offensives when some units were completely over-run in a matter of hours, and records of units attached to GHQ, Armies, Corps and the Lines of Communication may also be incomplete or even missing entirely.
British Regiments 1914-18 by Brig E A James (Samson Books, 1978) gives a brief summary of the locations in the UK in which each cavalry regiment and infantry battalion served, and the brigades and divisions to which they belonged thereafter. The movements and major actions in which each division served are listed in Order of Battle of Divisions by Major A F Becke, reprinted in the late 1980s by Sherwood Press, Nottingham (Parts 1 and 2A) and Ray Westlake Military Books of Newport, Gwent (Parts 2B, 3A and 3B). It is possible that your local library might have copies or could get them for you through the inter-library loan service.
Becke also gives details of which units comprised each division at various times, but it may be easier to get this information from the National Archives website by searching or browsing the index to class WO95. Alternatively, if you are already at Kew, the last few files in class WO95, numbers 5467 to 5500, contain detailed and indexed Orders of Battle for each of the theatres of operations, normally at intervals of about one month. A copy of the edition of November 1918 for France has also been published by the Imperial War Museum. These should enable you to trace the formations in which your ancestor fought at various times, which in turn will help to narrow down your search of the rest of the WO95 class index.
As indicated above, these may contain copies of the duplicate War Diaries, and various lists of men serving in units, especially when first raised. Addresses and contact details (including e-mail) for most of them are given in "A Guide to Military Museums" by Terence and Shirley Wise (published by Terence Wise, Knighton, Powys, 10th Edition 2001). "The Location of British Army Records" by Norman Holding (published by the Federation of Family History Societies, Birmingham) gives a brief summary of the records held at museums and other places such as County Record Offices. The latter booklet, plus others on WW1 army ancestry, are available to WFA members from our Commodities Officer: see the online shop on this website, or the latest issue of the WFA Bulletin.
However, do bear in mind that most museums are run by only one or two staff, on a shoestring budget, and the curator often has to combine the job with being secretary of the Regimental Association. Some museum staff are very helpful but they do not have the time or resources to undertake research for you, so a pre-arranged personal visit is necessary, or they may be able to give you the name of a local professional researcher.