The Ultimate Quick Guide to WWI Records

There are a vast amount of World War One records for genealogy available online. Use this quick guide to WWI records to ensure you’ve completed a comprehensive search for your military ancestors.

60% of British Army WWI service records (WO 363) were destroyed by a fire. Surviving records can be found on Ancestry and Find My Past. These WWI records are often referred to as the ‘burnt collection’ or the ‘burnt records’. It’s important to remember that whilst 60% have been destroyed that 60% of the records in their entirety. Some of the surviving records are in fact fragments of a whole service record.

WWI Genealogy Records: Deceased Soldiers

It is usually easier to find records on deceased soldiers than those that survived. More than a million men died serving in the British Empire. WWI records for genealogy include free resources, such as the grave or memorial information located on the Common War Graves Commission (CWGC) website.

There are also lots of different ‘roll of honour’ collections held by both Ancestry and Find My Past. These are best located using the sites’ Card Catalogues. Some ‘roll of honours’ are place specific, others may be related to occupations.

In addition Ancestry holds the UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1929 a valuable WWI record for genealogists – and a poignant reminder of those mourning the loss of a loved one.

WWI Genealogy Records: Surviving Soldiers

Around 2 million soldiers were discharged due to illness or injury with almost 1 million of these applying for a UK Silver War Badge. Similarly 4.8 million British Army Medal Cards are available to search. The details for these are available at The National Archives, on Find My Past and Ancestry but unless you already know your soldier’s service number, it can be difficult to identify which record belongs to your ancestor.

Therefore, searching the British Army WWI Pension Records (WO 634) available via Ancestry’s Fold 3 or (more cheaply) via the Western Front Association is a must! There are also over 1.3 million records held in The Genealogist’s Wounded Soldiers Collection.

There are 5 million WWI Prisoner of War Records available to search too. These are available free on the Red Cross ICRC Archives Online. The site also provides other vital records for WWI genealogy – because it contains information on the internment camps and what life was like within them. Adding historical context is an important part of researching your WWI ancestors.

Find My Past also hold these PoW records and a collection of military hospital records. Again, searching without knowing your soldiers’ regiment or service number can be tricky.

Historical Context WWI Records for Genealogy

Lastly, war diaries are an incredible resource. They are unlikely to mention individuals by name but provide an invaluable tool for tracking your ancestors’ life during WWI. Some diaries are available on Ancestry. However, for a full guide see The National Archives.

I also highly recommend checking out Chris Baker’s website, The Long Long Trail which contains a vast amount of information on different regiments and battles. 

WWI Records infographic explaining where various documents are located
WWI Records at a Glance: Infographic by Natalie Pithers, Genealogy Stories

Asides from the actual WWI records for genealogy purposes, here are some search technique tips:

1. Always Check the Card Catalogue

Both genealogy website giants, Ancestry and Find My Past have an extensive card catalogue. Make sure to search it by title or keyword. Not all the records available show up in the general ‘World War One’ search function. For example, the invaluable Silver Medal Badge records on Ancestry can only be searched by directly selecting the record set from the Card Catalogue.

2. Mix up your search criteria

If an initial search of your ancestors name doesn’t yield any results than try changing tactics. Some records (pensions, soldiers’ effects) may contain details of next of kin. Try searching using the names of your solider’s spouse, parents or children.

Depending on the WWI record type you may also be able to search using regiment name or number. But don’t presume your ancestor was enlisted in a regiment associated with their residence and don’t forget to check Royal Navy and Airforce collections too!

If none of your searches for WWI genealogy records are yielding results than ditch the search engine and browse original records where possible.

3. Cross Reference

Non-military records can still provide valuable clues about an ancestors service. Electoral Rolls indicated my Great-Grandfather was absent from voting during World War One. Despite an unusual surname (Pithers), I couldn’t find his service record and their were multiple Pithers receiving medals.

Railway employment records (available on Ancestry) told me my Pithers had volunteered for service in 1914, and spent to war with the Depot Middlesex Regiment.

Further Electoral Rolls and the 1939 National Register confirmed that he’d survived the war. This meant I could narrow down my search to Pension and Silver Badge Medal records. It also helped me to confirm I had the right ‘Pithers’.

4. Specific Record Sets

There are a whole host of WWI records for genealogy that are relevant to very specific groups of soldiers. For example, registers specific to locations, jobs or unions – such as the British Trade Union Members, Services and Casualties or the London Volunteer Solider records. If you’ve checked the bigger data sets, spend some time scrolling through the smaller record collections. Many of these are available on Find My Past.

5. Newspapers

Newspapers are an invaluable research for the genealogist. Lists of the missing, wounded or killed in action were published throughout the war. There were also news stories featuring letters home and even photographs. Don’t just search papers by name. Try addresses, regiments, regiment numbers, next of kin, work places.

See this guide to using newspapers for World War One research at the British Newspapers Archives Blog.

Note, this article contains some affiliate links. Clicking or purchasing via these links may earn me a small commission.

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