Researching First World War Soldiers

Vis en Artois British Cemetery and Memorial, F...

Vis en Artois Cemetery and Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve now entered over 2,000 names into my database of Portsmouth men killed serving in the Second World War. So far this covers 4 panels of the War Memorial in Guildhall Square, and these are only the men who fought with the Army. I have one more panel of Army names to enter and analyse. And then its on to the Navy, who have about the same number of names again!

The process goes like this – look up the names on the War Memorial (handily transcribed  by Tim Backhouse on Memorials in Portsmouth), enter the names onto my Access Database, then search for them on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Of course, when you start with just initials for forenames, its quite difficult – especially if all you have is ‘A. Smith’, which there are hundreds of – it would take days searching through that to find the right person. Fortunately, quite a few of the names on the CGWG have their house number, road name and area listed – which makes it much easier to find the right person – if you’re looking through a list of 20 or so names, its heartening to find one listed as ‘…Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw’, cos odds are you’ve found your man. But when there are 4 or 5 names, and none of them have any details, its so frustrating – its got to be one of them, surely? But sometimes the sheer number of names can be daunting.

Its going to take some serious research to track down the several hundred men who are remaining elusive – but by using Street Directories, Register Office Records, the 1901 and 1911 Census, and electoral registers, it should be possible to slowly but surely fill out the gaps.

Another problem can be when you enter the name into the CWGC and NOTHING comes up – they must have been a real person, surely? Otherwise why would their names have been put forward for the memorial? The only thing I can suggest is that mistakes were made in compiling the names for the memorial, or perhaps people had different given names – someone registed officially as Harry James, for example, might have been known as Jim, and thus entered on the Memorial as J., and not H.J… it takes a bit of imagination to ferret these things out.

Another difference with researching First World War soldiers, is that it is much harder to trace details of any medals that they won. With the Second World War, more often and not you can find their award listed in the London Gazette. But for the First World War there are just so many, its like trawling through a haystack. You have to use some cunning, such as typing in a mans service number in the search, rather than their name. The problem there, of course, is that prior to 1920ish the Army didnt have an Army-wide numbering system, so if you’re looking for a Military Medal awarded to Private Jones 14532, there might be scores of 14532’s in the Army. Also, whereas many Second World War medal citations have been made available online on the National Archives website, the only information we have for First World War soldiers are their medal cards – relatively spartan in detail.

But on the flipside, one other source we have readily available for the Western Front are the War Diaries. Select War Diaries have been made available on The National Archives, such as the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, which I have been serialising on Daly History for the past few months. Although these rarely mention individual soldiers – especially not other ranks – they do give you the wider picture of what was hapenning day to day. If you know that someone died on a particular day, you can look up what was happening – if they were in the front line undergoing heavy shelling, maybe the man was killed that way. Or if there was a raid and he is listed on a memorial to the missing, he might have been killed in no mans land. Alternatively, if he died somewhere away from where the Battalion was, or on a day when they were not in action, he probably died of wounds or illness in a hospital behind the lines.

Another useful source is the National Roll, a publication produced after the war, the lists not only men who died, but other men who survived. Its not comprehensive – men or their families put their details forward, meaning that only a percentage of men are listed – but none the less, for the men who are included, it is a gold mine of information. Most entries tell you when a man joined the Army, and whether he was a regular, mobilised with the territorial force, volunteered in 1914, attested under the Derby Scheme, or was conscripted. This fact on its own builds up a veritable social history of the manpower situation. Some men have more information than others – most entries tell us where a man fought, if he was wounded, or if he won medals. Some tell very interesting stories – such as the Hampshire Regiment soldier who was captured at Kut, fell ill with Dysentry and fell out of the march to captivity and was left to die on the side of the road; the Sergeant killed in a Grenade accident at a training school in the New Forest; or the Sapper serving with Grave Registration unit after the war who drowned in a Canal. Without these details, they would just be names. But with their stories, we are so much closer to knowing who they were and what they went through.



Filed under Army, Remembrance, western front, World War One

12 responses to “Researching First World War Soldiers

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