Tracing ancestors, a users guide

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by ugly, Dec 6, 2011.

Welcome to the Army Rumour Service, ARRSE

The UK's largest and busiest UNofficial military website.

The heart of the site is the forum area, including:

  1. ugly

    ugly LE Moderator

    Folks whats needed on this board is a good stickie with advice and guidance for researching relatives records from the wars.
    Can we get one set up please with step by steps so I can send enquirers to look and learn?
    • Excellent Topic Excellent Topic x 3
    • Like Like x 2
  2. OK I'll make a start.
    Researching WW1.
    Probably the best place to start for advice is by registering with the Great War Forum. They are very knowedgeable and hepful, but they also do this voluntarily, so remember to say please and thank you and you won't go far wrong (occasionally people don't ask nicely and they get short shrift because they got off on the wrong foot).
    Before even posing a question I would advise following the links to the Long Long Trail website where an awful lot of questions about the British Army, Navy and Air Forces can be answered for you. Please take the time to read through and it will help you to avoid asking bone questions where the answer is staring you in the face.
    Good hunting!

    Good online resources:
    Ancestry - for WW1 military records, census and civil BMD type archives.
    FindMyPast - Similar to Ancestry
    National Archives

    All these either cost for membership or you have to pay direct for records.
    Occasionally Ancestry and FindMyPast (like during Remembrance week or over Christmas) allow free access for short, limited periods, but you have to drop lucky or keep your eyes peeled for offers. These are usually flagged up on the Great War Forum, so that's another good reason to register.

    Edited to add:
    Some libraries allow free access online to Ancestry 'Library version', which is limited and sometimes slow but you might be able to get the set of records you need for nothing.
    • Like Like x 4
  3. oldbaldy

    oldbaldy LE Moderator Good Egg (charities)
    1. Battlefield Tours

    There you are Ugly.

    Guys, keep it relevant.

    Anyone seeking information on a person or unit should still start a new thread and leave this for research hints only
    • Like Like x 1
  4. Happy to contribute as a partwork, and happy to be corrected

    This is really about WW1 soldiers; it also comes with a caution that I once traced lots of soldiers but these days I don’t, so some of this may be OBE.


    Establish what it is you know as facts – name, rank, number, regiment – from medals, letters, photographs, etc. Be cautious about family legend or jumping to conclusions.

    This does not mean you should ignore what the family say but e.g. someone having a military medal can become someone having ‘the Military Medal’. Don’t assume that because he was from Loamshire he served in the Loamshires, or that a picture of him on a horse means he was in the cavalry. Remember that many soldiers served in several different regiments. Most of all, remember that army records were intended to allow the army to conduct its business, not for future genealogists.

    Personally, I would approach things slightly differently based on two questions –

    Died or survived? Officer or other rank?


    The obvious starting point is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. The ‘Debt of Honour’ register is primarily intended to record where/how casualties are commemorated. Some entries may include additional information about families, etc.

    The second important source is ‘Soldiers Dies in the Great War’ (SDGW), compiled by the War Office. This is available on ‘Ancestry’ and many public libraries hold/can get a copy on CD. It generally contains slightly more detail than CWGC, in particular place of birth, residence and enlistment, but no details of commemoration. Be cautious – place of birth is what the soldier told the army on enlistment, place of residence ditto, and place of enlistment is, in some cases, probably more accurately place of approval.

    The last is important for men in technical trades e.g. many ASC MT drivers have their place of enlistment given as ‘Grove Park’, which was the ASC MT depot, despite having ‘enlisted’ elsewhere – it’s where they approved for service as MT drivers. This becomes particularly important for men who transferred to technical trades from the infantry – in many cases they were discharged and immediately re-enlisted in their new corps. So a guy who enlisted into the Loamshires in Loamton in 1914, subsequently transferred to ASC as a MT driver, and was subsequently killed will appear as having enlisted in Grove Park. Clear?

    SDGW also distinguishes between ‘killed in action’, ‘died of wounds’, and ‘died’ – together with more exotic ends. KIA generally means killed outright; DOW that the guy entered the casualty system (i.e. made it to the RAP); and ‘died’ covers organic disease, accidents, etc, etc. But don’t take it as gospel.

    There are slight differences in the criteria for inclusion on CWGC and SDGW – not unusual to find a man on one and not the other.

    Accuracy? Very high, in particular for CWGC, but given the number of casualties mistakes do happen. CWGC will change their registers if you have proof of the error.

    More to follow
  5. Gather as much info of the person to be researched, i.e name rank number, unit theatres etc.

    Google units and see if they have a museum, which may hold records of the individual and/or theatres of ops and background info. (Where they trained before being deployed, order of battle, regimental histories etc. Some units were amalgamated)

    You could as suggested above use the online resources, or could employ a researcher to check them at Kew. This often works out cheaper if you live some distance away, as they live locally and as they do it often will have a better idea where to look.
  6. Some of the more friendly members of the Great War Forum have been known to do look ups at Kew as a favour. It depends whether they're already going and if the man concerned is from the regiment they're researching. There's also a list on the Great War Forum of people who hold copies of war diaries and are prepared to send extracts on request. You'll have to search on the forum for that thread.

    Further to asking questions... If you can post everything you do already know with your question, it avoids about a dozen questions from the members going back and forth to winkle what information you have, out of you before they can research further. Make it easier for them and yourself by putting everything you know in the first post in the thread and save a lot of hassle.

    Here's another good link. It's a chap called Geoff who very kindly set up a search engine to look for criteria outside the CWGC standard search boxes. You can search for unit or home town or specific dates. It's now only available for WW2 as the WW1 search engine went offline because of changes to CWGC records which meant it wouldn't work properly and Geoff took it down. Damn shame as it was very useful.
    Here's Geoff's various search engines:

    Geoff's Great War Pages

    Here's a direct linky to Geoff's WW2 search engine of CWGC records

    If you have time and access, do not overlook local sources.

    Local newspapers - it is amazing how much information is available about men enlisting, home on leave, wounded, casualties, etc. You even find soldiers' letters home being printed. The problem is the sheer slog involved in looking through several years of papers for one man. It probably works best for small towns and rural areas - the newspaper is likely to be weekly and there's simply fewer names to plough through.

    Some local papers are available online

    British Newspaper Archive | Home

    and many local libraries have access to The Times archive.

    Many localities, firms, schools, etc produced rolls of honour - some of these simply list the dead, others list all those who served with short bios. Local libraries are a good start.

    War memorials - hmmmm. Generally speaking war memorials were private ventures by a local council, parish, school, etc - there was no set criteria for who was included, simply what the group concerned decided. This means that a man may be missing from the 'obvious' memorial; on the other hand he may appear on two or more. I know of parish memorials which carry the names of men who emigrated pre-war and died serving in the Canadian or Australian units but lack the names of men who enlisted into the British army from that parish. So don't obsess about memorials. But the occasion of their dedication often prompted details of the men named to appear in the local paper.

    More to follow
  8. jim24

    jim24 Book Reviewer

    • Like Like x 1
  9. Ok can you get service records from the MoD if you have the death cert of the person you wish to trace but no service no?
  10. Is this for WW1 service?
  11. oldbaldy

    oldbaldy LE Moderator Good Egg (charities)
    1. Battlefield Tours

    Ministry of Defence, Making a Request for Information held on the Personnel Records of Deceased Service Personnel

    This is for persons who served after 1920 for the Army and 1926 for the RN.

    Records prior to that are available at Kew:
    Looking for records of a British army soldier after 1913 | The National Archives

    Or, as Barking Spider says, on one of the paid for sites who have transcribed the records. You should be aware though, 80% of Army records were destroyed in the Blitz and a high proportion of those that survive are water and/or fire damaged.

    The largest single collection of records for WW1 soldiers are those recording the entitlement to campaign medals. These are in two parts – the actual rolls compiled by the various record offices and the ‘medal index cards’ (MIC) which, oddly enough, provide an index to the rolls. MICs are available on-line, the rolls are not.

    If a man wasn’t entitled to campaign medals then he will not appear in these records. If he was entitled, then the records will show the regiments and corps he served in from the point he first earned a campaign medal; they will not show the regiments and corps he served in before going overseas. One further twist - ORs were issued campaign medals automatically, officers had to apply. Some didn’t, so will appear in the rolls but there will be no MIC (my understanding is that the rolls were prepared to show entitlement, MICs were produced when the medals were actually issued and were, among other things, used as the authority for the names and details stamped on the medals).

    Their interpretation is not always easy – as others have said there are nice folk at GWF who will help, although one of the nicest and most knowledgeable gave up when he realised some of those tracing ‘Great Uncle Arthur’ were actually medal dealers after free research. And there always exceptions to the rules. What follows is general guidance for those who fancy giving it a go.

    So how do you find a MIC online? There are two ways I use – The National Archives (TNA) website or ‘Ancestry’. On TNA the index is free, but it costs £2 to see an image of the card; on ‘Ancestry’ the index and the images are included in the basic subscription. The indexing on Ancestry is probably not so good as TNAs, and some of the corps and regiments given are quite bizarre. I’ll do a separate piece on the basics of reading MICs.

    What’s on the rolls that’s not on the MICs, and vice versa?

    As general rule, the most useful thing about the rolls is that they will tell you the battalion a man served in, while his MIC may only give the regiment. The amount of detail on the rolls varies between record offices – so the London Regiment rolls give the dates a man served in a particular battalion, the rolls for the Gordon Highlanders don’t. The rolls of the big corps (RE, RA, Lab Corps) generally won’t ever give a unit, except for men who earned the 1914 Star (‘Mons Star’ if you must); but in that case it’s probably going to be on the MIC anyway.

    More to follow
  13. ugly

    ugly LE Moderator

    I would like a guide for all records but starting with pre WW1 and so on!
    Keep it up lads I am impressed so far.
  14. The Lonđon Gazette
    The first paragraph is unashamedly lifted straight off Wikipedia, most of the rest is mine, but with input from Barking Spider and Charm City.

    What is it?

    The Lonđon Gazette is one of the official journals of record of the British government, and the most important among such official journals in the United Kingdom, in which certain statutory notices are required to be published. The Lonđon Gazette claims to be the oldest surviving English newspaper and the oldest continuously published newspaper in the UK, having been first published on 7 November 1665 as the Oxforđ Gazette. Other official newspapers of the UK government are the Eđinburgh and Bełfast Gazettes, which, apart from reproducing certain materials of nationwide interest published in the Lonđon Gazette, also contain publications specific to Scotlanđ and Northern Irelanđ, respectively.
    In time of war, dispatches from the various conflicts are published in the Lonđon Gazette. People referred to are said to have been mentioned in despatches. When members of the armed forces are promoted, and these promotions are published here, the person is said to have been “gazetted”.

    What is in it of interest to military researchers?

    All promotions of comissioned officers.
    Appointments of senior officers.
    All the Honours Lists (New Years Honours, Queen's Birthday Honours etc). (Though see Charm City's comments below)
    All gallantry awards, from VC down to MiD.
    The award of some other medals, including quite recently LS&GC.
    The award of campaign medals are not included.
    (I have not had too much difficulty looking for new years/birthday honours lists, but have only looked for a couple, in the New Years Honours lists for 1942 and 1943. The second one I did took some time.)

    How do I use this as a research tool?

    The 'Advanced Search' page is very useful, though it does have some shortfalls.

    Date Search
    One of the more useful features is the ability to select an historic event (such as WWI, or the Battle of Waterloo) as one of the search parameters, or you can put in your own chosen dates to search between. Top Tip - If you think you have the exact date, you are probably wrong, the actual date of publication often predates the official date of publication by a few days, so search a week or so either side.
    (It's also worth mentioning that some gallantry awards do not appear in the Gazette until some considerable time later, years in some cases.)

    The three different options here should be self-explanatory. If you are looking for details on Sir Peter de la Billiere and put the words "Peter de la Billiere" in the "With at least one of the words:" box, you will get nearly half a million documents to search through. If you put the same words in the "With all the words:" box, you get seventeen documents, and in the "With the exact phrase:" box, you get eight.
    So, how many entries are there for him? Obviously not half a million, but it's not eight or seventeen either. A quick count tonight shows I've found thirty-two different documents, and I'm sure there's at least a couple missing.

    Inconsistancy of entries
    In some entries, his name is given as Peter Edgar de la Cour de la BILLIERE, in others it is Peter de la BILLIERE, or P. E. de la C. de la BILLIERE, Peter Edgar Delacour de LABILLIERE and P. E. D. de LABILLIERE, then there are the mis-spellings, P. H. de la C. De la Billiere is one such. When you do a search for your relatives, consider all the different spellings and combinations that may have been used, and also bear in mind that some people were known by a forename other than the one which appears on the birth certificate, either within the family, or on subsequent official records.

    Optical Character Recognition
    Two enties, in 1990 and 1993, for DLB shows his name being spelt "BILUERE". When you look at the document, however, it is spelt correctly. It is the software which analyses the picture of the printed page and turns it into text which is at fault. Other documents show his name translated as P EL de lai C de la BILLDERE and Peter Edgar de la C de la BrttiERE. Older editions seem more prone to error in this way. The only sensible way around this is to ensure that you don't use one particular piece of information in every search.

    What do I search for then?

    What you need to do is make several searches using different terms. Apart from searching using a name, the person's Regimental Number (aka Service or Official Number) is useful, and can give alternative spellings. Be aware though that numbers are just as prone to being misread by the OCR software, with 1 becoming, for example ! I i L l [ or ].

    In the case of DLB, a search of 424859 will give the vast majority of pertinant documents. A search using the two different spellings of his surname in the "With at least one of the words:" box will give around 60 documents, many of which are not relevant, but this number is small enough to trawl through manually.

    If it had returned too many documents, repeating the search with the addition in the "With all the words:" box of, in turn the full first name, then just the initial will reduce the number to hopefully something more manageable (and as Charm_City suggests, using the initials with periods and spaces can also help narrow it right down).

    The incorrectly translated spellings can also be used. The key here is making logical methodical searches, and patience, and don't forget you can set the date range. If you know that the person received a particular award or promotion at a particular time, but can't find it by searching their name, you can focus on those particular details and just trawl through the lists for all those awarded/promoted around that time. The lists are set out logically, and it won't take you long to work out how to quickly find the relevant section of the list

    If the London Gazette comes up with a blank, an advanced search with either the Edinburgh Gazette or the Belfast Gazette, might just find what you're looking for, although this is probably a last resort.

    There’s lots of information about reading MICs in GWF, Wikipedia, and elsewhere. I don’t claim to be any more expert than others but I’ve attached some examples with my interpretation – since I don’t want to run into questions of copyright I’ve drawn them rather than reproduced images. I’ve not included various hieroglyphics used to indicate issue, etc. This should give you an idea of what you might find.

    Remember the purpose of these cards and the information recorded on them – to record medal entitlement and issue. To fully understand why they record what they record, you need to understand the criteria for the 14 Star (and clasp), 15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal and Territorial Forces War Medal. Screeds of stuff on GWF, etc. A very, very simplified explanation, as it applies to the army, is:

    . First service in an operational theatre (effectively France) before 22 Nov 1914 and served within range of German guns:

    14 Star with clasp, British War Medal, Victory Medal.

    No service within range of German guns = no clasp.

    . First service in any operational theatre between 22 Nov 1914 and 31 Dec 1915:

    15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal.

    . First service in any operational theatre after 1 Jan 1916:

    British War Medal, Victory Medal.

    . Service overseas but not in an operational theatre:

    British War Medal

    . Pre-war territorial, volunteered for overseas service at outbreak of war, but did not go overseas until after 1 Jan 1916:

    Territorial Forces War Medal, British War Medal, and Victory Medal.

    If anyone wants to produce a better list, please do.


    Cards for the SWB are inclided with those for campaign medals. A SWB card will usually give you a man’s date of enlistment, date of discharge, and the paragraph of King’s Regulation he was discharged under. There’s a list of these on GWF.

    One important thing to bear in mind. A man had to go overseas to earn campaign medals – he did not have to go overseas to be entitled to a SWB.

    Attached Files:

    • MICS.pdf
      File size:
      575.9 KB