Today The National Archives will be joining the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and members of the First World War Centenary partnership in a Twitter event to mark the one month countdown to the start of the First World War centenary commemorations.
Different organisations will be on hand throughout the day to tweet on a wide range of topics and issues to do with the history of the First World War and the centenary commemorations. At 10.30 (GMT +1) we will be answering questions you have about how to start researching your First World War ancestors. Later in the day, at 16.30, you can join us again to find out more about Operation War Diary and how you can become a citizen historian.
Because research advice can sometimes be more complicated than 140 characters will allow, we’ve addressed some of the more frequently asked questions that we receive in our reading rooms below. If your question isn’t there, join us on Twitter – use @UkNatArchives and #talkingWW1. Also, we will do our best to answer your question on Twitter, but sometimes we may post the reply here and tweet you a link.
So join us on Twitter, using #talkingWW1 to discuss the First World War, our ancestors and the centenary commemorations. What do you know about your First World War ancestor? Where did you find out the information – was it at a local archive, in our collection, or somewhere else? We’d also like to know what the centenary means to you and in what way you plan to mark it.
Frequently asked questions
Q) How do I search for a service record of an ancestor or person of interest?
A) Most First World War service records are available to search online. Please see The National Archives Looking for a Person webpage and select the relevant service (Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines) for links to begin your search. Please note there will be a fee to download online service records. Alternatively you can visit The National Archives in Kew to carry out the searches for free.
Q) Why can’t I find a service record for my ancestor or person of interest?
A) There are many possible reasons for a service record being missing from the online databases. Most commonly, a service record will not survive. About two-thirds of British Army Other Ranks and Non-Commissioned Officers service records were destroyed during the Second World War. Alternatively, records will still be held by the Ministry of Defence as the individual in question will have continued to serve into the 1920’s and beyond, or they re-enlisted at some point after leaving the forces at the end of the First World War. Other more general reasons for not finding a service record will be that the individual stayed at home in a working capacity or they remained in work of national importance; that they were medically unfit; that they had domestic or conscientious grounds for exemption.
Q) I have found a Medal Index Card online. What do I do next?
A) The Medal Index Cards (WO 372) lead into the Official Medal Rolls in WO 329, using the coded entry alongside the various campaign medals listed. The Official Rolls may only give the Battalion or Unit number that an individual served in as additional information to what is on the Index Card. Use Discovery and enter the coded entry next to the Victory or British War Medal. Make a note of the page number and then find the relevant Official Medal Roll reference number. When you view or order the Official Roll, turn to the page number identified on the Index Card to find the entry for the ancestor/person of interest. If the Battalion or Unit number is confirmed in the Official Roll, this will open up the Operational records of research for you, which are generally arranged by Battalion or Unit number.
Q) What are my research options after finding/not finding a service record?
A) The next step after having tried to find a service record is to move into operational records. As many First World War Army service records were destroyed, this is the main research route for many people to gain a perspective of the day-to-day experiences of their ancestors/people of interest. Our main collection includes Army Unit War Diaries (WO 95). These records will break down the day-to-day location and experiences of each Army formation and unit from Battalions up through to General Headquarters. For the Royal Navy, please see Ships Logs and Admiralty Case Files. Please see the following research guides for information on how to search and view operational records of the First World War.:
Q) What records survive for the Merchant Navy during the First World War?
A) There was no official registration of merchant seamen between 1857 and 1913. The Fourth Register of Seamen started in 1913 but entries up until 1917 have not survived. Please see our research guides for Merchant Navy records via the Looking for a Person page.
Q) What records survive for nurses?
A) Please see our various research guides for records of nurses across the different armed services:
Q) My ancestor was conscripted. What does this mean?
A) Conscription (compulsory military service) was introduced in early 1916 to replace the traditional volunteer recruitment policy of the British Army. Men aged 18-41 were liable to be conscripted directly into the Army if they were not working in a reserved occupation (work of national importance). Conscripts had a right of appeal for exemption through local and County Tribunals (Military Service Tribunals). The National Archives has the papers of the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal and sample papers of the Central Tribunal, London. These are either searchable by name or can be browsed online. Some records survive locally but many were destroyed after the war. Please contact your local record office for what might survive locally.
Q) My ancestor might have been a conscientious objector. What are my research options?
A) If in Middlesex, try our online MH 47 collection. If elsewhere across the country, please try the local record office where your ancestor lived. Local newspapers would have covered Tribunal hearings in some detail, so please consider this as a research option.
Q) How do I trace a Courts Martial proceeding?
A) The only Courts Martial proceedings papers to survive for the First World War relate to those soldiers executed in WO 71, and are searchable by name. For Courts Martial registers, which provide the very basic details of official Courts Martial, please see our research guide.
Q) What’s the difference between a Campaign and Gallantry award/medal?
A) Campaign medals are awarded to all service personnel who qualify for a specific award due to length of service in a particular theatre of war or campaign. Gallantry medals are awarded to specific individual soldiers as a result of a gallant or heroic act.
Q) Is a War Diary a personal diary?
A) No. Unit War Diaries, such as WO 95 for the First World War, are from a particular unit’s perspective. Generally, they will record the date, time and location of a unit (Battalion, Brigade etc) and in varying detail, the roles and responsibilities assigned to them at that time. They are not private diaries of specific individuals.