My Tommy’s War: One year in

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It is one year since we launched our My Tommy’s War series of blogs, following members of our staff as they discover First World War ancestors. The aim of this series is twofold – to help our staff research and chronicle the experiences of their ancestor and in doing so, help our readers navigate the First World War records of The National Archives and other institutions.

The story so far

The response to our blogs about our ancestors has been overwhelming. The first blog ‘An Eastender in the Lancers’ back in November 2012 attracted over 55 comments – the most we have ever received for any blog. This was our first inkling of how popular the stories of our ancestors would be for our readers. We have heard stories of a diverse bunch of men, from city lads to small town boys; a bell ringer to a brickie; mere boys who enlisted before they were of age to a chap well into his forties. We’ve also featured stories of men from all corners of the nation – England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Our researchers have found information about their ancestors in a whole range of records, all of which help to paint a picture of the men they were. In some cases we have been able to go well beyond the battlefields to find out more about the lives of the men before they served and, fortunately for some, their lives when they returned home. At the end of this blog, you’ll find links to our records and external sites that our bloggers have found most useful. The comments for each blog are also a goldmine for researchers. Experts in the First World War, the field of genealogy and in regimental history, have all commented and provided invaluable advice about records beyond The National Archives.

It has been sombre for us all to reflect on the manner in which the men died, but this is a sad fact that anybody researching their Tommy must face. A common thread in our blogs is that men died of wounds sustained in battle, but among our ranks, we also have a man gassed in France who died in a hospital in Carlisle and a merchant seaman who died when his ship went down. Unusually, and with the exception of the merchant seaman, all of our Tommy’s have graves. In that respect, unlike many others, we are fortunate.

So what now?

Some of us will be providing updates on our research to give more advice and to let you know what more we have found out about our ancestors. I will be writing an update in August 2014; the anniversary of my great great uncle’s death. I don’t want to give too much away, but through the blog, I have been contacted by people whose relatives knew him and people who have been able to share accounts of him in personal diaries. I also now know the exact circumstances of his injuries and subsequent death. Without this blog, I would never have found this out. From a personal point of view, I would encourage everyone to get involved with initiatives over the next five years to share your ancestor’s story. You never know what you might find out.

My Tommy’s War will continue throughout the next five years. We will share new stories and recap on the men you already know. We have some thrilling and intriguing stories to share. We are opening the page on our histories to help you discover more about the men in your own black and white photos.

Research advice

Some key record series of The National Archives that we have explored are:

  1. WO 95 Unit War Diaries
  2. WO 372 Medal Card Index
  3. WO 329 Medal Rolls
  4. WO 153 General WW1 maps
  5. WO 339 Officers service records

External websites with useful information

  1. for surviving service and pension records
  2. and for census
  3. Commonwealth War Graves Commission


  1. David Matthew says:

    I am fortunate in having both of my grandfathers surviving the war but that doesn’t mean I know everything, in particular how one of them served in the Battery divisions of the Royal Artillery ended up in the Catering Corps, if MOD released his file from the ‘inter-war years’ it would help. I would add that PIN 26 (First World War pensions files) are useful and which can include copies of papers from the War Office files and could, in theory, include papers from the files that were destroyed by German bombing in 1940. A large number of men suffered both physically and psychologically from their experiences for years.

    I do feel that we should not forget that a number of women suffered from illness or deaths in the munitions factories (see Treasury files), both from filling the shells but also from Zeppelin attacks.

  2. John says:

    Thanks for this, Caroline, I’ve really enjoyed this series of posts.

    Is there any indication of when WO95, the unit war diaries, will be available online? I understand the digitisation is complete, and what a major undertaking it was, so I am really excited by the prospect. It’s not easy for me to get to Kew, so I am sure to purchase access as soon as these are available.

  3. […] The National Archive website as a whole has some of the best records for searching online. Of particular help are the British Army War Diaries from 1914-22, the medal index and the medal rolls. There is a link to all the most useful resources in this blog post […]

  4. […] The National Archive website as a whole has some of the best records for searching online. Of particular help are the British Army War Diaries from 1914-22, the medal index and the medal rolls. There is a link to all the most useful resources in this blog post […]

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