Researching the First World War

Can you help? Do you know if you are descended from soldiers on the WWI War Memorial? Do you have any family history research that we can add to our Project? Photographs, census records, addresses, brief family trees etc, will help to expand the record. Many of the less common surnames are familiar to us in Halewood - Pickavance, Leather, Crosby, Harrison, Goulding, to mention a just few that reoccur through the past history of Halewood to the present day.

Cemeteries and Memorials

The battlefields are visited regularly to focus on the local significance of how the war affected Halewood and from the outset it was intended to try to find and visit as many of the graves of the soldiers recorded on the Halewood Port War Memorial as was possible.

This included visits to memorials for the missing, including Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate in Belgium, or the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in France. Those with known graves lie in immaculate cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There are also war graves in St Nicholas' Churchyard, the parish church for Halewood.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC]

The most complete record of soldiers (and others) who died in the Great War is contained in the Debt of Honour Register of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is available online: www.cwgc.org

Information contained in the Debt of Honour Register includes the location of the soldier's grave (or his commemoration, if he has no known grave). Otherwise, information is patchy, being dependent on material supplied (or not supplied) by relatives during and after the war. The Register is also not free of errors.

All the men are recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and we have copies of those files. You may wish to look up a name from the memorial on the website, or try your own surname. The site contains advice on how to narrow your search.

Life on the Home Front

We would like to piece together a record of where the men lived and worked or if they had a family. Some were very young and still living at home with parents and brothers. Where was their house? Are there any photographs of them still in existence? Photographs of their street or workplace?

Census Records

The census is a survey taken by the government every 10 years to collect information on the population of the United Kingdom.

From 1801 to 1831 the censuses were simply head counts with no personal information on individuals recorded (except in exceptional cases). From 1841 personal information on individuals was recorded. The most recent census available to those researching the period of the First World War is 1911 - records must be 100 years old before they are released into the public domain. Detail recorded was as follows;

1901 Census

  • First, or Christian, name
  • Surname
  • Relationship to the head of the household
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Marital status
  • Place of birth
  • If disabled, nature of disability
How to access the Census Microfilm/microfich

Census returns from 1841 to 1901 are held at the Family Records Centre on microfilm/microfiche. The Family Records Centre has various finding aids and street indexes to help you use the censuses to find your ancestors. For information on how to use the 1901 census online service, or microfiche service at the FRC, see the FRC census research pages.

The National Library of Wales has copies of the census from 1841 to 1891 for the whole of Wales.

If you are outside of the UK, you should find copies of censuses at your nearest Family History Centre, run by the Mormon church.

Census Records Online

The 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses for England and Wales are available online

at www.nationalarchives. gov.uk/census The censuses have been fully transcribed.

www.familysearch.org has a facility for searching the 1881 census.
You can also purchase CD-Roms with a name index to the 1881 census. Pay sites such as Ancestry.co.uk and Find My Past also have complete sets of Census records available for download.

Regimental History

Many regiments have regimental histories which detail campaigns they have been involved in, such as Graham Maddock's classic Liverpool Pals.

The recommended volume for Cheshire is History of the Cheshire Regiment in the Great War by Arthur Crookenden.

Many infantry regiments and battalions also have published histories. A list of these may be found on the Centre for First World War Studies' website (University of Birmingham) on the 'Books About the Great War' page: click on 'Unit Histories', then 'British'. For higher, formations, such as Infantry Divisions, click on 'Formation Histories', then 'British'.

Soldiers Died in the Great War

This is a set of 80 volumes entitled Soldiers Died in the Great and Officers Died in the Great War and were originally published in 1921. Soldiers Died are listed in 80 volumes organised by regiment or corps. Local central libraries usually hold either a set or a copy of it on CD-ROM. These lists often give information that is not available in the CWGC Debt of Honour Register, including place of birth, place of residence, place of enlistment and any former regiment. The CD-ROM is also available for sale, but it is rather expensive. (Published by Naval & Military Press).

An online search facility is also available at 1837online.com . This website is primarily for General Births Marriages and Deaths since 1837. The Death records amy be of use to researchers of WW1.
Rolls of Honour

Many businesses, organisations, schools and towns created Rolls of Honour after the war. Many of these are now available on-line - a good start point is here; Roll of Honour.

Soldiers Army Records

All British soldiers who served in the First World War had a personal file. They were moved for safekeeping during WWII, but in September 1940, as the result of a fire caused by an incendiary bomb at the War Office Record Store in Arnside Street, London, approximately two thirds of 6.5 million soldiers' documents for the First World War were destroyed. Those records which survived were mostly charred or water damaged and unfit for consultation and became known as the 'burnt documents'. Those records that survived were released to the National Archives. The original documents were so fragile that only microfilm is available for inspection. Whether an individual soldier's file survived is entirely random.

Officers' files had a higher survival rate. Some 216,000 were released to the National Archives in February 1998. The criteria for release were: that the officer had served in the British Army between 1914 and 1920 and that he had left the Army by 31 March 1922. It is often possible to locate an officer's file on line, by typing the surname into the National Archives Catalogue accompanied by a record class number. Officers' files are mostly contained in record series WO 339 or WO 374 (especially Territorial officers).

The contents of both soldiers' and officers' personal files are unpredictable.
The Medal Index and Medal Rolls

Besides a soldier's (or officer's) personal file the other major source of information is the Medal Card Index, also in the National Archives. This is the most complete listing of British service personnel in the First World War. The National Archives has now completed the digitizing of the Medal Index.

Most soldiers who served with the British Army in the Great War qualified for campaign medals, normally the 1914 (or 1914-15) Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. If all three were awarded, they were commonly referred to as 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred'. If only the British War Medal and Victory Medal were awarded, they were usually referred to as 'Mutt and Jeff'. The Army Medals Office recorded soldiers' medal entitlement in lists known as rolls. The Index Card available on line provides the reference to where the soldier is listed on the Rolls, which are organised by regiment or corps.

The information found on the Medal Card will include the soldier's name, rank and serial number, his regiment or corps, sometimes (but not often) his unit (such as his battalion or Field Company RE), his date of entry into a Theatre of War (uncommon after the end of 1915), his date of death (if he died during the war), the campaign medals he was awarded and the reference numbers that allow the soldier to be traced on the Medal Rolls, which are not available on line.

It is important to check the actual Medal Rolls because they can give extra vital information about a soldier, such as his battalion, that allow further research to be undertaken. This is particularly true of soldiers who served in the cavalry, yeomanry and infantry, but much less so for the larger corps, such as the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and Army Service Corps.

The Imperial War Museum website has further information on the actual medals

War Diaries

Once a soldier's unit has been identified it is possible to find out more about it. All units from battalion level (and the battalion's equivalent in other corps, such as a Field Artillery Brigade) upwards were required to keep War Diaries on active service. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives: Public Record Office, Kew, in record series WO 95. War Diaries rarely mention ordinary soldiers, but they do provide a detailed account of the unit's movements and activities.

Absent Voters Lists

Absent Voters Lists were compiled by local authorities at home. They show the names of soldiers and sailors who were absent from their normal homes because of World War I service. The lists are organised in ward and street order. They are particularly valuable, as they give the man's rank or rating, unit, battalion, ship, etc and his service number. These details are the key to further research on WWI servicemen. In order to find the relevant List you would need to know a person's actual address during the period 1914-18.

Women's Army Auxiliary Corps

You can now search and download the service records of more than 7,000 women who joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (1917-1918), later Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (1918-1920).

Women entered the workplace in greater numbers with the outbreak of the First World War. Some were acting out of patriotism, while others seized the opportunity to do work previously denied to them. The newly-formed Ministry of Munitions was one of the main employers to take advantage of women's willingness to work. At the same time, there was great concern that men who could be fighting on the Front were being used for administrative tasks instead.

This became more worrying in 1916 following the heavy losses on the Western Front and new voluntary services were founded as a response to this. One of these was the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps or WAAC (founded in 1917).
Further Information


The National Archives website contains a mass of useful information about researching Great War soldiers.

The Long, Long Trail - www.1914-1918.net
The British Army in the Great War,

a superb website with an excellent section called Research a Soldier.

See also the Links section on this site for more websites

Further Reading

Essential Reading:

Was Your Cheshire Ancestor in the Armed Forces? Guide Booklet published by Cheshire & Chester Archives and Local Studies, Cheshire County Council(available from Cheshire Record Office - #3.50)

Army Service Records of the First World War by William Spencer(3rd edn., Richmond: Public Record Office, 2001)

World War I Army Ancestry by Norman H. Holding,(Plymouth: Federation of Family History Societies, 1982)

The Location of British Army Records: A National Directory of World War 1 Sources (Plymouth: Federation of Family History Societies, 1984).





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