1914–1938

Trac­ing an­ces­tors from the First World War has been helped by digi­ti­sa­tion, but hin­dered be­cause many records were de­stroyed in 1940

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - ARMY ANCESTORS -

Nearly 9 mil­lion men and over 57,000 women served in the Bri­tish Army dur­ing the First World War. It was by far the big­gest of the armed ser­vices and for the first time in Bri­tish his­tory al­most ev­ery­one ei­ther served or had a close rel­a­tive who did.

Nearly a mil­lion Bri­tish and Em­pire sol­diers were killed, mainly on the muddy bat­tle­fields of France and Flan­ders but as far away as East Africa, Me­sopotamia, Pales­tine and Rus­sia. New tech­nol­ogy such as tanks, gas, barbed wire and de­vel­op­ments in the tac­tics of ar­tillery and ma­chine guns meant that sol­diers had to over­come great ob­sta­cles be­fore fi­nal vic­tory in Novem­ber 1918.

Trac­ing what a sol­dier an­ces­tor did can be com­pli­cated be­cause so many sol­diers’ records were de­stroyed dur­ing the Blitz in 1940. It’s gen­er­ally reck­oned that only 40 per cent of the ser­vice records sur­vive.

The First World War cen­te­nary has re­sulted in the digi­ti­sa­tion of a huge range of records, from the sur­viv­ing sol­dier’s ser­vice and pen­sion records (most were de­stroyed in the Sec­ond World War); Medal In­for­ma­tion Cards; Medal Rolls; War Diaries for the ma­jor fronts; and lists of sol­diers who died in the war taken from pub­lished books.

Records for of­fi­cers, such as they are, are harder. Al­most all of­fi­cer records were de­stroyed in 1940 and what re­mains are re­con­structed files based on cor­re­spon­dence about them. As a re­sult the files at TNA, in se­ries WO 339 and WO 374, which are not on­line, range from (lit­er­ally) three pieces of pa­per to reams of ma­te­rial con­nected to later pen­sion queries or, all too trag­i­cally, the sort­ing out of their es­tate when killed – or (some­times grue­some) med­i­cal boards held af­ter they were wounded.

Fol­low­ing the war there was a pe­riod in which the army was obliged to pro­vide a gar­ri­son in Ger­many’s Rhineland while it fought a se­ries of small cam­paigns in the af­ter­math in Ire­land and Me­sopotamia (now Iraq), against Afghanistan and in Rus­sia where civil war raged.

Thou­sands of sol­diers re-en­listed tem­po­rar­ily in 1918/19 to help fill a gap left and most of these sol­diers will have served af­ter 1920. Records of sol­diers serv­ing af­ter the end of 1920

(the cut off-date for re­lease of army ser­vice records to TNA) can be ob­tained from the Min­istry of De­fence. Ap­pli­ca­tion can be made to have records of ser­vice per­son­nel who are still liv­ing opened with their au­thor­ity or, if de­ceased, you are next of kin. Other ac­cess is pos­si­ble de­pend­ing on when they died. Full de­tails and how and where to ap­ply, com­plete with rel­e­vant forms is on­line ( gov.uk/get- copy-mil­i­tary-ser­vicere­cords/over­view).

Thank­fully, apart from the oc­ca­sional scare, the army wasn’t called upon to un­der­take much ac­tive ser­vice again un­til 1939 and con­cen­trated on mod­erni­sa­tion. Tanks re­placed horses, lor­ries re­placed horse-drawn wag­gons. The Bri­tish army was far more mech­a­nised than the Ger­man one when the Sec­ond World War broke out. The Ter­ri­to­rial Force was dis­banded and re­formed as the Ter­ri­to­rial Army (TA), still part-time vol­un­teer sol­diers who trained in the evenings and at week­ends. Though ini­tially starved of funds in post-war de­fence cuts, by the sum­mer of 1938, buoyed by new re­cruits, the TA was big­ger than at any time af­ter 1920 and be­ing is­sued new equip­ment.

Most Yeo­manry units re­placed their horses with ar­moured cars. Other units re­trained as search­light and anti-air­craft units. The Mu­nich Cri­sis of Septem­ber 1938 saw 58,000 Ter­ri­to­ri­als called up to man an­ti­air­craft guns around Lon­don and thou­sands more men were re­cruited. TA units trained along­side Reg­u­lar Army units at their sum­mer camps in 1938 and 1939 be­fore go­ing to war with them in the au­tumn of 1939.

Bri­tish army troops in the trenches of the Western Front dur­ing the First World War Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are?

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