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