Tuesday 21 October 2014

How to find your family's records

Archives shed light on the men and women involved in World War I and what they experienced.

Brian Donovan

Published 17/05/2014 | 02:30

Members of the First Battalion of the Irish Guards hear of the Armistice
An illustration by Harry Clarke in the book ‘Ireland’s Memorial Records’, which gives a record of the men of Irish birth or association who were killed in World War I
The records of Private John Barry, a member of the Royal Irish Regiment, who was killed in action in France on June 26, 1916. The records show his place of birth as Kilkenny. His regiment number was listed as 2534

There are many reasons why you might want to find out more about the men and women engaged in World War I. Most likely you are just trying to shed light on an ancestor or relative and what they experienced. Thankfully, there are many records. Moreover, a lot of work has already been done to make access to this information easier.

First off, a lot of work has been carried out on recording those who died in the war. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains a fairly comprehensive database of graves of soldiers who died, which can be viewed on their website.

A committee was also established in Ireland shortly after the end of the war to do the same for those Irish who died. The result was a massive eight-volume record of the 49,300 men of Irish birth or association who were killed.

Entitled 'Ireland's Memorial Records', it was lavishly illustrated by the artist Harry Clarke. Only 100 sets were ever printed, but thankfully it is searchable and viewable on several websites, including findmypast.ie, irishorigins.com and others.

Neither resource is complete, or always accurate.

The In Flanders Museum is now working with Google and Eneclann to improve these details online. But already Tom Burnell and others like him have been trying to produce definitive details for every county in the country, and have published books for Wicklow, Carlow, Waterford and many others.

Some of this work is available online at findmypast.ie too.

But there is so much more to the history of the war that is not so easily accessible. One of the first resources that is worth looking at are the newspapers from the period. Local newspapers are especially good at reporting the activities and particularly the deaths recorded from their localities. Unfortunately the bulk of Irish newspapers are still not online, although a few are available at findmypast.ie and others at irishnewsarchive.com.

For the lives of the soldiers in general, most will have served in the British military, and like all aspects of the British administration the records are extensive. The principal location for surviving records is the National Archives in Kew. Service records were kept for all soldiers.

However, many of the ones for WWI were destroyed during WWII. These are the service records of those soldiers who were disbanded or demobilised at the end of the war. Out of 6.5 million service records that originally existed, only two million survive. However, this is just one of many sources of information about the soldiers.

There are the service records of another 750,000 men who were discharged for medical reasons prior to the end of the war, or were eligible for a pension because their service came to an end before 1920. Also surviving are the records of awards of medals. Over five million cards survive detailing what medals individual men and women were entitled to.

But you can also bring to life the history of any soldier's experience. All units were required to maintain war diaries detailing what happened day by day during the war. Once you know which units any person was assigned to, you can literally track their progress through the war by using these records. There is much more surviving in the National Archives, too, and their website is an excellent resource to learn more about what they hold, and what is online (nationalarchives.gov.uk).

The premier collection of online records concerning all the men who served on the British side is on the website findmypast.ie.

They have published many of the records from the National Archives in Kew, and also pulled together the records of the Pals Regiments, which were set up to allow young men to serve alongside their friends, work mates, neighbours, team members, or school friends. They have also published many of the records of the army of nurses who operated all over Europe during the war.

But the Irish didn't just serve in the British army, they were also numerous in Australian, Canadian and American forces. Australian Imperial Force Embarkation Rolls record just over 2,000 soldiers who list their next of kin as residing in Ireland. World War I Draft Registration Cards in the US record some 33,000 individuals that list Ireland as either their place of residence or place of birth. These records are also on findmypast.ie.

We are also exceptionally lucky here in Ireland that so many records survive from the War of Independence from both sides. The Military Archives in Cathal Brugha barracks has been digitising and publishing records from the early years of the Free State army online at militaryarchives.ie.

They have published the extensive collection of interviews with participants in the 1916 rebellion and the War of Independence compiled by the Bureau of Military History in the 1940s. Many of those who were active in that struggle were veterans of WWI.

The Military Archives are now working on the extraordinary records of the rebel volunteers known as the Collin papers. Along with the pension and medal files for those who were active during the revolutionary period, the future for access to these records is very exciting indeed. Hopefully the corresponding records of British and Irish soldiers who fought against the insurgents in Ireland will also be published by the National Archives in Kew.

Another exciting project is under way at the Imperial War Museum entitled Lives of the First World War. This online resource seeks to tell the story of everyone involved in the war at livesofthefirstworldwar.org.

They are publishing many resources to help users track the stories of those who fought and all those whose lives were impacted by the war.

I wonder whether we could generate the same sort of project in Ireland, a Lives of the Revolutionary Period perhaps, where we could tell the stories of all those engaged in conflict at home and abroad through the tumultuous years of 1914 to 23.

Brian Donovan is CEO of Eneclann Ltd and Business Development Director of findmypast Ireland


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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