From the office: First World War research

By steveharnell, 9 January 2014 - 12:58pm

Production Editor Steve Harnell goes on the hunt for his First World War ancestors

Thursday 9 January 2014

Steve Harnell, Production Editor
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Now that 2014 is well underway, I'm sure I'm not the only person who has turned their attention to the First World War with their family history research.

With a plethora of females in my family tree, surprisingly I could only track down three members who actively served in the Great War.

The good news though is that they all survived. The less than satisfactory flipside is that details about where they served is frustratingly scant. My research has thrown up as many questions as answers – you've all been there, too, right? Getting immersed in the fine detail has proved difficult as I’ve tried to nail down exact locations where my ancestors fought. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the introductions. My great grandfather on my mother's side, Percival Dray served as a Corporal in the Welsh Regiment. Ancestry has his Medal Rolls Index Card although this just states that he was awarded the Victory and British Service medals. Everyone who survived the war was awarded those, so that's not particularly big news. As his index card doesn't tell me which battalion he was in, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where he served during the war.

As a general overview, the British Army in the First World War numbered an imposing 8.7 million. This was drawn from throughout the home countries plus the Commonwealth, including Canada, Australia and South Africa. Of the overall total, there were almost Welsh 273,000 soldiers.

When war broke out on 4 August 1914, the Welsh Regiment consisted of 1st and 2nd Battalions, in India and at home, respectively. The main theatres of war for the Welsh Regiment were France and Belgium although some served elsewhere.

As the war progressed, the number of battalions in the Welsh Regiment grew to 34 – 19 served actively overseas at a cost of nearly 8,000 officers killed outright or who later died of their wounds or illness.

For those of you out there with more details to work with, then The Welsh Experience of the World War One ( could prove to be an invaluable resource. This huge project is being led by the National Library of Wales and records are searchable by details including names and keywords. Records include newspapers and diary entries enabling family historians to learn about soldiers on the front line as well as the impact of the conflict on Welsh society back home.

You may also want to take delve into the Welsh Newspapers Online web resource in its beta version form at to find out more about your First World War ancestors. The beta site currently lets you search and access over 420,000 pages from 40 newspaper publications generally up to 1910 and was due to grow to more than one million pages as more publications were added by the end of last year.

On my father's side, there's my great grandfather Ernest John Harnell. His Medal Rolls Index Card seems to indicate that he served in both the Devonshire Regiment and the Somerset Light Infantry. Is this unusual? Perhaps some readers could enlighten me further. Ernest’s brother Harry was in the Hampshire Regiment. I've found that he joined up when he was 22.

There were a total of 25 battalions raised in the Devonshire Regiment for the First World War. They fought on the Western Front, in Italy at the battles of the Piave and Vittorio Veneto, Macedonia, Egypt and Palestine and Mesopotamia.

The 9th (Service) Battalion was one of the few British units to reach its initial objectives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This wasn't without severe cost to the regiment, though, as 463 soldiers were killed or wounded out of a total of 775 men who went over the top. Only one officer remained unwounded. The 2nd Battalion was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for its gallant defence of Bois des Buttes on 27 May 1918, the first day of the Third Battle of the Aisne.

The Somerset Light Infantry saw active service in the war with battalions involved on the Western Front, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Palestine. Altogether, 18 battalions existed during the war. One of the new battalions was formed by the conversion of the West Somerset Yeomanry, a Territorial Force Cavalry Regiment; the rest were formed by the duplication of the existing Territorial Force units or by the formation of new "service" battalions.

In terms of medals, like Percival Dray, Ernest and Harry both received the Victory and British Service Medals. So no war heroes then – at least not officially.

After the war, Ernest John Harnell became a butter, fish and fruit dealer in Fore Street, Taunton. I've found a bankruptcy listing in the Edinburgh Gazette which in turn reprinted details from the London Gazette of his bankruptcy in March 1928. He survived the war, but survival in business obviously proved to be rather more tricky.


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From the office: New Year's resolutions
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From the office: Why I love family history
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