12 best websites for tracing British First World War soldiers

Phil Tomaselli picks out the best websites for uncovering your ancestors' service in the Great War as David Walliams did in his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

British Forces Celebrate Christmas In Venray, Holland, 24 December 1944

David Walliams discovered the tragic fate of his great grandfather John George Boorman, who suffered from shell shock after fighting in World War One, when he appeared on Who Do You Think You Are?

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John’s heartbreaking story brings to life an episode of history that is sometimes overwhelmed by numbers. Nearly nine 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.

1. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

CWGC

Jodie Whittaker users this resource to find out where her relative Walter Clements was buried. The website records all Commonwealth war dead from the two world wars, usually with details of the unit they fought in and, frequently, details of next of kin. As Jodie Whittaker discovered, it is invaluable for locating graves or memorials.

2. The National Archives

TNA

TNA has a First World War Research Guide that includes copies of the Medal Cards; service records of British Army nurses and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps; War Diaries for units serving in France and Belgium, Mesopotamia, Iraq and Persia, East Africa, Cameroon and West Africa; Household Cavalry service records; and Prisoner of War interview reports.

3. Ancestry

Ancestry

Here you’ll find Medal Cards (available free); surviving service and pension records; medal rolls; Silver War Badge records; War Diaries for France, Belgium and Germany and Gallipoli; lists of medal recipients (some with citations); the Register of Soldiers’ Effects; and rolls of honour.

4. Findmypast

Findmypast

Has Medal Card transcriptions; the surviving service and pension records of men who served; details of some locally recruited Pals Battalions; rolls of honour from schools, universities and employers as well as specially published ones; lists of deserters from The Police Gazette; Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps service records; details of some prisoners of war; and copies of some absent voters rolls saying where men over 21 were serving in 1918.

5. Forces War Records

Forces War Records

Transcriptions of a variety of records including casualty and POW lists; school, university and company rolls of honour; Territorial Force Medal rolls; and Embarkation Lists. The transcription of military hospital records is currently unique.

6. The Long, Long Trail

Trail

The best site on the First World War British Army. Contains no actual records but explains what they all are, how to find and understand them and has links to other useful sites. It also has the most complete list of surviving absent voter rolls available.

7. The International Red Cross

ICRC

Although Jodie Whittaker’s ancestor John Walter Clements volunteered for the Red Cross, the information held here is on men captured and missing and is taken from the archives of the International Red Cross. Information on British Red Cross volunteers can be found here.

8. The National Library of Scotland

NLS

Contains surviving lists of army officers, including those covering the First World War.
9. The National Army Museum

NAM

The museum collection explores themes relating to army life through the ages and details its extensive holdings of books, manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia.

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10. The London Gazette

The Gazette

The Government’s own newspaper has been published daily since 1665, reporting on (among other things) appointments and promotions of army officers and medal awards, and is an invaluable resource.

11. The Ogilby Trust

Ogilby Trust

This site has information on all Corps and Regimental Museums in the UK including contact details and website links – many of which themselves have invaluable information.

12. British Battles

British Battles

Although most of its content relates to conflicts from the 18th and 19th centuries, the site is just starting to describe the early battles of the First World War. It does not yet include the Battle of Monchy-le-Preux where Jodie Whittaker’s ancestor was wounded.