What got you to commence, and to continue, your research?
I tried to research a member of the family who died at the Battle of the Aisne on 18 September 1914. I discovered that most British Army service records for WW1 were destroyed in a fire, so further research was needed, to find out more about his time in the army. I put together a body of research, and sat on it.
When the Imperial War Museum announced in 1914 they would be creating “Lives of the First World War”, I was motivated to add to their website, given that their declared aim is to have ‘a permanent digital memorial that will be saved for future generations.’ I have since expanded my research. Some of that data is recorded on this site, and some of it is also recorded on the “Lives of the First World War” website.
What were your motivations for creating this site?
The aim of the website is to put in the public domain as much data as possible on the South Wales Borderers in 1914. Firstly, this will be of interest to someone trying to research a relative who was in this county regiment. Secondly, the data could be of use to postgrad students wishing to analyse the regiment in 1914. Just how Welsh was its composition? This is a question that Frank Richards asked about his unit, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. By using this data, these questions can be explored.
This may be the first time that someone has put a 1914 Star medal roll into the public domain.
Is it the case that this is simply a copy of the data on the “Lives of the First World War” website?
No. Both have been populated from researched datasets. The birth place data on this site is easy to access, unlike on “Lives of the First World War”. Furthermore, the goal has been to record the dimensions of village, district, county to allow for drill-down analysis. There are further weaknesses of the “Lives of the First World War” website which I aim to address via this website.
How did you go about researching your family member?
First of all I tried to see if his service record had survived the fire, but it had not, so I had to take some alternative action, which I will outline further on.
What is the story with the fire?
The army service records for the First World War were kept at Arnside Street, Walworth, South London. It was quite literally a data warehouse albeit in paper format. During the Blitz in 1940, the warehouse complex was hit by incendiary bombs, and more records were destroyed than survived. As a consequence, these surviving service records (WO 363) are known as the “burnt records”. A contemporary report estimated that only 1.25 out of a total of 6.5 million records had survived, although other sources state 2 million records have survived.
There is another source of service records from this time. Men who were medically discharged from the army were entitled to pension payments. As a consequence some 750,000 service records were kept elsewhere (WO 364).
What did you do to research your family member
The detail that I had was pretty sparse. I knew that he fought in France and died there in 1914. I was able to find his Campaign Medal Index Card (referred to as a “MIC”), his entry on the CWGC site, and an entry in Soldiers Who Died in the Great War.
His service number was 9668. I was able to look for other men whose service numbers were in the 9000 range, and to identify which men had surviving information. The service number can be used to determine when a soldier joined a particular regiment. Amateur historian Paul Nixon has a passion for researching army service numbers. Below is a link to his research on the South Wales Borderers:
Based upon what I saw with other men, it would appear that after basic training, and being garrisoned at Aldershot (with the 2nd Battalion), he joined the 1st Battalion on the Indian sub-continent in 1908, and returned with the battalion to the UK in December 1910. His seven years would have expired in September 1914, were it not for the outbreak of war.
Are there other sources that have subsequently come to light?
I have been able to find him on the 1911 Census, with the rest of the 1st Battalion, stationed at Chatham. To my mind, this suggests that he went to India, came back, and spent the rest of his time with the 1st Battalion. There is also the excellent “Register of Soldiers Effects”, which is held at the National Army Museum, which is available via Ancestry. This confirmed his enlistment date, gave his profession at enlistment, as well as details of the extended family. He was one of the first to die; subsequent entries do not contain the same amount of detail.
How can you determine when a soldier joined a regiment?
If a soldier’s service record has survived, it should state his service number and when he joined the regiment. If a soldier’s service record has not survived, but he was awarded a Silver War Badge, this will state his enlistment date. (If you look at the Silver War Badge medal roll, his age in years and months could be recorded.) These two sources are useful, but you have to determine if his terms of service were as a Regular or a Special Reserve. (There is more detail about this on the page for the 1st Battalion.)
Up to now, the real challenge is making a list of a range of numbers, then trying to identify which men have surviving service records or Silver War Badge records
How does this site help someone researching a family member?
By accessing this site, you can determine what survives for your family member. If there is very little that survives – as in the case of my family member – you may want to identify men with similar numbers who do have surviving service records. This can be done from what I have added to this site.
You made mention earlier of “Lives of the First World War”. What can you find here that is not on LOTFWW?
For starters, it is hard to know which men have surviving Service Records or Silver War Badge medal roll entries, but this can be easily picked off the lists when this site is completed. Secondly, the birth place data, as mentioned earlier, is recorded in a manner to facilitate geographic drill-down. Thirdly, where it is known, the “From” and “To” dates for the theatre of war could allow for analysis of fluctuation in unit strength, with deaths and wounds reducing the 1st Battalion’s strength on the one hand, and drafts of reinforcements increasing the strength on the other.
In addition, the Imperial War Museum has been very cagey about its partnership with FindMyPast on “Lives of the First World War”. The declared aim has been that:
‘ From early 2019 the memorial will become part of IWM’s archive, and will be free to access for research.’
It us currently possible to view the Princess Mary Gift Fund POW Lists at the comfort of home by paying a premium to Gale Cengage. By going to the IWM London Research Room, and using their computers, it is ‘free to access for research.’
Having spent so much time and effort to perform this research, and as copyright owner, I reserve the right to reproduce some of my research on this website and on LOTFWW. It could well be the case that a service provider charges for access to LOTFWW data, or it could be provided free of charge if IWM is somehow able to acquire enough funding. Nonetheless, my intention has been to share my original research, and to augment what I have already, with a view to putting it in the public domain, for researchers to use for non-commercial purposes.
Conversely, what is on LOTFWW that is not to be found on this website?
For starters, the medal roll data contains “From date” and “To Date” for when these men were in France. It is a “flat file”. Where the information is available, subsequent “From date” and “To Date” are recorded, making LOTFWW “multi-dimensional”.
To take the example of those men with 7000 series numbers, for whom a service record has survived, their overseas postings have been recorded for the 3 or so years of their Short Service. It also records their “mini-quarantine” stay at Fort Brockhurst, after their troopship arrived in the UK, before they transferred to the Reserve, and returned to civilian life.
During wartime, men who were wounded have had their wound type, date of wound and hospital recorded in LOTFWW. It should be possible to reconcile this information with the battalion War Diary.
Where known, parents, siblings, spouses and children have been recorded on LOTFWW, invaluable data for genealogists.
The big advantage of looking at data on LOTFWW is that if it has been entered in the correct manner, you can see which source has been attributed to given facts. For instance, a death date and country may have been sourced from CWGC, an age in years and months may be sourced from the service record, the discharge date may be sourced via the Silver War Badge roll, the place of birth may be sourced from the 1911 Census etc. To find information online is one thing, but to be able to tie it back to a plausible source document is another. This does not apply to the source-based LOTFWW platform.
It is hoped that when the data is frozen, it will be possible to access the data via a business intelligence tool, to allow for subsets to be searched, and for subsequent drill-up/drill-down to take place.
You have mentioned sources of information on soldiers hosted by Ancestry and FindMyPast. What other sources are available?
Mention has been made of the Medal Index Cards. They were going to be destroyed by the MOD but The Western Front Association stepped in. They kept these cards, and allowed Ancestry to digitise them. The MOD then decided to destroy their Pension Index Cards. Once more, the WFA stepped in. Below is a link to more details on that resource.
Update: The project to digitise these records commenced at the end of 2018.In addition to these 2 million images, a further 1 million images, pertaining to the ‘deceased serviceman’s card’ element, were made available at the end of September 2019. The cards can be accessed by anyone paying £25 for an annual WFA membership, or $79.95 for a Fold3 annual subscription.
For any men that were in Irish infantry regiments, The National Army Museum has digitised the surviving Description Books, and this can be accessed for free.
A Freedom of Information request in 2014 resulted in a list of service records still held by the MOD for men born before 1900 who served after 1920. It is worth trying to see if your man stayed on and was given a seven digit number. If he is on the list, you can approach the Ministry of Defence. This dataset can be searched via Ancestry.
Alternatively you can download the spreadsheets free of charge, pertaining to those with a date of birth date prior to 1901. I have reproduced some numbers in the “postwar” part of this website.
Are there any unexpected outcomes during your research?
Yes. As an afterthought I decided to research those men who enlisted once war was declared, and made it to the Western Front by November 1914. The demographic of this group shot up. Men with prior military experience, in particular Boer War veterans, did not need to be trained from scratch and were therefore fast-tracked as reinforcements for the 1st Battalion.
The fact that many of these men had prior service meant that some had surviving service records in the WO96 and WO 97 series, even if their WW1 records had been destroyed in the fire in 1940.
I was also able to make use of the South Wales Borderers Description Books, held at Kew, covering the period 1881 to 1897, for some of these older men.