52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 33.
Week 33 – Service
For this week’s blog I make no apologies for moving away from my own family to another centre of research which has become very close to my heart.
Many of us have relatives who served in the British armed forces during the First World War, but anyone who has tried to research these service personnel will be aware of the difficulty posed by the damage and destruction of a significant proportion of contemporary army service records in a fire caused by Second World War incendiary bombing. Those who died are (mostly) recorded on war memorials, and often known to the family, even if details of their service are hazy, but what about those who survived?
For my MSc thesis I looked into various military and civil records which could potentially be used to palliate missing or incomplete service records. I identified a series of possibilities, to which I later added further records which had become available since I finished my degree.
Medal roll index cards
Silver War Badge list
Medical records of servicemen
Pension ledgers/index cards
Soldiers’ effects records
Soldiers Died in the Great War
War Widows' Pensions Forms
Pearce Register of conscientious objectors (No longer available online)
Rolls of honour
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Red Cross POW index cards
Local and national newspapers
1918 absent voters list
GRO index of births, marriages, and deaths
A couple of small caveats here: while all surviving service records and the other military records mentioned above have been digitised and are available online, the majority are only found on one or more of the main subscription genealogy sites. (The originals are held in the National Archives at Kew.) Most of the civilian records mentioned are free, with the exception of newspaper records and the 1911 census: in addition, not all newspapers for the relevant period have been digitised. The 1918 absent voters list is a mixed bag, with some areas available on free sites, others on subscription sites, and others only on microfilm at local archives or libraries.
None of the records listed contains all the information of a complete service record, but I theorised that they could be combined to obtain most or all essential details, ie:
Year of birth
Date of attestation/mobilisation
Age, address, and occupation on enlistment
Initial service number, battalion, and regiment
Final service number, battalion, and regiment
Date of going overseas
Date of discharge; cause if other than demobilisation
Date and cause of death (if applicable)
A theory is all well and good, but now to test it!
I decided to attempt to build a database of all the WWI service personnel I could identify from the area where I grew up: the Heatons district of Stockport. (Due to the time constraints of the degree course, this had to be limited initially to Heaton Chapel, Heaton Mersey, and Heaton Moor.) A great deal of what I needed was contained in the various online sites and databases, but there were two major exceptions: Stockport’s local newspapers and 1918 absent voters list were only available on microfilm at the Local Heritage Library. I found some unexpected gems in several of the sources – one local parish register gave the service number of serving husbands/fathers – but local newspapers proved to be the real treasure trove. Obituaries of fallen soldiers unsurprisingly supplied a lot of information about those who died, but there was also a wealth of information about the living. During the early years of the war, prior to the introduction of conscription in 1916, local churches and organisations proudly supplied the newspaper with lists of their members “now serving in His Majesty’s Forces”, and there were regularly short articles mentioning local men who had been wounded, taken prisoner, or were home on leave, as well as occasional photographs and articles about families with multiple serving members – inevitably entitled something along the lines of “A Patriotic Family” or “Seven Soldier Brothers”. Gallantry awards were mentioned in the local newspaper, and also recorded in the London Gazette.
To cut a long story short, I was able to identify an encouraging number of local servicemen and fill in many of the details I hoped for. I certainly didn’t find every serviceman from the district, but the percentage of the local male population recorded in my database is similar to the percentage of the national population who are estimated to have served in World War I.
After finishing my degree, I created a website to share my database with anyone who might be interested, adding a little local history and some brief statistics. I’d started researching soldiers from Heaton Norris before realising it would be too much in the time available, so I continued with this, and finally decided to add Reddish to the database, meaning that all the five districts which made up the old Heaton Norris township were now covered. The pandemic brought my visits to Stockport to a temporary halt, but I’m hoping to return in the not-too-distant future to continue with the “academic” research which imperceptibly became a labour of love.