Advice on how to carry out research on your local First World War memorial

Posted on on 15 July 2013
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Centenary News contributor Andrew Arnold offers advice on how to find out more about the names on your local war memorial.

Researching the men named on a local war memorial can really help develop the understanding of the part played by a community during the First World War. However, whether a memorial has 20 names or 200, undertaking such research can still be a daunting task.

Whilst many war memorials are positioned in very public and visible locations, others can be less obvious and harder to find. A good starting point for anyone wanting to research a memorial is the Imperial War Museum’s UK National Inventory of War Memorials, which lists all known memorials and can be searched by a number of fields such as location, memorial type, and conflict. 

Before embarking on a project it is also worth checking whether any research has already been carried out. This could have been done by a local history group, someone researching their family tree, or an individual with an interest in a particular conflict. Local libraries or archives are a good starting point for checking this; the research may also be listed on a website such as Roll of Honour or the War Memorial Trust’s War Memorials Online database.

Starting point

The starting point is probably going to be the names listed on the memorial. The level of detail provided on the memorial will influence how easy it is to carry out the initial research. 
Some memorials just show a surname and initial, whilst others may have full names, regiments, and even dates of death. 

The primary source of information about those who died during the First World War is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) database. This provides a number of details about each man, and although the level of information varies, it can include his name, age, regiment, rank, date of death, and which cemetery he is buried in or memorial he is commemorated on. 

The ‘additional information’ field may also provide details of where he or his family were from – useful for verifying whether an entry is potentially the correct match. Handily, search results can also be downloaded into a spreadsheet, which is a useful tool for collating research findings. 

Using the CWGC database is not without its pitfalls. Men with an unusual surname are unsurprisingly the easiest to identify, but more common surnames may result in a number of results that have to be checked manually to try and narrow down the correct entry. In addition the way a name is spelt on the memorial may differ from the recording of the spelling held by the CWGC. 

In some cases a man may not even be listed on the database and sometimes it can be difficult to even establish a link between a name and any connection to the local area. 

The Soldiers Died in the Great War database provides similar information to the CWGC database, but most men also have their birthplace, residence, and enlistment location listed.

Fortunately there are a number of other sources that can also be consulted to try and establish the identity behind the inscriptions and flesh out the details about a man’s life and ultimately his death.

Army records

Many of the official army records from the First World War are available to view at the National Archives in Kew, London. The sources available include service records, pension records, and medal index cards. Service and pension records contain a wealth of information, often including details of a man’s enlistment, family, service (whether at home or overseas), any injuries or illness, and his death. 

Unfortunately around 60 per cent of service records for soldiers who served during the First World War were destroyed during the Blitz, which means that it is pot luck as to whether a record survives or not. 

All men who served overseas in the army should also have a medal index card which can be used to confirm his name, rank, regiment, and medal entitlement. Additional information may include when the person went overseas, their date of death, and sometimes an address that the medals were sent to – useful for linking someone back to the local area. 

Of course a man may not necessarily have served with the army, and information about other services areas (including the Royal Navy, Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force, and Mercantile Marine) can also be viewed at the National Archives.

For those unable to make the trip to London, fortunately the National Archives has digitised many of its records and these can be viewed (for a fee) via their website. Many of these sources are also available to search on genealogy websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past. These websites also have birth, marriage, and census records that can all be used to narrow down information about a man.

Family tree

Using genealogy websites such can also open up another source – descendants or relatives who have included the man in their family tree. These trees are often searchable and allow messages to be sent to the ‘owner’ of the tree; in some cases they may have further information or photos that they may be willing to share.

Some records may be specific to a local area, such as recruitment registers, rolls of honour, war memorial committee or council records, and absent voter lists. Local newspapers can also provide a wealth of information and sometimes even photographs and obituaries of local men who lost their lives. 

School, university, or workplace rolls of honour are also a valuable resource. Many have been digitised and can be found on the internet.

Obituaries may provide details of how, when, or where a man died. Further information about those who served in the army may also be found in battalion war diaries. 

The originals can be viewed at The National Archives; some can also be downloaded via its website and there is an ongoing project to digitise the remainder. The level of information provided in war diaries does vary, and non-commissioned soldiers are rarely mentioned by name, but the diaries can confirm details of the battle or action in which a man died, and provide some context around where he was located or his activities leading up to his death. 

Many battalions and regiments also published histories after the war, sometimes containing a roll of honour, which can be a useful reference source.

Wealth of websites

The power of the internet should not be underestimated, and simply searching for a man’s name may yield some interesting results. There is a wealth of websites dedicated to various aspects of the war, from individual battalions to equipment and battles. 

The Great War Forum is one such resource; it is a forum where users can post their queries for other users to answer. The Long, Long Trail website is also a particularly valuable resource, providing a detailed breakdown of the composition of the army during the war, and the movements of the individual units. 

Finally any publicity that can be obtained can also be beneficial. Local newspapers, online forums, local history groups, or social networking sites can all be used to promote research projects, and may prompt people to get in touch with further information.

Researching a local war memorial can be a rewarding experience. The time it requires will depend on the number of names listed on it and the depth of research that is carried out, but with the focus of the Centenary likely to increase interest in communities’ role in the war, there has never been a better time to start researching.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

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