Looking Back: Tracking down your WW1 ancestors

On the War Path. Lancaster
On the War Path. Lancaster

The centenary commemorations of the First World War have prompted many people to try to find out more about their relatives’ war record.

Lancashire County Council has been helping residents unearth their stories, here the authority’s community heritage manager Fiona McIntyre offers tips on how to get started.

Many people have questions about their First World War ancestors.

As part of the centenary commemoration events for WWI, Lancashire County Council’s community heritage team has been running a series of WWI family history surgeries in libraries for people interested in finding out about what their ancestor did during this time period.

Some are looking for ancestors who lost their lives in the war while others want information on an ancestor who survived. In the latter case, the most common problem is that they were reluctant to talk about their experiences when they returned home.

Some researchers have very little information and are starting from scratch to find out about their ancestors. Others may have already discovered a lot of information but are looking to see if there is anything else to find out.

In most cases, it is possible to find out more; either records from websites such as Ancestry Institution or the contact details of other organisations that may be able to help in their search. Participants are shown how to access these sites so that they can continue on their own if they want to.

It can be quite daunting when you want to start to research your ancestor. Although there is a lot of information available, it can be difficult to know where to start.

It is best first of all to check if there is already some information in the family relating to your WWI ancestor. It can be in the form of certificates, photographs, medals and badges, discharge papers or other documents. You may have dog tags or a ‘Dead Man’s Penny’.

If your ancestor was in the armed forces these are some questions that could help you find out more.

Do you have essential information relating to your ancestor such as their name, their date of birth or year of birth and where they lived? If the answer is yes then you can use this information to search family history websites such as Ancestry to find out if there are any military records. Access to Ancestry Institution is free in any Lancashire County library or at the Lancashire Archives. If you don’t have this essential information then you can use this site’s key records such 
as indexes to births, marriages and deaths as well as Census returns to find this information out.

Do you have any information relating to your ancestor’s service history such as their regiment, battalion or their service number? These are extremely useful in matching up military records on sites such as Ancestry, who have information on service records, medals and awards and pension records. Unfortunately many of the service records were destroyed in WW2.

It is useful to note that records of survivors may be kept with the regiment they served in.

As well as Ancestry, sites such as the National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) can give information on what medals were awarded.

Did your ancestor survive the war? If the answer is no then there are other useful records and sites that you can use such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (www.cwgc.org).

If you want to find out more about specific aspects of the war and your ancestor, regimental histories can be found at various sites including the Long, Long Trail (www.1914-1918.net) and sites dedicated to specific regiments.

Most resources are available to access free of charge through Lancashire libraries and the Lancashire Archives and a collection of links to WWI research and information sites can be found in Lancashire County Council’s digital Library (www.lancashire.gov.uk).

For more information contact ch.enquiries@lancashire.gov.uk.