Tracing ancestors from the First and Second World Wars

An archive photo of a First World War soldiers with some medals

Discover more about your ancestors wartime experience, start with the photos, documents, letters and medals you have within your family - Credit: Ed Phillips/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Katie Heaton of Poole Museum shares her top tips on finding out about the role your ancestors played on the battlefront and on the home front during two world wars    

We will all have ancestors in our family tree who were around during the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939- 1945). If you would like to find out more about family members who served in wartime, either abroad or on the home front, then this feature offers  some useful resources to follow up.

If you have any relatives who were alive during the Second World War, even as youngsters, start by having a chat with them about their memories and experiences. Dig out any old family photographs, documents and letters from that time. It’s also worth speaking to older relatives who may recall stories about family members who experienced either of these World Wars. 

Sadly, it is easier to find out about those who died at war rather than those who returned home. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) ‘honours the 1.7 million men and women who died in the armed forces of the British Empire during the First and Second World Wars and ensures they will never be forgotten.’ A useful starting point is a search of their database cwgc.org

A large gathering of poppies and crosses for Remembrance Day

A large gathering of poppies and crosses for Remembrance Day - Credit: ImageGap/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Finding Second World War ancestors: Service records can contain an abundance of information. They are a vital resource when researching your wartime ancestor and will hold the most detail about individuals. These are held by the Ministry of Defence - you can request a service record if the person is deceased and you are next of kin, have the permission of next of kin, or are researching the individual. There is a fee for this service, apply online at gov.uk/get-copy-military-service-records

If you are unable to obtain a service record, there are other avenues to explore. The 1939 Register is a useful resource. Taken on 29 September, the information was collected to produce identity cards and, later, to issue ration books. The 1939 Register was intended to record the details of every member of the civilian population on a specific date, so if your ancestor was already serving in the military they will not be recorded. Despite this, as conscription only began to increase from January 1940, many will have been captured on the list. The 1939 Register provides a unique snapshot of a moment in time, documenting a population on the brink of war, it is available to search on Ancestry.com, a subscription website. Access to Ancestry is often provided for free through your local library.   

Woman driving a vintage tractor with others bringing in the harvest during the 1940s

Women's Land Army bringing in the harvest during the Second World War. Did one of your ancestors do their bit working on the home front? - Credit: Getty Images

Life on the home front: Many local studies libraries will have the local newspaper from wartime, this is a primary source and a first-hand account of the time which presents a variety of information. For example, information about individual service members - which sometimes includes a photo, letters from those in service, information about the community and their response to war, and a local view of national events. Newspaper archives can be accessed in different ways - on microfilm, digitised files, and printed files of significant events. 

Local collections can also enhance our knowledge of ancestors who did not go to war. Newspapers and books can illustrate what life was like for those keeping the home fires burning. While records of the Home Guard reveal who volunteered on the home front and what was happening in the locality.   

The People's War: Between June 2003 and January 2006,the BBC ran a project called The People’s War, which collected the memories of those who lived through the Second World War, the archived transcripts of 47,000 stories and 15,000 images can be at bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar. These recollections can illuminate what life was like at the time, both on the battlefield and on the home front. 

National Archives: By exploring your ancestors’ military records on the National Archives, you will add some real colour to your family tree. You may also be able to find records of those who survived the war within these resources. Go to nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/ and select one of the topics: First World War, Second World, Military and Maritime

Click here to read the extraordinary story of Grace the Gunner Girl  

Nurses and convalescents at a military hospital in Poole in 1916

David Henry Lord, boy seaman, DCM in front row of group of convalescents and staff posed outside building 1916 from the Poole Museum Collection - Credit: Poole Museum

Finding First World War ancestors: The National Archives also holds guides to, and sets of, many First World War records.  With each set of records, the National Archives details what you can expect to find. Have a go at searching within the First and Second World War sections for your wartime ancestors.  

You can search the British Army WW1 Pension Records, 1914-1920, from the National Archives and on Ancestry.com. These contain service records of people who were discharged from the army and claimed disability pensions. Almost 5 million people served in the British Army in the First World War and this archive contains many of them. 

They are a useful resource for tracing ancestors who did not die in the First World War. If a record exists, it often contains a wealth of useful information including previous addresses, next of kin and physical descriptions. 

Illustration of two First World War nurses with their ambulance

Illustration of First World War ambulance manned by two nurses, did one of your ancestors work as a nurse? - Credit: Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

Red Cross Volunteers: If your ancestor was one of the 90,000 people who volunteered for the British Red Cross in the First World War you can search for them at vad.redcross.org.uk. It is possible to find individual records, search for what was happening in your local area with the Red Cross at that time.  

Unique local collections: Many localities have put a range of information online. For Poole ancestors you can access the award-winning website - Poole, the First World War, and its Legacy pooleww1.org.uk. Here you can search the Poole Roll of Honour and Roll of Service, a timeline populated with local and national wartime events, as well as a map showing where people lived, where they fought, and locations of military hospitals.There is also a dedicated blog about Poole and the First World War ww1poole.wordpress.com with articles covering many different subjects from rationing and profiteering to women and the vote.

Delving deeper: To expand your family’s wartime history, Military Museums are a must. Locally there is The Keep Military Museum in Dorchester and The Tank Museum in Bovington. Nationally, the Imperial War Museums are an invaluable resource and have published guides for family historians on their website, iwm.org.uk/research including tracing Air Force ancestors, Prisoners of War and Royal Navy history. 

The Long, Long Trail is a website which I have often used to guide First World War Army research; longlongtrail.co.uk especially for Regimental histories to place people in countries and battles. 

Exterior shot of a glass fronted building - Poole Museum

Poole Museum - Credit: Poole Museum

Research your Poole ancestors in-person: This has been a very brief snapshot of some starting points to help you discover the lives of your wartime ancestors. Hopefully you will can now add some more names and context to your own family tree. Poole History Centre, part of Poole Museum, is open Wednesday to Saturday 10am-1pm, by appointment only (localhistory@bcpcouncil.gov.uk or call 01202 128888). Staff can advise on research methods and sources of additional information. It is advisable to book microfilm machines and computers. 

Taking it online: Poole History Online is a free to use website containing thousands of photographs and documents relating to the town’s history poolehistory.org.uk. Also, worth checking out my blog Beginning Your Family History at poolemuseum.org.uk, click on From Home in the top bar, then select Family History. 

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