Researching First World War British Soldiers
This page contains information about researching First World War British soldiers, especially those who served in the Durham Light Infantry. It was compiled by Steve Shannon for Durham County Record Office in March 2016.
During the First World War, over 6,000,000 men from the British Isles served in the British Army, and the Army kept detailed paper records on every one of them. Unfortunately, not all these records have survived as many were destroyed or badly damaged during the Second World War. This makes researching a First World War soldier difficult but not impossible. These notes may help you in your search for your soldier ancestor.
Note: The Ancestry and Find My Past family history websites are major on-line sources of digitised First World War British soldiers' records. Both are accessible via pay-per-view or subscription.
Before you begin your research, you should note down what you already know about your soldier ancestor. And you should start with the basics:
• his full name
• date and place of birth
• the place where he was living when he enlisted (joined the Army)
• and the name of his next of kin (usually his father or wife)
These details will help you to identify the correct surviving official records for your ancestor.
Family stories about your soldier ancestor having fought, for example, at Gallipoli or having been awarded a gallantry medal may also be of help, but these stories should be treated with caution, as they may have been embellished over the years.
Next, you should try to discover if any of the soldier's documents or belongings have survived in your family. These could include his cap badge, identity discs, pay book, discharge certificate, a photograph of him in uniform, or a newspaper cutting with news, for example, of his wounding or death.
You should look especially for his medals. These will have stamped on the rim or on the back the soldier's name, rank, number and the name of his regiment, for example:
18-609 PTE H. STANLEY. DURH:L.I. or 23-1141 SJT. R. DEFTY. NORTH'D FUS.
Once you have searched your family's records, it is time to look at the official records.
Soldiers' Service and Pension Records
The most important official record for any soldier was his Service Record. Here a soldier's military career was documented from when he first joined the Army. This record also includes the soldier's personal and family details, and, if he was wounded and received a disability pension, his medical details.
Today, however, only forty per cent (40%) of the Service Records of First World War soldiers have survived. These surviving records are held at The National Archives at Kew, and include the records of soldiers who were:
• discharged between 1914 and 1920
• killed in action between 1914 and 1920
• died of wounds or disease without being discharged to pension
• demobilised at the end of the war
Note: If you have already discovered your ancestor's full name, number and regiment, it will make searching these on-line records that much easier.
Some soldiers continued to serve in the British Army after 1920. Their records, which will include details of their service prior to 1920, are still held by the Ministry of Defence and you should go to the Veterans UK website to research these soldiers.
If your soldier ancestor's Service Record did not survive the Blitz then all is not lost as there are many other records that may help you with your research.
Soldiers Who Died
During the First World War, some 13,000 DLI and 16,000 Northumberland Fusiliers were killed in action, died of wounds or died of disease. Most, but not all, of these men came from the North East of England.
In 1917, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established to care for the graves of the 1,000,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, who died on the battlefield or at home. Today, the CWGC's website will allow you to discover where your soldier ancestor is buried or commemorated, if he was one of these casualties.
Sometimes the CWGC will also hold additional information about the soldier's age, his next of kin and his home address: e.g. 275908 Private Henry Osborne, 7th (Pioneer) Battalion DLI, died of wounds (gas) 4.11.1917, age 24, son of Charles and Margaret Osborne of 6 Dixon Street, South Shields, buried at Dozingham Military Cemetery.
In 1921, the War Office published a book listing the names of the 42,000 British Army officers who had died during the war. A further 80 books, listed by regiment, record the names of all the British soldiers who had died, e.g. Soldiers Died in the Great War. 1914-19', part 62, 'The Durham Light Infantry. This volume, arranged by battalion, gives only limited details, e.g. 275908 Private Henry Osborne, 7th Battalion DLI, home: South Shields, enlisted: Sunderland, died of wounds 4.11.1917, France and Flanders.
The Soldiers Died books are available on the family history websites. The books have also been digitised by the Naval & Military Press and the fully-searchable database - Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19 - is available as a CD-ROM. Durham County Record Office has a copy of this powerful database, which may help you research your soldier ancestor.
A register of soldiers who died during the First World War was also kept in the same way as civilian deaths and you may order a copy of a soldier's death certificate from the General Register Office (GRO).
The wills of soldiers, who died whilst serving in the British Army between 1850 and 1986, are now available on-line (via pay-per-view). Eighty per cent of these wills date from the First World War, however, whilst many soldiers left detailed wills, others left no more than a brief written instruction and the name and address of their next of kin.
Find a soldier's will.
The National Army Museum in London holds the records of the money owed to British soldiers, who died in service between 1901 and 1929. These records usually note the soldier's name, rank, number and regiment, together with his battalion's number (for infantrymen) or the number of his battery or company (for Artillery, Engineers, etc.). Also noted are the soldier's next of kin and their relationship to him (e.g. father, widow, etc.), and the date of his death. Sometimes the actual place where a soldier died is recorded and this may be the name of a field ambulance, casualty clearing station or hospital. This important information may not have survived elsewhere. The Soldiers' Effects records have been digitised and are available on the Ancestry website.
If your soldier ancestor was from the North East and died during the First World War, then you should look at the North East War Memorials Project website. This important project is working towards recording every war memorial in the North East of England from the main memorials in towns and villages to those small memorials found in schools, parish halls, factories and offices.
You should also look at The Imperial War Museum's UK War Memorials archive that is recording war memorials across the UK.
Medal Index Cards
Before the end of the First World War, the Army Medal Office compiled some 5,000,000 hand-written cards recording the campaign medal entitlement for each soldier. Today, these Medal Index Cards are held at The National Archives and have been digitised and are available on-line either on TNA's own website or on the Ancestry and Find My Past websites.
These index cards are an important source of information, as your ancestor's card will give his name, rank(s), number(s) and regiment or corps. Note: Many soldiers served in more than one unit during the war, e.g. DLI and Machine Gun Corps, or DLI and Labour Corps.
An index card also gives the soldier's medal entitlement, e.g. 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal, and sometimes records where and when he first went overseas to a "Theatre of War" - e.g. France 19.4.15.
There may also be additional information on when a soldier died or when he was finally discharged from the Army. A soldier's desertion or imprisonment may also be recorded, as a soldier's medals could be forfeited, and this forfeiture would be noted on his card. Gallantry awards, e.g. DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal), are also sometimes noted (see Gallantry Awards below). Importantly the index card also notes the page reference in the Medal Rolls (see below).
Campaign Medal Rolls
Whilst the Medal Index Cards list the medals to which each soldier was entitled, the Medal Rolls for the First World War actually record what campaign medals were issued to each soldier. These rolls are held at The National Archives and record the award of over 10,000,000 campaign medals (1914 Star, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal and Territorial Force War Medal) to the British armed forces. These rolls have been digitised and may be searched on the Ancestry website.
These medal rolls have also been digitised by the Naval & Military Press and the fully-searchable database - First World War Campaign Medals - is available as a DVD-ROM. Durham County Record Office has a copy of this database, which may help you research your soldier ancestor.
Each soldier's entry in the Medal Rolls may include his full name, rank(s), number(s), regiment or corps, medals awarded and other details. Importantly these rolls sometimes record the specific battalion, brigade or battery in which a soldier served, e.g. 13th Battalion DLI. This information is of great use, as there were 43 DLI battalions during the First World War, and 22 of these served overseas. Knowing that an ancestor served in the 13th Battalion DLI rather than just the DLI will allow you to look at the battalion's War Diary (see below) and regimental history books (see below) that may provide you with a detailed background to your ancestor's war service.
Silver War Badge
In late 1916, a special badge, the Silver War Badge, was awarded to all those servicemen and women who had been honourably discharged because of wounds or illness. Each circular badge bears the inscription For King and Empire: Services Rendered and has a unique number on the back. The National Archives holds a roll of these numbers and the details of each recipient, which may include his full name, rank, number, regiment, dates of enlistment and discharge, and importantly the reason for his discharge (e.g. wounds, gas, sickness, or battle accident).
The Silver War Badge rolls containing 1,000,000 names have been digitised and may be searched using the recipient's name or the unique badge number either on TNA's own website or on the Ancestry website. If a soldier's service records have not survived and he received no campaign medals, then the Silver War Badge Roll might be the only record of a soldier's service during the First World War.
In 1915, a rehabilitation centre for servicemen, who had been blinded in the war, opened in London. St Dunstan's, renamed Blind Veterans UK in 2012, has records on all First World War soldiers helped by the charity, including Tom Smith from Boldon Colliery, who was blinded in 1917 whilst serving with the 14th Battalion DLI. The Blind Veterans UK's archivist will provide information to family historians on request.
If your soldier ancestor received a gallantry award during the First World War, for example the Military Cross (MC), Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), Military Medal (MM), or Mention in Despatches (MID), then this award will have been announced in the official newspaper The Gazette (more often known as The London Gazette).
The Gazette's website allows you to search for the announcement. Unfortunately few citations explain exactly when, where and how the medal was awarded, though the date of the announcement will often suggest when the medal was won. Often the recipient's home town is noted.
For the DLI, all the regiment's gallantry awards during the First World War are recorded in Malcom McGregor's Honours and Awards to The Durham Light Infantry The Durham Light Infantry (privately published 2003, copy in Durham County Record Office). This book not only gives the full official Gazette entry and citation, if printed in the Gazette, but also further information about each award collected by the author from battalion histories and the DLI's archive.
The Police Gazette
During the First World War, lists of Army deserters and absentees were regularly published in The Police Gazette, with details of the soldier's name, age, place of birth, number, and unit, plus his trade on enlistment, his physical characteristics, and the date of his desertion or absence. These Gazettes are now searchable on the Find My Past website and they may be the only source of information for a soldier, whose service records have not survived, who never served overseas and so received no campaign medals, and whose local Absent Voters' List is lost.
Absent Voters' Lists
Following the Representation of the People Act 1918, lists were compiled to ensure that all soldiers over the age of 19 and all war-workers, including women over the age of 30, who were absent from their homes, would still be able to vote in the general election. Today, some of the Absent Voters' Lists (AVL) for County Durham are held in Durham County Record Office.
These County Durham lists are divided into 11 Divisions - Barnard Castle, Bishop Auckland, Blaydon, Chester le Street, Consett, Durham, Houghton le Spring, Jarrow, Seaham, Sedgefield and Spennymoor. Each division is then sub-divided into Polling Districts and Parishes, e.g. Durham Division, Auton Stile Polling District, Parish of Broom, with the names of the absent voters then listed - mostly in alphabetical order.
So, if you know the home address or even just the town where your soldier ancestor lived, then he probably can be traced. And for many First World War soldiers, especially for those who never left Britain and were awarded no campaign medals, this may be the only source of information, if their service papers have not survived.
The AVL usually gives the full name, home address and service details for each soldier, e.g.: Sydney Morgan, 6 Aldin Grange Terrace, 16146 13th Battalion DLI, but often no more than the soldier's surname and address is recorded. However, the AVL may be the only way to discover a soldier's number and, for the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, the AVL may be the only way of discovering in which battery or company a soldier served.
An index to these AVLs is being added to the Durham at War website that will enable a digital copy of the relevant entry to be ordered from Durham County Record Office.
In the North East, other Absent Voters' Lists survive for Darlington (Darlington Borough Council), Gateshead (Gateshead Library), Hartlepool (Hartlepool Library) and Newcastle upon Tyne (Newcastle Central Library). However, the AVLs for South Shields, Stockton on Tees and Sunderland are missing.
Copies of the Absent Voters' Lists held by The British Library are being digitised and added to the Find My Past website (via pay-per-view or subscription). To date, the County Durham AVLs for Barnard Castle, Bishop Auckland, Blaydon, Chester le Street, Consett, Durham, Gateshead, Hartlepool, Houghton le Spring, Jarrow, Seaham, Sedgefield and Spennymoor have been added to the website. But, sadly, The British Library does not have the missing AVLs for South Shields, Stockton and Sunderland.
Find My Past Electoral Registers.
Prisoners of War
During the First World War, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva collected information about those soldiers, including British soldiers, made prisoner of war (POW). For each prisoner an index card was completed and now 5,000,000 index cards have been digitised and are being made freely available on-line.
Prisoners of the First World War - the ICRC archives
Some cards contain a wealth of information about a prisoner, including his unit, number, home address, next of kin, and date of birth, plus the date and place of his capture and the POW camp where he was held. But other cards list little more than a prisoner's name.
Though there are few official lists of British POWs, there are 3,000 reports compiled for the Committee on the Treatment of British Prisoners of War. This Committee interviewed British prisoners, who had escaped or had been repatriated before the end of war, to ask about their treatment in enemy hands. These reports are held by The National Archives and may be seen online (via pay-per-view).
Prisoner of war interview reports 1914-1918
Several of the POWs interviewed had served with the DLI or Northumberland Fusiliers, e.g. Arthur Leggett from Chester le Street, who was wounded and taken prisoner in April 1915, whilst serving with the 8th Battalion DLI.
During the First World War, every British Army unit kept a diary of its activities both at the front and behind the lines. These diaries with their daily reports on operations were kept to enable an official history of the First World War to be written.
Though War Diaries, which were usually written by the unit's adjutant (administration officer), rarely mention soldiers (as distinct from officers) by name, they may provide you with the background to your soldier ancestor's service and, especially, the circumstances and location of a soldier's wounding or death.
Durham Home Guard
In June 1940, over 1,500,000 volunteers joined the Home Guard - Dad's Army. Many of these were veterans of the First World War. In 2012, The National Archives made available on-line (via pay-per-view) the Enrolment Forms for the Durham Home Guard. Over 80,000 men served in the Durham Home Guard between May 1940 and December 1945. Each form records the name, date of birth, address and next of kin of each volunteer, plus brief details of any previous military service.
Durham Home Guard 1939-1945
The Home Guard records for other counties are still held by the Ministry of Defence and you should go to the Veterans UK website for help.
The Durham Light Infantry Archives are held by Durham County Record Office (DCRO), where they have been fully catalogued. This catalogue is available on-line
The on-line catalogue contains detailed descriptions of the DLI's records and photographs. Though many of these records date from the First World War, few actually mention soldiers by name. However, if your soldier ancestor served in the DLI during the First World War then you may find the following records of particular interest:
Enlistment Books 1920-1945: These books, originally held by the Ministry of Defence, are in DCRO, where they have been microfilmed and indexed. These books usually only record a soldier's name and number, but the first volume contains personal details of some soldiers, who enlisted before 1920 and who continued to serve in the DLI after that date.
War Diaries: DCRO has original copies of the War Diaries of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 9th, 13th and 20th Battalions DLI. Some of these diaries, especially 13 DLI's 'unofficial' diary kept by successive adjutants, contain information, for example of men wounded or sick, not found in the official War Diaries held by The National Archives.
Maps: DCRO has an extensive collection of original trench maps of the Western Front. Many of these are associated with a particular officer and battalion and so may be used, for example, in conjunction with a War Diary or regimental history to pinpoint where a soldier was killed or wounded.
You will also find a number of digitised First World War trench maps on the National Library of Scotland's website.
British First World War Trench Maps 1915-1918
Photographs: DCRO has many DLI photographs and albums dating from the First World War. Some of these record the soldiers' names, for example albums of 4 DLI and 20 DLI, but most contain only unnamed groups. Few of these photographs were taken at the front.
Letters, Diaries and Memoirs: The DLI's archive also contains many contemporary letters and diaries and post-war memoirs that may provide you with background to your own ancestor's service during the First World War, for example see the letters written by Frederick Rees, who was a young officer in the 13th Battalion DLI (D/DLI 7/560/4 & 5), and the memoir written by Hubert Morant, who commanded the 10th Battalion DLI (D/DLI 7/1230). Hubert Morant's memoir has been digitised and you can read it on the Durham at War website.
Memoir of Colonel Hubert Morant
Durham County Record Office has other sources where you may find information about a soldier ancestor, who served in the British Army, including the DLI, during the First World War. The most important of these are the local newspapers, which, before 1917, printed obituaries, medal awards, citations, letters home, and even named photographs of local soldiers.
You may find personal details in these local newspapers that will not have survived elsewhere, for example where your soldier ancestor worked before he enlisted or even what church he attended.
Today, Durham County Record Office holds First World War editions of local newspapers, including the Durham Advertiser, the Durham Chronicle and the Auckland Chronicle. These newspapers, however, may only be read on microfilm.
Other North East newspapers, for example the Chester le Street Chronicle, Northern Echo, Newcastle Journal and Sunderland Daily Echo, are held in other libraries and record offices across the region. As most of these First World War newspapers may now only be read on microfilm, you should always make an appointment to avoid disappointment.
Local Newspapers On-Line
The British Library is currently digitising part of its huge collection of British and Irish newspapers. This digitisation project (available via pay-per-view or subscription) includes North East newspapers, for example the Hartlepool Mail and Middlesbrough Daily Gazette.
The British Newspaper Archive
Some First World War newspapers are also available on the Find My Past website (via pay-per-view or subscription).
Independently of the British Library, one local newspaper, The Teesdale Mercury, is already on-line. This newspaper covers the Barnard Castle and upper Teesdale region of County Durham. It is free to view.
Teesdale Mercury Archive
During the 1920s and 1930s, many regiments and individual battalions published histories based on their War Diaries of their activities during the First World War, for example Wilfrid Miles, The Durham Forces in the Field, 1914-18, volume 2: The Service Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry (London, 1920). And in recent years, new battalion histories have been written, for example John Sheen, Tyneside Irish (Barnsley, 1998).
So, if you know the regiment and battalion in which your soldier ancestor served, then the battalion's history, if published, may provide you with the background to his service and the circumstances and location of a soldier's death or wounding. Many battalion histories also contain detailed trench maps, photographs and rolls of honour listing those soldiers who died or who gained a gallantry award, and many of the most recent histories include a complete roll-call of a battalion's soldiers. See the DLI book list. [Add link to books]
For a complete list of First World War British regiments and corps - and lots of useful information for family historians - you should look at The Long, Long Trail The British Army in the Great War 1914-1918 website.
First World War Veterans' Interviews
In 1972 the Imperial War Museum began to record interviews with First World War veterans, including several from the DLI and the North East of England, for example Frank Raine from Hartlepool, who joined the Durham Pals in 1914 and who was interviewed in 1987 (IWM Catalogue 9751).
Since 2013, the IWM has made these interviews freely available on-line. Listening to an old soldier talk about how he enlisted and trained, and then describe exactly what it was like to live and fight in the trenches on the Western Front will add to any family historian's understanding of what a First World War soldier ancestor experienced.
Imperial War Museums Sound Archive
There are many other sources - some less obvious - held in record offices and local history libraries that may help you research your soldier ancestor. For example, in Durham County Record Office there are company rolls of honour, parish magazines, school and college records, plus correspondence concerning local war memorials. For a guide to these records, see Subject Guide 8: Lists of Service Personnel in First & Second World Wars (2007).
This list of sources for researching First World War British soldiers is not complete and new sources are becoming available all the time, especially on-line. If you know of any other sources that would help researchers - or have spotted any mistakes in this guide - then, please, contact us. We would also like to hear from you if you have found this guide useful.