Finding/Researching Your Canadian World War I Soldier Ancestor

Much of this information is taken from an article that was published in Lambton Lifeline, Lambton County Branch, Vol. 31, No. 1, March 2014. Permission has been granted by Lambton Branch and the authors, Alan Campbell and Ann Hentschel, to reproduce it here.

The title of this post is almost misleading because a number of the men who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force had just come from England a few years before. Some of them were British Home Children.

Of the valuable websites for researching Canadian WW I soldiers, that of Library and Archives Canada stands out.

Library and Archives Canada

The Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files database can be searched by surname, by surname and given name and/or by soldier registration number. If you are fortunate enough to know the soldier’s registration number you are lucky as that information lets you key in on his records quickly.

Be aware that some soldiers signed up using alternate names or nicknames. Some soldiers lied about their age because they weren’t old enough to enlist or would have been considered too old to enlist.  Some soldiers were dishonourably discharged then went to a different enlistment office and signed up under a different name. I searched for one of my collateral line ancestors, with the name that was on other records for him, David Edward Best. I did not find him until I searched on his last name only. I opened every one of the Best files until I found him indexed under the name Theodore Best, although he was listed as Theodore David Best on his attestation form. He listed his next of kin as Eliza Bell Best (wife) of Wiarton, Ontario, one of my great aunts, so my search was over.

For help in interpreting the World War I Soldiers’ Files check out the list of the abbreviations and their meanings. There is also help for reading the Record of Service or Casualty Form.

Library and Archives Canada is in the process of digitizing the records in this database. As of March 13, 2015, 129,271 of 640,000 files were available online. I have downloaded the digitized file for some of my Bolton family members. I was surprised to find that some of them never saw action at the front, instead they spent their enlisted time in Canada and England.

Circumstances of Death Registers

The Circumstances of Death Registers hold information about the battlefield deaths of soldiers. Do not expect a great amount of information. George Gray’s record [service number 81334] held the information that he was “Killed in Action” in the “trenches in the vicinity of Festubert”. The record contains no information about where George was buried as the location was unknown to the record keepers. These records do seem to give a more precise location of death.

The digitized images of each soldier’s record can be searched by browsing. In the help section you will find a chart that tells which digitized microfilm contains the surname that you are seeking. Then you have to browse. Fortunately the records are in alphabetical order. I tend to jump sections by guessing at what record number the particular surname will start at and enter a page number. If you go past where you should be, you can backtrack by entering a smaller page number. Don’t forget to record the page numbers of the record when found if you plan to find the document again without so much work!

Commonwealth War Graves Registers, First World War

The research strategy noted above is used for the Commonwealth War Grave Registers as well. These records provide information about the death of a soldier and next of kin information over a period of time. Sometimes the next of kin changed.

Veteran Death Cards: First World War

The Veteran Death Cards were used to track soldiers who died post war. Next of kin information can be quite complete on these cards. You might not find a soldier that you are looking for as I had some for whom I could not find a card. Perhaps contact was lost with them over time.

These records are accessed in the same manner as the Commonwealth War Graves Registers by checking the listing of links to the digitized microfilms which are organized by surname. The research process is the same browse method as noted above. These cards provide limited information at times and at other times they are a goldmine of next of kin information.

War Diaries of the First World War

Once you have the name of the unit that your soldier fought with, you can search the War Diaries database. The diaries do not contain a lot of soldiers’ names but will verify where a unit fought.

Medals, Honours and Awards

The Medals, Honours and Awards database can be searched by surname, given name, and service number. I would suggest that it not be the first database that you search unless you have a service number for your soldier.

As I noted at the first of this post, there can be a lot of information about your soldier on the Library and Archives website.

Next Post: More websites for finding information about WW I soldiers


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