Tracing war heroes in your family
Many of us have war heroes in our families but know little about their experiences of conflict. Follow these steps to begin your own journey into the past.
Many of us have war heroes in our familes but remain unaware of their personal experiences of conflict. As we near the seventieth anniversary of the Second World War, the individual self-sacrifice and heroism of those who took part sadly begins to recede from living memory. The tragedy of lost lives, legacy of humility and painful memories of survivors often hampers the communication of their accounts.
The Second World War is, of course, a thoroughly studied period of history, and there are many accessible materials that can aid in an appreciation of the adversity and triumph of individual participants, but there is no history that will ring more resonantly than that of your own family. Following these ten steps to tracing the war heroes in your family will allow you to undertake a unique personal expedition, enlightening yourself to the specific plights of your relative within the greater battles in which they participated.
1. Talk to your family
Whether through the first-hand memories of surviving relatives or the family stories that have passed down through generations, your family’s knowledge is always the best starting point.
Be aware that, with time, these stories can take on a life of their own, but there is often an element of truth that makes for a great jumping-off point. Family photos can yield hidden clues to identifying regiments and locations. Ask your oldest relatives to label the photographs with names and (if possible) dates so that you can leave the traced thread for future generations.
2. Online research
There is a virtual myriad of online sources that can assist you in researching your ancestors and their activities during the war. You can easily access individual service records, pension records, medal/award rolls and regimental records via ancestry.co.uk and other similar family history websites. This is a good way to establish basic military information such as the specific force to which your ancestor was assigned, their rank and their military unit or regiment. Depending on the specificity of the information you have, when using the search functionality on such sites, you may need to persist with category variations and more generalised searches if you encounter problems. You can search for free, but you will need to pay a subscription fee to access the records and details.
3. The Army Personnel Centre, The Royal Naval Disclosure Cell, RAF Disclosure Team
Online research will often provide simplified or partial records, but the information in these records will contribute to accessing the full file. In order to do this, you need to contact one of the three branches of the armed forces: the Army, Navy or Royal Air Force. You should have your relative’s full name, date of birth and/or service number, and a copy of her/his death certificate. If they died before 2005 you need to establish the index reference, which can be found through ancestry.co.uk. If your relative is alive, s/he will need to apply her/himself. There is a cost and it will take a few days to receive the material.
4. Regimental Archives / The National Archives
Service records can seem very inaccessible at first glance, due to the vast amount of military-specific acronyms and abbreviations. The staff at various Regimental Archives and The National Archives can help you to decrypt many of these, which will help you to establish where, with whom and when they were active in their particular role. Once you understand this, you can then call up the War Diary of their particular regiment or battalion/battery. Together, these two documents will allow you to understand the exact location of your ancestor (often down to map coordinates); the corps/regiment/battalion/troop s/he was working with; the everyday movements and variances of the battle; changes to the regimental structure; casualties; deaths; and many other nuances that your relative was encountering every day.
5. Regimental/Veterans’ Association, forums and personal histories
Once you’ve established the finer details of your relative’s war-time activities, you might wish to investigate whether any of their peers recall them or the instances in which they participated. Regimental or veterans’ associations can help funnel your request to appropriate survivors.
They regularly publish personal histories and contemporary diaries that can offer a subjective take on the period or may even name your ancestor. Veterans’ forums will allow you to be in direct contact with those who wish to preserve the history of their experience. These tight-knit networks are substantial pools of knowledge with remarkable re-collective capacities and usually a tremendous willingness to help solve enquiries.
6. Colindale Newspaper Library / Local archives
The Newspaper Archives of the British Library are held in Colindale in northwest London where national and local papers from all over the world, as well as official military publications, are available to peruse and copy. Local archives tend to keep a backlog of local newspapers and other publications. If your relative was killed in action, it is highly likely that their obituary will appear in one of these. Medals, awards, promotions and casualties were also recorded and made available to the public. Turning points in the war were well-documented in national and local media; however, there was a political impulse to keep the realities of battle outcomes out of the public sphere, to maintain national morale, so most newspaper reports should be read with this in mind.
7. British Library / Local library / Regimental Museum
Official and Regimental Histories are a wonderful source for gleaning the bigger picture of the battles in which your ancestor participated. They were written by official regimental historians who had first-hand access to not only the regimental materials but also those people who had decisive roles and directly participated in the battles that they covered. These can be found either at the appropriate Regimental Museum or the British Library. The BL Map Room holds contemporary British Army Maps, the coordinates of which correspond directly with those found in many war diaries. One can also locate Indian Army Records at the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor. Of course, many other more general accounts and historical analyses can be located at most libraries.
8. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
The Commission was established in 1917 to account for the hundreds of thousands of war dead, many of whom remained unidentified or buried in unmarked graves on a multitude of First World War battle sites.
CWGC continues to ensure that the 1.7 million people who died in the two World Wars will never be forgotten. Today they care for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations, in 150 countries. A search of their online database will locate men and women who died as a member of any of the Commonwealth forces, as well as the 67,000 civilians who were killed as a result of ‘enemy action’. The more details you know about the circumstances of your ancestor’s death the better, but it is possible to search by surname, date, war, rank, regiment, awards or any combination of those criteria.
When you have determined the rank, military position and types of medals your relative was awarded, you can write to:
Service Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA)
MOD Medal Office
This is, however, only applicable for medals that were unclaimed, as the MOD have a long standing policy of one set provided for each recipient. Take a look through the British Military Campaign and Service Medals Research Guide on The National Archives site to investigate and establish whether your ancestor is entitled to receive medals. Should your ancestor have been issued medals that have since been lost, there are a number of medal dealers who can make up a duplicate set. As Second World War campaign medals were not engraved, they are commonly available at a cost.
10. Battlefield tours
Many of the major battle areas of World War II are accessible to the general public, and local tourism offices often run regular tours to museums, cemeteries and specific battle sites. Tour companies such as Battlefield Tours, Rifleman Tours and Poppy Travel offer guided tours into less accessible areas with guides who are very often military historians or ex-military personnel and therefore have keen interest and experience in many aspects of the action that took place. Some of these companies also offer bespoke tours and will personally research your relative’s individual experience providing a wonderful opportunity to literally trace your ancestor’s footsteps.