Using Ancestry to research your family’s wartime history

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In 2001, a woman from Stirlingshire called Moira McPartlin came across a tiny, fragile old pocket diary while clearing out her late father’s house. To her surprise, it dated from 1918 and had belonged to her grandfather – a veteran of World War One who had died before she was born. Speaking to the BBC website in 2014, as part of events marking the centenary of the start of the conflict, she talked about how the discovery forged a sudden intimacy with a relative she had never actually known in person.

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‘When I read the diary with its few significant entries, I felt a real connection with this man and I felt his pain,’ she said. ‘He told me his whole story in these few words.’

Someone else who got in touch with the BBC that year was Hampshire man Andy Marshall, who’d found a folder of old documents belonging to his wife’s grandmother while he was researching his family tree. The folder turned out to be a poignant package of artefacts relating to his wife’s great-uncle who had died in the Great War – including a Christmas card he’d sent back from the front, and even a photo of his war grave.

Luckily, you don’t have to wait for this kind of serendipity to strike in order to learn about your own relatives’ wartime experiences. Thanks to Ancestry, you can quickly look up everything from WW1 diaries to war grave locations, and piece together incredible revelations about the members of your family who may have been caught up in a monumental conflict which changed the course of the 20th Century.

Accessing the Great War records is easy. Just log into Ancestry, select the Search tab at the top of the page, and then click on the Military section. Here, you’ll be presented with a range of data collections, including the WW1 Medal Rolls Index. As almost every soldier was awarded at least one medal, this is the most exhaustive list of the men who fought in the British Army. Looking up the name of your ancestor here is a great place to start your odyssey into those tumultuous years.

Another data collection comprises World War One service records – a vast archive that encompasses attestation forms (the forms completed by soldiers when they enlisted), medical history forms and regimental conduct sheets. These are the fabled ‘burnt documents’ – so called because they miraculously survived a devastating bombing raid on the War Office that took place during World War Two. The raid destroyed millions of irreplaceable Great War service records, but fortunately a good volume were able to be restored and microfilmed by a meticulous preservation project – and you can find them on Ancestry with a few clicks.

Particularly fascinating are the archives of war diaries from various fronts, including France, Belgium and the notorious quagmire that was Gallipoli. They can reveal the day to day activities of your ancestor’s unit, from where the men were stationed to the activities they engaged in between battles.

Being able to search for an ancestor’s war grave is another invaluable tool offered on Ancestry, and this is available for soldiers who died in World War Two as well as the Great War. Speaking of World War Two, there’s a host of other data collections you can find via the Search/Military search route on Ancestry. These include a library of documents relating to Allied prisoners of war who were held in Europe and Asia, and even the war diaries of British units involved in the D-Day landings. The latter library is a reminder of the crucially important role that British soldiers played in D-Day. Soldiers like Kettering-born Captain Alastair Bannerman, who wrote so poetically of sailing away from the cliffs of Dover which ‘hung like white curtains along the flat green coast’, and of the ‘regatta’ of landing craft which edged ever closer to the apocalyptic chaos of the Normandy beaches.

You can look even further back into the mists of time on Ancestry. Among the data collections you can find when you search the Military part of the site is the Waterloo Medal Roll. If one of your distant ancestors fought against Napoleon’s forces in one of the most famous battles in world history, he would almost certainly have been given the Waterloo Medal, which was the first medal the British Army awarded all soldiers who participated in a campaign, regardless of rank. As a result, the Waterloo Medal Roll is basically a who’s who of the Battle of Waterloo.

Whether you’re looking to add real historical depth to your family tree, or just happen to have an interest in British military history and the many millions who fought and died across the centuries, Ancestry provides unprecedented access to records that form a tapestry of untold soldiers’ stories across time.

Top image: Discharge Certificate of Private John Brettle, from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, British Army, Dated: 25/2/1919 | Uploaded to Wikipedia by Jpb1301 | GNU Free Documentation License