Family tree research part 4

Military Records – World War I

At the beginning of the war in 1914, the British Army comprised 730,000 troops but millions enlisted out of a deep sense of patriotism so that, by the end of the war in 1918, more than seven million men had seen action. Every detail of those soldiers’ army lives was noted in their record.

Unfortunately, more than half the records were destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid in September 1940. Just 40% – some 2.8 million records – survived or were reconstructed. These remaining records may often have blackened edges as well as evidence of water damage. Because of this damage they are sometimes referred to as the “Burnt Records”.

What information is in the records?

You might be surprised at the amount of information that is available from the military records. It’s not unusual for such records to be upwards of 20 pages.

The initial pages will give you basic information like name, address, date of birth and next of kin. There will also be information on medical history, details of injuries, awards of bravery, discharge papers and punishments.

Medal Index Cards

The Medal Rolls Index, or Medal Index Cards currently contains a wide range of surnames from all alphabetical ranges. These cards were created by the Army Medal Office (AMO) of the United Kingdom in Droitwich to keep details about a soldier’s medal entitlement in one place.

The collection is the most complete listing of individuals who fought in the British Army in WWI, containing approximately 90 per cent of soldiers’ names.

About the Index Cards

There’s both a front and back to each card. Cards are arranged alphabetically by soldiers’ surnames. There are a few different card forms that were used, so the amount of information recorded will vary. However, the type of information that may be found on the cards includes:

  • Name of soldier
  • Regiment
  • Corps
  • Rank(s)
  • Regiment number(s)
  • Name of medal(s) received
  • Roll and page numbers (references to the original AMO medal rolls)
  • Theatre of war served in and date of entry
  • Date of enlistment
  • Date and reason of discharge
  • Remarks
  • Correspondence notes
  • Address

WWI Medals

The Medal Rolls Index Cards will tell you which of the campaign medals below your ancestor may have been awarded. In general, everyone who served overseas received some form of medal.

The cards also include records of some women’s service awards and Mentioned in Despatches (MID) notes.

Mentioned in Despatches was an award for commendable service or bravery in the field. Despatches were official reports that detailed military operations and were returned to HQ. These reports were published in the London Gazette.

Servicemen who had performed noteworthy actions were often mentioned in these reports; therefore they are described as Mentioned in Despatches.

1914 Star (Mons Star)

1914-star Awarded for service in France or Flanders (Belgium) between 5 August and 22 November 1914.  This bronze medal award was authorised by King George V in April 1917. The award was open to officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, doctors and nurses as well as Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who served ashore with the Royal Naval Division in France or Belgium.

A narrow horizontal bronze clasp sewn onto the ribbon, bearing the dates ‘5th AUG. – 22nd NOV. 1914’ shows that the recipient had actually served under fire of the enemy during that period. For every seven medals issued without a clasp there were approximately five issued with the clasp.

Recipients who received the medal with the clasp were also entitled to attach a small silver heraldic rose to the ribbon when just the ribbon was being worn.

The reverse is plain with the recipient’s service number, rank, name and unit impressed on it.

It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres.

There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.

1914-15 Star

1914-15-star Awarded for service in France or Flanders (Belgium) between 23 November 1914 and 31 December 1915, or for service in any theatre between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915.

This bronze medal was authorised in 1918. It is very similar to the 1914 Star but it was issued to a much wider range of recipients. Recipients of the 1914 Star were not eligible for this award.

Similarly, those who received the Africa General Service Medal or the Sudan 1910 Medal were also not eligible.

Like the 1914 Star, the 1914-15 Star was not awarded alone. The recipient had to have received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

The reverse is plain with the recipient’s service number, rank, name and unit impressed on it.

An estimated 2.4 million of these medals were issued.

Allied Victory Medal (Victory Medal)

British Victory medal Awarded for service in any operational theatre between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918.

Also known as ‘Wilfred’.

It was decided that each of the allies should each issue their own bronze victory medal with a similar design, similar equivalent wording and identical ribbon.

The British medal was designed by W. McMillan. The front depicts a winged classical figure representing victory.

It was issued to individuals who received the 1914 and 1914-15 Stars and to most individuals who were issued the British War Medal. The medal was also awarded for service in Russia (1919-1920) and post-war mine clearance in the North Sea (1918-1919).

Approximately 5.7 million victory medals were issued.

Interestingly, eligibility for this medal was more restrictive and not everyone who received the British War Medal (‘Squeak’) also received the Victory Medal (‘Wilfred’). However, in general, all recipients of ‘Wilfred’ also received ‘Squeak’ and all recipients of ‘Pip’ also received both ‘Squeak’ and ‘Wilfred’.

The recipient’s service number, rank, name and unit was impressed on the rim.

British War Medal

British war medal Awarded to both servicemen and civilians that either served in a theatre of war, or rendered service overseas between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. It was also awarded for service in Russia, and post-war mine clearance in the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea between 1919 and 1920.

Also known as ‘Squeak’.

Approximately 6.5 million British War Medals were issued. Approximately 6.4 million of these were the silver versions of this medal.

Around 110,000 of a bronze version were issued mainly to Chinese, Maltese and Indian Labour Corps.

The front (obv or obverse) of the medal depicts the head of George V.

The recipient’s service number, rank, name and unit was impressed on the rim.

Silver War Badge (SWB)

Silver war badge The Silver War Badge was issued on 12 September 1916.

The badge was originally issued to officers and men who were discharged or retired from the military forces as a result of sickness or injury caused by their war service. After April 1918 the eligibility was amended to include civilians serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps, female nurses, staff and aid workers.

Around the rim of the badge was inscribed “For King and Empire; Services Rendered”. It became known for this reason also as the “Services Rendered Badge”. Each badge was also engraved with a unique number on the reverse, although this number is not related to the recipient’s Service Number.

The recipient would also receive a certificate with the badge. The badge was made of Sterling silver and was intended to be worn on the right breast of a recipient’s civilian clothing. It could not be worn on a military uniform.

There were about 1,150,000 Silver War Badges issued in total for First World War service.

Territorial Force War Medal

medal-territorial-force-war-medal-200 Instituted on 26 April 1920.

Only members of the Territorial Force and Territorial Force Nursing Service were only eligible for this medal. They had to have been a member of the Territorial Force on or before 30 September 1914 and to have served in an operational theatre of war outside the United Kingdom between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. An individual who was eligible to receive the 1914 Star or 1914/15 Star could not receive the Territorial War Medal.

The obverse (front) of the medal shows an effigy of King George V with the words GEORGIVS V BRITT OMN:REX ET IND: IMP:

The reverse of the medal has the words TERRITORIAL WAR MEDAL around the rim, with a laurel wreath and the words inside the wreath FOR VOLUNTARY SERVICE OVERSEAS 1914-1919.

Approximately 34,000 Territorial Force War Medals were issued.

Mercantile Marine War Medal

medal-mercantile-marine-reverse-200 The medal was established in 1919.

The Board of Trade awarded this campaign medal, the Mercantile Marine War Medal, to people who had served in the Merchant Navy and who had made a voyage through a war zone or danger zone during the 1914-1918 war.

It was a circular bronze medal. It was 1.42 inches in diameter. On the obverse (front) there was an effigy of King George V facing to the left with the words GEORGIVS V BRITT: OMN: REX ET IND: IMP:.

The reverse of the medal has a laurel wreath around the rim with an image of a merchant ship on a stormy sea with an enemy submarine and an old sailing ship to the right of the merchant ship. The inscription on this side of the medal is FOR WAR SERVICE/MERCANTILE MARINE 1914-1918.

The ribbon (1.25 inches wide) is green on the left and red on the right with a thin white line in the centre between the two. The green and red colours of the ribbon represent the starboard and port running lights of a ship with the centre white colour being representative of the masthead steaming light.

133,135 Mercantile Marine War Medals were awarded.

Next: World War II records