Recently I’ve been asked to provide advice on researching war memorials, so to make access easier, I’ll be posting some thoughts on this research here. Eventually, I’ll also be posting some ideas for tackling local history projects, which I hope could be helpful for schools considering researching war memorials in their communities.
Record the names
Researching a war memorial usually starts with noting down the names. I try to take a photograph of the memorial from every aspect, ideally on the first visit, as it gives a helpful reference point. This is particularly important if the engraving has suffered any damage from exposure to the elements. There is plenty of advice about taking photographs of graves or memorials online including a clear, brief guide on the website of the Maple Leaf Legacy Project .
I find it’s helpful, also, to make a list of the names on the spot, writing them down in the order in which they appear and carefully noting any additional details. Somehow I feel, while I’m writing down the names, a sense of engaging with each person, so, unless the memorial has hundreds of names, I do that as well as taking photographs. If names appear on more than one panel or side of the memorial, be sure to note where there is a break in names. You’ll also need to devise a way that clearly identifies each panel or side, not just for you, but for anyone who comes across your project. Compass directions will not always be as obvious to others as they may seem to be to you.
If there are details of rank, regiment or service arm, note those as well, as any additional information will help you to ‘narrow down’ the field, when you’re looking for, say, a high frequency combination like ‘Thomas Williams’. [Pause here to guess how many men named Thomas Williams died while on military service in the course of WW1.]
Where a war memorial does include rank, or the name of a regiment do not take these details at face value, particularly if you are unable to find a record for someone with a low frequency surname. Soldiers were sometimes transferred to other battalions or regiments in the course of their service and news of promotions towards the end of a military life may not have reached the family or the committee responsible for the list.
Match the name on the War Memorial to a specific individual—using a site with FREE access
My next step is to ‘marry’ each of the names on the War Memorial to a name on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database. If it’s a rare surname, you’re in luck, but generally, at some point you may sense the enormity of the nation’s loss when you discover how many men with the name ‘Thomas Williams’ died in WW1.
Search Tips for using the CWGC database
1. One of the reasons, some people are hard to find on the CWGC database, is that it works at its best if you enter the name in the exact format in which it appears on the CWGC database. But of course, until you find the name there, you won’t know what that format is! So, unless I’m dealing with a high frequency name/surname combination, I enter only the surname and an initial.
2. If you are searching this database for the first time, start with the more unusual surnames on the memorial. By the time you reach the high frequency surnames, you will have learned your way around the site and thought of a few search tips of your own.
3. With a high frequency surname, you need to take the Forename search route for Thomas Williams because, while it will prioritise the Thomases, it also lists those who have the initial T and eventually delivers even the odd, but unique, ‘Theophilus Tunstall Williams’ and ‘Tobler K. Williams’. If there is more than one initial associated with the name, you’re in luck, because searching for T. T. Williams generated just three results (not 34 pages of results), one of whom was Theophilus Tunstall Williams.
Searching by the initial is the default search so to search by forename make sure that you click the radio button next to the word Forename.
If your search result is the message (0) records match your search criteria, do check that you haven’t entered a forename without disabling the radio button for initial. (What it will have done for Thomas would have been to transform the name into t h o m a s and to have looked for a T. H. O. M. A. S. Williams) With a high frequency surname, you may realise that there can’t be no results at all for a Thomas Williams or a John Smith, but this possibility may not occur to you with a low frequency surname like Camplejohn.
Other databases for WW1
If you subscribe to an online service, such as Ancestry, it’s useful to also find the deceased on the UK, Soldiers died in the Great War database. There is often slightly different information on the two databases. Ancestry is available in many public libraries, so even if you do not have a subscription, you may well be able to access it on library premises.
If you are researching a Scot, search the Scottish National Roll of Honour as well as the CWGC database.
People missing from your War Memorial
Not everyone who died while on active service, is recorded on a war memorial. You may discover someone born in the district covered by your war memorial who is not recorded on it. You will almost certainly feel compelled to rescue ‘The Overlooked” and you might even wish to make a case for their names to be added to the memorial.
Some of those who died on active service are recorded on more than one war memorial: in the parish from which they originate, or a town or city memorial, on a school war memorial, on a university war memorial, on a workplace war memorial as well as on war memorials in parishes with which the family was connected.
Names missing from the WW1 databases
Occasionally, you won’t find a matching record so some lateral thinking is called for.
There’ll be suggestions on getting round the problem of missing or overlooked names in another post.