War Memorial Research (3): No easy match on the CWGC database?

In my experience, at least half the time, I can match a name to an individual without too much difficulty, particularly if there is information about next of kin on the CWGC database.  Here are some suggestions on where you might look for information about those whose names appear to be missing from the database or for whom the database offers too many possible matches.

Have they moved away? Bear in mind that soldiers on your War Memorial, who have no local address attached to them, are likely to have had some close local family connections, or to have hailed originally from your parish or town.  A not insignificant number may turn out to have been serving with Commonwealth forces following their emigration, or that of their parents.

George Brisco, who was serving in the Australian Forces, appears on the Sea Scouts’ Memorial Plaque inside St Peter’s Church in Petersham, though not on the Petersham War Memorial.  In George’s case, finding the Australian Service Records was quite an eye-opener running to 40 pages of high quality digital images.  In addition to his service records, the Australian Red Cross went to commendable lengths to track down other soldiers in hospitals and camps in England, who might be able to provide information about the incident in which George lost his life—just in that file, there were 45 pages’ worth of letters, records of interviews and communications with his mother.   The Missing Persons’ File included a fine photo of George in uniform.  You can locate and view records of those serving in the Australian Imperial Forces at the Australian War Memorial and at the National Archives of Australia.  Both organisations have sites that are easy to search and provide excellent information sheets.  The digitised records for WW1 service personnel are also free to view.  And while it can be months before one hears back from the CWGC, a query about the location of a diary, brought an answer within 24 hours.  Same day really, if you consider the time difference.  [Thank you, and well done, Australia!]

Finding people who have no obvious connection with the place: Of the six names on a Leicestershire War Memorial that I am researching, three had, initially, no obvious connection with the village.  Family Reconstitution techniques played a significant part in identifying the nature of their links to the village.  This is, however, time-consuming and if you know of someone who is doing a One Place Study on the place, they may be able to assist with that part of your research.

Finding natives of the place, whose names are missing from the War Memorial: If you would like to trace some of those who grew up locally, but whose names are not listed on the memorial, then the tactic of looking for the village or district as a birthplace, leaving the surname search box empty, often generates a number of results for soldiers who had been born there, but enlisted after moving away.

Were the service records up to date? Sometimes a war memorial will include rank, or the name of a regiment: note these down, but 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 to other 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.

Can you locate the soldier in the 1911 Census?  If you are able to access the 1911 Census, you may well find your soldier recorded with those parents or that spouse or living at that address.  Most of those named on war memorials will have been enumerated in the 1901 and 1911 Censuses so looking them up may help you to ‘flesh’ out the background of those whose Service Records have not survived.

Where in the UK was the regiment based?  If you know the regiment to which the soldier was attached, that can sometimes provide a clue to the region where your soldier lived or worked.  A search engine could be used to find out where the regimental headquarters were.

Research the whereabouts of the unit and the action around the time your person died.  British Service Records for ‘other ranks’, where they’ve survived, often provide no more information than K.I.A. or D.O.W.  If you are researching an officer, or an airman, you may find, or be able to deduce, more about their military service and deaths in their files.  Search The National Archives’ online Discovery Catalogue to locate the record reference in the relevant series or start at the Records page, by clicking on Looking for a Person, which, if you are not familiar with the site gets you to the search box with opportunities to find out more en route.

The inimitable site The Long, Long Trail is the finest information resource on WW1 and if you have queries, its companion site, The Great War Forum is outstanding.  Use the first site to find some background on the regiment, or key action on a particular day during the war, so that when you ask your question on the forums, you post it to the ‘right’ group.

Once you know the regiment, you are ready to look for the battle diaries of the battalion, the regiment and the division of which it was part.  Soldiers of other ranks are rarely mentioned by name, unless for something particularly noteworthy.  You can view digital copies of the diaries The National Archives at Kew, free of charge.

Workplace Memorials: If you are researching a workplace memorial, like the War Memorial at Waterloo, which lists railway employees, or even the small memorial inside the Royal Mail Sorting Office in Kingston upon Thames, bear in mind that they will record employees who may not have lived locally.  However, listing on a workplace memorial means that if you can locate the employment records for your soldier, at least some of his or her story will be revealed.  You may even find, if you contact the organisation’s archvist, that there was mention of his death or military service in its internal publications at the time.

 

War Memorial Research (2): First Steps

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.

 

…a scrap of advice…

Two of the war memorials I am researching started off on impulse with the names scribbled down on scraps of paper, a practice my students would tell you that I frequently advise against.

Scraps of paper get lost.  By the time they turn up again, if they turn up again, you’ll have spent time searching for them and possibly having to reconstitute their contents.  You may even have to retrace your footsteps and do the research all over again.

I  use a laptop to enter, save and backup data, whenever that’s feasible.  Where archives permit photography, I use a camera and transcribe later.

Planning I tend to prefer to commit by hand to paper.   My solution to the problem of lost notes, has been to invest in a large supply of Muji’s A4 notebooks.  Muji, because they sell, for £1.95 a slim A4 sized-notebook—slim is important since it adds minimal weight to whatever else I have to carry about with me.  The cover is plain charcoal grey, (in case you have a branch of Muji handy).  Each notebook has 30 leaves to it. You should be able to find something similar locally.

I used to favour notebooks that fitted easily into a bag, but it’s more useful to have the extra writing area.  The A4 sheet is the best fit for the frame, whether I’m photocopying or printing.

In my research notebooks, each spread has its own function.  When I say ‘spread’, I mean it in its publishing sense, i.e. two facing pages.

On  the left hand page of each ‘spread’ I write the information I already have, and the specific questions that need answering.

I use the right-hand page of each spread, to write the information I subsequently find—basically that means nothing gets written on the right-hand page until I’m in the archive or library, engaged on that research. I do my best to position the search findings including any negative results, opposite the question it’s answering, though this is more difficult when research higher up the page has been particularly fruitful.

Having the details of the quest, the potential information source and the resulting information together, in the same notebook, means I know exactly where I will find that information.  I often  revisit the notebooks, even after I’ve transferred the information elsewhere.

When I first adopted this system, I allocated a spread to each of the archives or libraries that I visit regularly.  I would note down on the left hand side of my National Archives’ spread, the series, title and references for the documents I expected to view.  When the thought came, “Ah, I might find that at the National Archives, next time I’m there!” I went straight to the National Archives’ spread, and added that research task to the list of those already there.  Where possible, I used an online catalogue to note the reference and title of the information source that might be relevant.  Once I had enough meat for a feast, it was time to find a slot for the pilgrimage.  Similarly, other national, regional or local archives had their own spreads.

I still use this method, the only difference being that nowadays I might have a whole notebook dedicated to each repository, with separate spreads for each series of records.  When I have a large commission for a client, I tend to allocate an entire notebook to that research, with a separate spread being used for each resource type e.g. an archive, a library, an interview.

It’s useful to catch ‘questions’ that occur to you when you’re researching.  Too often, one is so engrossed in what one is finding and where it is leading, that any fleeting “I wonder whether…?” questions, that flit in and interrupt the flow, are swiftly dismissed.  Nobody wants a diversion when the destination is clear.

That diversion, however, could hold significant information.  So, if you always keep your notebook handy, a quick scribble on a left hand page preserves that question until you have time to follow it up. I used to keep a Post-It pad handy for that, but now I tend to jot those fleeting thoughts down on the last page of the notebook, transferring them later to the appropriate page for the search I’d need to make.

The notebook system facilitates your passage through an archive’s entry and exit points.  While separate sheets of paper will be paged through by the security staff, a quick riffle of the notebook with the thumb, and you’re clear.

Sometimes you come across a piece of information, when you weren’t expecting it, and a scrap of paper, such as a till receipt is all you can find when you empty your pockets.   Tough call, that.

If, however, you have the luxury of a ‘clean sheet’ (whether it’s paper or a paper napkin) write on only one side of it.  That way you can eventually paste it into your working book, even if you have to do something nerdy like writing on your hand to remind you.