10 May 2007

British First World War military personnel records online

As an historian with a particular interest - both at work and in my own projects - on Canada's participation in the First World War, I'm still elated at the fact that Library and Archives Canada has digitized many (unfortunately, not all) of the attestation or enlistment papers (one to two pages each) of the members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Can you imagine if LAC was able to digitize and post the entire personnel files for all the members of the CEF? I'm drooling at the sheer thought of it. But, for the moment, if you're lucky enough to be in Ottawa you can only sit down with the paper files to get the rest of the personnel information or, if you're not in Ottawa, you can only order photocopies.

However, it seems that the British may have broken the mold. Well, sort of. Computeractive, a British website, reported in late February on a joint venture between the Ancestry.co.uk website and The National Archives "to make service and pension records of soldiers who served in the British Army between 1914 and 1920 available online." This data has been mined from more than 8,000 microfilm reels held by The National Archives. Just like their Canadian counterparts, these personnel files provide information on the individual's occupation, physical characteristics, movements, postings, next of kin, etc. Officially, the records to be made available are part of WO 363 (British Army Service Records) and WO 364 (British Army Pension Records).

Unfortunately, the project will only ever be able to provide only part of the story. Although about five million soldiers from Great Britain fought during the war, German bombing in the Second World War seems to have destroyed 60 per cent of the service records from the First World War, and severely damaged many others. This project will be carried out in stages, beginning with pension documents for approximately 100,000 soldiers. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2008.

The records will be available for searching on the ancestry.co.uk website - either through a subscription or pay-per-view - for 10 Pounds per month or 80 Pounds per year.

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