A precise and comprehensive initial selection will only reveal records that exactly match the chosen criteria. If you key in a selection and the record is filed under a slightly different spelling etc, it is not possible for this website to show the result you want. You will not get a ‘hit’. To obtain a ‘hit’ it is sometimes better to make a more general initial choice and then scan the records shown to reveal the one you seek.
Tip: less [input] can often give more [hits].
If you wish to search for a name or place, only enter the full name or place if you are sure of its spelling. Otherwise, a very useful tool known as ‘wild cards’ can be used.
The question mark ‘?’
You can use a question mark to replace a single character. This is useful where you are looking for a name with a spelling variation that involves only one change of letter. For example, Sm?th will return results for both Smith and Smyth.
The asterisk ‘*’
You can use an asterisk to represent several characters, or ‘zero’ characters. The ‘zero’ character gives you the option of looking for a character that may or may not be there. For example, where a ‘Mc’ surname may have been recorded as Mac or Mc, you can use a wild card to find both variants. For example, M*cDonald will find both McDonald and MacDonald.
Automatic wild cards
An ‘automatic wild card’ has been entered in the following search fields: ‘Christian names’, ‘Initials’, ‘Place of Birth’ and ‘Place of Residence’. This is because so many names or places appear in the original work in different ways. For example, a search on ‘Lewes’ gives hits not only on ‘Lewes’ but also on ‘Lewes, Sussex’, which could easily have been missed.
There is a small price to pay. If your chosen town has a short name it will be listed along with others that start with your town name. For example, ‘Ham’ is a place name, but it is also the start of ‘Hammersmith’, which is likewise revealed. A search on ‘Albert’ will also reveal every Albert with a second Christian name.
It is, however, simple to isolate your selection by asking for the data to be sorted in a particular order and then going through the records to find those you desire. This feature will naturally not find a name or place that has a different spelling from the one you enter. That is where the use of manual ‘wild cards’ is so useful.
Don’t enter too much data. The entry ‘Lewes’ gets ‘Lewes’ and ‘Lewes, Sussex’ automatically. If you enter ‘Lewes, Sussex’ you won’t get 'Lewes' on its own. If you enter ‘Lewes Sussex’ you will get nothing having missed off the comma after Lewes.
When tackled in combination and with a logical approach, the information you will find from these records will give a solid factual platform from which you can begin to understand the soldier’s story and his experience of the Great War. The best place to begin, usually, is with the campaign medal rolls.
The campaign medal rolls
Every soldier who left his native shore during the Great War qualified for at least one campaign medal. He could qualify for up to three, depending on his circumstances. Unless he was an officer, the man did not have to claim his medals. The details of the issue of each medal were recorded in a roll, which is essentially a list of men who qualified. The rolls are the single most intact source of information about men of the British Army of the period and as such are an exceptionally important resource for researchers.
The rolls always included the man’s name, regiment and number. If he subsequently changed regiments and was renumbered, they will also be shown. In most cases, any different regiments with which he may have served before going overseas will not appear. In the case of men who went overseas before 1916, the rolls usually also give the date on which they entered the theatre of war, and give a code that defines which theatre he went to. A list of these codes appears in our "Learn about WW1 pages". In many cases the rolls also indicate the nature of the way the man left the army: whether he lost his life, or was transferred to reserve, or (a fearsome-sounding term specific to the Territorial Force) ‘disembodied’. It means that he stood down from full time service.
For men of the infantry regiments, the rolls usually give other really vital information. This is the battalion(s) with which he served. Once a battalion is known, then his history can begin to be traced from war diaries and regimental histories. In some cases the roll even gives specific start and end dates for his time overseas with each battalion. Sadly, this kind of detailed information does not usually appear for men of the larger corps such as the artillery, engineers, transport, medical and ordnance services. If a man of one of these corps went overseas early, the detail of his unit at the time does sometimes appear.
If the soldier’s name, regiment and number (or any combination of these) is known, he should be reasonably easy to find in the medal rolls. If they are not known, you will probably find more than one man of the same name, even serving in the same regiment. To pinpoint which of these is the right man we need to turn to other forms of information – and if he is found from these, then it is wise to return to the medal roll information.
Soldiers died in the Great War
This important resource only lists men who lost their lives during the war, but it can sometimes be useful in other ways. If you are struggling to find a man who is known to have survived, and you know his regiment and number, take a look for men numbered near to him. The records of men who died will begin to give clues about their unit, when they were overseas and in some cases tell you that they had transferred in from earlier regiments. For those looking for the man who died, these records will also provide a combination of information about his place of birth, place of residence and where he enlisted. The records are very straightforward to search by name, regiment, number, date of death and so on. The information came from regimental records and is generally very reliable.
Records of the Silver War Badge
The badge was introduced in 1916 and was given to men who were discharged from the army under various specific regulations, but by far the most common covered the cases of men who were discharged as medically unfit or physically impaired as a result of their service. This included men who had not served overseas, so who do not appear in the medal rolls. The issue of the badges was recorded in a roll, which is essentially a list of the men who were given the badge. The rolls list the man’s name, number, regiment, his final unit and the number of his badge. But they are also most valuable to researchers as they give a date of enlistment, date of discharge and in many cases the man’s age and reason for discharge (often given as ‘w’ for ‘wounded’ or ‘s’ for ‘sick’). The age is especially helpful as it often helps tell whether a man who is a ‘possible’ for the one you seek is of the right age or not. Don’t forget that in the early part of the war men did not always give accurate ages, so do not necessarily rule out a ‘possible’ simply because his War Badge roll age is slightly out. If you are struggling to find a man who is known to have survived, and you know his regiment and number, take a look for men numbered near to him. The records of men who were given the War Badge will begin to give some clues about their date of enlistment.
The National Roll of Honour and de Ruvigny’s Roll
This is a source of information that has to be treated with caution, but it can be most helpful. The National Roll was a private venture. Men of their families would pay for an entry. It went out of business before it had covered all of the country (with none at all for Wales, Scotland or Ireland) but it did produce volumes covering many of our larger cities. Although there are many thousands of names in each volume, they represent only a small proportion of men who served, so view an entry as a lucky find. The entry consisted of his name, rank and number, together with a paragraph describing his service and also his address. The ‘National Roll’ is one of very few types of record where the address is given, and it appears that it is in most cases the man or his family’s address at compilation (shortly after the war). It included men who survived the war as well as those who died, and also has entries for female servicewomen and war workers. The part that needs caution is the description of the person’s service: they are in many cases inaccurate. It appears that the wording was almost from a ‘tick sheet’ approach: did you enlist voluntarily or were you conscripted? Did you serve in any of this list of battles? The descriptions that resulted are often a good basis for further research but you are advised no to rely on their accuracy unless you can find evidence from other sources that the statements made really do represent what the person did. De Ruvigny’s roll is similar in that it was a private venture and covers a small proportion of men – in this case, mainly officers. The information given about the man appears to be generally more reliable than that in the National Roll and often includes more personal and family background.
(Written by Chris Baker, author of the Long, Long Trail website www.1914-1918.net)
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