First World War Soldiers’ Documents

Findmypast has recently launched indexed images for people who served in the British army during the First World War. Read their blog for more information.

These service and pension records are held by The National Archives (UK) in two collections:

  1. Soldiers’ Documents, First World War ‘Burnt Documents’ (reference: WO 363). This collection comprises the main set of service papers for soldiers who served in the British army and were discharged between 1914 and 1921; there are some earlier papers. Unfortunately, 60% of these records were destroyed in the Second World War and the surving records are known as the ‘burnt documents’. There are papers for about 300 soldiers of the West India Regiment (most relate to discharges before 1914) but it seems that the rest of the records for soldiers of the West India Regiment and for the British West Indies Regiment were destroyed.
  2. Soldiers’ Documents from Pension Claims, First World War (reference: WO 364). This collection is commonly known as the ‘unburnt documents’ and comprises service papers and other records for soldiers who discharged mostly between 1913 and 1921 through length of service or because of medical discharges. These include details for soldiers discharged from the West India Regiment, the British West Indies Regiment and of West Indians who served in the more familiar British regiments. You will find papers for many Jamaicans in the British West Indies Regiment who were discharged in 1916 suffering the effects of the cold (frostbite). They were travelling to Alexandria, Egypt aboard the SS Verdala and were equipped with tropical clothing. However, they needed to travel in convoy and were diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia during the winter!

The two collections have been available online on Ancestry in partnership with The National Archives for a few years but I did find some new information and records.

Henry Grannum

Private 12157 Henry Grannum, 9th battalion British West Indies Regiment, Jamaica Labour Company, Mex Camp, Alexandria, Egypt (source Find My Past)

You can search these records as part of their general military searched and use their filters to navigate to the relevant results. There are also collection specific search pages: on Findmypast you can search both collections through a single search, but on Ancestry they are two separate searches: WWI service records (WO 363) and WWI pensions (WO 364).

On Ancestry use advance search to search by

  • name
  • date of birth and place
  • residence
  • keyword
  • regimental number
  • regiment – West Ind* will find British West Indies Regiment and West India Regiment. It doesn’t seem possible to just search for West Indies Regiment to pick up possible transcription errors.

On Findmypast you can search by

  • name
  • date of birth
  • service number
  • regiment – this needs to be entered exactly eg British West Indies Regiment but you can enter * as a wildcard eg British West Ind*
  • birth town, county and country – you need to use the pick list.

I’m pleased that Findmypast allows you to search this collection by place and by regiment because on most of their earlier datasets you have to enter a person’s name. So now it is possible to do non-genealogical research which opens up these records to other historians. You have always been able to do these non-name specific searches on Ancestry which has been extremely useful.

The results can provide slightly different information depending on which site and which search page you use. They are both subscription sites but you can also use pay per view. I am registered on both sites but I don’t have a subscription for either site, although I did have a few old credits left on Findmypast which they gave to registered users a few months ago.

It can be difficult to find people – and not just because most records have not survived. These are unstructured records, they are incomplete, information is inconsistent and they are handwritten. Therefore, they can be difficult to read and to index. Names and other information may not be entered in full and on the burnt documents the writing may be indistinct because of fire or water damage. Regiments are often abbreviated and so WIR for West India Regiment may look like WYR for West Yorkshire Regiment and frequently the West India Regiment is recorded as the West Indies Regiment and BWIR (for British West Indies Regment) could be transcribed as either. I have also noticed that forms do not always include the country for Commonwealth recruits for example many Jamaican entries record Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall as counties. On Findmypast a search for Bermuda as country does not return any results but four of soldiers from Bermuda regiments are recorded with the birth counties of Pembrokeshire, Down, Warwickshire and Somerset. I don’t know about Down but Pembroke, Warwick and Somerset are all places in Bermuda.

The surviving information varies significantly from person to person – you may be lucky as I was for private 563837 Edward Thomas Grannum, Labour Corps and find two sets of papers his service papers with personal information and correspondence and pension papers with medical reports, or as in the case of private 12157 Henry Grannum, British West Indies Regiment you get a single line reporting his headache.

This blog is for information about this recent launch and not analysis of the different indexes or searches but as I did find some new information I thought that it would be useful to do some quick comparisons. I carried out some simple searches for my one-name study and for Caribbean regiments and  there are some significant differences between the results for the two services – I used wildcards and so you may get slightly different results.

  • British West Indies Regiment (searched as British West Ind*): Ancestry = 867 (pensions only) and Findmypast = 3217 (pensions and soldiers’ papers)
  • West India Regiment (searched as West Ind*): Ancestry = 529 (250 soldiers’ papers and 279 pensions , searched as West Ind* minus results for BWIR) and Findmypast = 789 (pensions and soldiers’ papers)
  • Jamaica: (mostly Jamaica War Contingent part of the BWIR) Ancestry = 12 (pensions) and Findmypast = 186 (pensions and soldiers’ papers – searched as Jamaica*)
  • Trinidad: (Trinidad Light Infantry Volunteers formed part of the BWIR) Ancestry = 6 (pensions); Findmypast = 15 (mostly soldiers’ papers)
  • Bermuda: Ancestry = 2 (pensions) and Find My Past = 5 (searched as *bermuda*)

Robert Lightbourn McNichol, private 986 Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps is found under Pensions (WO 364) on Ancestry but as WO 363 on Findmypast; note that his medal index card is Robert L McNichol.

Grannum

  • Ancestry = 1
    • Edward Thomas Grannum (pension papers)
  • Findmypast = 4
    • H Grannum, 12157 British West Indies Regiment (soldiers’ papers) x 2 – these link to two entries on the same image and so I was only charged once. This relates to Henry Grannum, 9th battalion and is named on a casualty list with headache contained within the record of Robert Smith Mitchell, King’s Royal Rifle Corps
    • James Grannum, 5/17469 Seaforth Highlanders, born 1884, Midlothian (pension)
    • James Grannum, 28211, born 1884, Midlothian (pension) – this comprises three images and are the same as the last three images of the previous file – but I was charged another 5 credits to view this which I think is unfair. Entering the same person twice may explain why there are different results.

I can’t find this entry for H Grannum on Ancestry (his medal index card is there) and James Grannum is indexed as James Grannon (found today 3 June 2014)

I found two records for Edward Thomas Grannum on Findmypast using his service number. He is indexed as Grannon (soldiers’ papers –  the coversheet says this but elsewhere in the document he is Grannum) and Graumon (pension papers – even though the coversheet clearly shows Grannum in block caps); I have sent one amendment to the company.

Today (3 June 2014) I eventually found Edward Thomas’s soldiers’ papers on Ancestry – I searched using just his service number. He is indexed as J Grannell (the handwriting on the cover sheet looks like Graumond – but the paperwork clearly says Grannum), to make matters worse this only covers part of his document the rest of it isfound under the previous soldier’s index John Grunnell.

Granham

  • Ancestry = 0
  • Findmypast = 6 (checking the medal index cards on The National Archives catalogue at least three of these are Garnhams)

Cranham

  • Ancestry = 40 (13 pensions and 27 soldiers’ papers)
  • Findmypast = 49

This release by Findmypast is a valuable addition for researching First World War soldiers and regiments but you may need to search both websites using a variety of search terms of surname including variants, regiment, regimental number (use the medal index cards on Ancestry and National Archives for these), place of birth and also county instead of country.

Image source: crop of image on Findmypast for H Grannum, the transcription records the source as “WO 363. 40938 Robert Smith Mitchell, King’s Royal Rifle Corps”, fo 695 (I don’t know the complete archival reference).

Update: 3 June 2014 I sampled a few of the ‘soldiers’ papers’ (WO 363) for the British West Indies Regiment and they were taken from various casualty lists found in solders’ documents. So they are not service papers but they may be the only snippet of information surviving for many soldiers. I also found the papers  for Edward Thomas Grannum and James Grannum on Ancestry.

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