Friday, 25 September 2015

Writing about World War I Soldiers

As I am writing my book about my great great great grandfather, Robert Muir (1800-1869), and his descendants, I discovered many Scottish young men who served in World War I. As I went to explore  the available records, I quickly became confused. I realized I needed to back up and stop researching specific ancestors and focus instead on the War itself and what records were kept by the British military and why.

I stopped writing and researching and started reading. That reading confirmed what I've vaguely remembered about World War I. It was a war that started almost by accident, seemingly by unwilling participants. It was supposed to be over by Christmas; it lasted four years. Generals fought with outmoded tactics against new weapons and technology wreaked destruction on a scale never seen before. No war is good, but World War I was a particularly bad war.

Nine European monarchs at King Edward VII's funeral in 1910; photograph
courtesy of Wikipedia

As the war drug on into early 1915, Britain discovered itself woefully unprepared and scrambled to keep up. The available records reflect that. The Military Service Act of 1916 was tweaked more than once so that more young men would be available to be drafted. When the war began, the British Army numbered about 730,000 men. By standards of the day, it was a small, professional force. By the end of the war more than seven million men and women had experienced service in the British Army.

Unfortunately, records about their service are spotty at best. German bombers struck the War Ministry repository in 1940. More than half of the military service records pertaining to World War I were destroyed.

Damage caused during September 1940 German bombing raid of London;
photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

Unlike researching U.S. military personnel, there was no concept of a serial number, which stayed with the soldier when transferred to different units. Instead, soldiers in the British Army were assigned regimental numbers. If they changed regiments, they were assigned a new number. At first I thought these regimental numbers were next to worthless. But I learned you could search soldiers with numbers close in range to your ancestor's and learn something of their service, such as when they were likely transferred into a theater of war and to what regiment.

On the rare occasions when I could find service records, I didn't understand them. The abbreviations and military jargon were indecipherable. I hired an expert, Chris Baker, of The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War, 1914-1918. I had been using his website to understand when regiments were formed, where they saw service, and when they were disbanded. I used his forums to ask questions. I learned from Chris how to work around the lack of a military service record by using operational unit war diaries. These are official day-by-day accounts kept by individual British units within the Army. Though they rarely mention a soldier by name, they often describe the action in vivid, though understated detail.

Oswald Dykes Riddell Dick Statement of Services record for a period of military
service before World War I; image courtesy of the UK National Archives

Chris Baker's report included the results of his searches through each available record, including newspapers. If service records didn't exist, he reviewed the regimental numbers before and after my ancestor's and described their service. It is likely my ancestor had similar experiences. Two of the ancestors he researched for me were killed during the war. He provided maps of the action and described it in ways I could understand. He also provided contact information for the museum most relevant to specific regiments. His deliverable also included unit war diaries and written regimental histories.

Cover page of Chris Baker's report on Oswald Dykes Riddell
Dick's military service; personal collection

As a result of his help, I believe I was properly able to honor Private William Lively (1899-1918) and  Lance Corporal Oswald Dykes Riddell Dick (1888-1918).

Both men's lives were filled with tragedy before the war. William Lively had lost his father in a fatal wagon accident in 1906 and his mother to tuberculosis in 1910. He was an orphan at age 11. By 1917 he lived in Darwen, England. He served with the 1/4 Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment and was killed in action on 27 May 1918 during the Third Battle of Aisne when his unit was completely overrun by the enemy and decimated. William's body was never recovered but he was memorialized on the Soissons Memorial in the town of Soissons.

Oswald Riddell Dykes Dick lost his first wife in August 1914 to pneumonia and three months later a son died of tuberculosis. He was left a widower with three young children. He married his first cousin in 1917. During the war he served with the 1/5 Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders and was killed on 21 July 1918 during a British counterattack near Champagne, France. He was interred at the Terlinchtun British Cemetery in Wimville, France.

Once I learned how navigate the National Archives website, I ordered many documents. The Lives of the First World War website has also come a long way since I began. When I first started using it, I found only two record sets. Many, many more are now available -- some free and some not. For paid subscription websites, I discovered to be the best for British military records. I also spend a lot of time communicating with the regimental museums.

Writing a Family History
He Died on a Flanders Field
Killed in Action During the Spring Offensive


  1. Thanks for this post. I am doing a presentation on WWI research at a Family History Fair and your comments have added some more for me to share. Mine is just a very basic, beginning class, and will focus mostly on the US, but I will mention Britain. As much as I have studied the subject over the last several months, you have added some things I had not known. Thanks again!

    1. Glad I was able to help in a small way. I'm sure your presentation will be great. I'm much more comfortable researching and writing about U.S. military and wars.

  2. A very interesting post, thanks for the info

    1. Thanks, Jill. I hope the info proves useful to you.


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