The impact of the First World War is such that there can be very few British family histories that are not touched by it in some way. In my own case, three out of four of my grandparents' families had young men who fought in the war and the fourth family's business was radically changed by war work. Unfortunately the service papers of non-commissioned WW1 servicemen -- perhaps the most important source for family historians with WW1 connections -- were severely damaged by a bombing raid during WW2. Many records were destroyed and those that survived were badly damaged by fire and water. These 'burnt documents' are too fragile to be widely consulted by the public and have been kept in closed storage in class WO363 at the Public Record Office (PRO).
Until now that is; with the help of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the PRO have been able to undertake a project to microfilm the surviving documents and release them for public inspection. It is estimated that the surviving documents contain the service records of approximately 2 million men so, quite obviously, this process is taking some time. The filming started at each end of the alphabet and is working inward; at the time of writing, surnames beginning with A-F, N, O, Q and S-Z had been filmed and are available at the PRO. An up-to-date status of the microfilming project is available at the PRO website, from where more information on WW1 service records is also available.
I am fortunate in two ways. Firstly, I live within an hour of the PRO and I can get to it relatively easily. Secondly, my close surname interests with known WW1 connections are Senior, Strangward and Frost -- all names that have survived and been released. The remainder of this article uses examples from each family to illustrate the sort of information that you may find in class WO363 if you were to visit the PRO. I should stress that these are examples only; you may find more or less about your particular subject or you may be unlucky and find nothing.
The three soldiers, on whose service documents this article is based, are:
Gunner 68431, 30th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery
My grandfather, Thomas William Senior, joined in February 1916 and was posted to France in July. He served as a signaller on the battlefields of the Somme and later at Menin and Ypres. He returned to the UK in 1919, becoming caretaker of Pontefract racecourse and stables in 1931 until his death in 1961.
Private 30285, 8th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers
Oliver Strangward, my great-uncle, joined the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in December 1915 but was immediately transferred to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers to cover losses. He was posted to the eastern front in Mesopotamia in July 1916 and was killed in action in April 1917.
Corporal 7430, 12th Battalion, King's Royal Rifles
Oxley Frost was my first-cousin, twice-removed. He joined in November 1914 and was posted almost immediately to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Oxley was killed in action in March 1917 in the northern Somme.
Army Form B.2512 - "Short Service, Attestation Of", is the sign-up paper for war service where the recruit confirmed his personal details and signed an oath of allegiance. The information to which he attested included:
The oath that he signed reads as follows:
I ... swear by Almighty God, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, In Person, Crown, and dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and of the Generals and Officers set over me. So help me God.
The reverse of the Attestation includes information such as:
Another section on the reverse, of which there are at least two different versions with different amounts of information, includes information about the service period from the following:
*Not included in the shorter version
I found these papers for all three of my subjects. Apart from Oxley Frost, who is a distant cousin, I knew most of the information on these papers already. However they did give me addresses for next of kin that are not readily available from other sources. The information on the back of the papers was generally disappointing, with no more details than "France" as a posting in the case of my grandfather Thomas William Senior (photo above, front row, third from right) and, in the case of the more detailed service form for my great-uncle Oliver Strangward, no information supplied.
Army Form B.178 - "Medical History", is another form that was completed for my examples at enlistment, following medical examination. It includes information such as:
I found medical histories for all my three examples and these provide revealing information about their physical attributes. For example, Oliver Strangward, killed defending a position in Mesopotamia in April 1917, was just 5'3" tall and weighed nine stones at enlistment. Oxley Frost was the same height but weighed even less -- just eight stones.
Along with the official forms completed for a soldier at enlistment, there may be supporting material:
In the case of Oliver Strangward (photo right), there are two items of correspondence relating to his trade. The first is a letter from the recruiting officer to Oliver's employer -- John Lumb & Co. Ltd. of Castleford -- enquiring about Oliver's qualification as a machine fitter. The response from Lumb & Co suggests that, to their knowledge, Oliver was not suitably qualified.
In the case of Oxley Frost, there is a letter from Methley Rectory, requesting that Oxley be allocated to the same battalion of the King's Royal Rifles as his close friend Pte 6224 Harry Sawyer. Oxley had apparently been keen to join up but was delayed in doing so by work commitments. Judging by Oxley's subsequent records, this request was granted.
Army Form B.103 - "Casualty Form, Active Service" provides a detailed account of postings and casualties. As well as the usual details of name, regimental number, qualififcation, etc. the form includes a table with the following columns:
In all three cases, the burnt documents included casualty forms. The most extensive of these is that of Oliver Strangward, who served in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The record shows that he spent two periods in hospital in 1916; in the first case the ailment is not described, but in the second case as a result of a sprained ankle sustained in the field. Oliver rejoined the unit in February 1917, two months before he was killed.
The casualty form was not just used for injuries. As the column list above indicates, promotion and other events were also recorded. In April 1916, Oxley Frost was appointed assistant shoemaker for the 12th Battalion of the King's Royal Rifles and received an increase in pay of one shilling per day.
The nature of the discharge documents depends on whether the soldier survived the war.
In the case of Thomas William Senior, who survived, the batch of documents includes Army Form Z.11 - "Protection Certificate and Certificate of Identity". According to the instructions on the form, this was required if applying for unemployment and other benefits after discharge. Details on the form include:
For Thomas William Senior, there is also Army Form Z.22 - "Statement As To Disability". This form includes the following information:
I also have a copy of Army Form Z.18 - "Certificate of Employment During The War". In the case of Thomas William Senior, this is in family possession rather than in the burnt documents but I include details here as similar documents may exist in the PRO records for other soldiers. The contents are:
In the case of Oliver Strangward and Oxley Frost, who were both killed, the batch of documents includes Army Form W.5080 - "Statement of Names and Addresses of Relatives". The front side of the form is a letter addressed from the Officer in Charge of the Records to the next of kin:
In order that I may be enabled to dispose of the plaque and scroll in commemoration of the soldier named overleaf in accordance with the wishes of His Majesty the King, I have to request that the requisite information regarding the soldier's relatives now living may be furnished on the form overleaf in strict accordance with the instructions printed thereon.
The declaration thereon should be signed in your own handwriting and the form should be returned to me when certified by a Minister or Magistrate.
The reverse of the form is completed by the next of kin and includes names, ages and addresses of the dead soldier's immediate family or closest living relatives. The form is signed, as directed by the next of kin.
In Oliver's case this is a very useful document since it gives addresses for his brothers and sisters that would otherwise be difficult to find. It also has Oliver's father's signature.
Some other documents found in the batches relating to Oliver, Thomas and Oxley include:
As the examples above illustrate, the burnt documents contain a wealth of information about a soldier's service but also about their immediate families and lives before and after the war. By combining these newly released service records with other WW1 sources, it is now possible to build up detailed picture of a soldier's career, even if they were non-commissioned servicemen.
For soldiers killed in the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) provides information about known graves and memorials. In some cases the CWGC records will include information about the soldier's family.
For any soldier, you may be able to fill in further detail about his military career by referring to the regimental war diaries at the PRO. These catalogue the activities of a unit and, although they rarely mention non-commissioned soldiers by name, they can fill in the background to injuries or deaths of servicemen in those units. An example of this technique using the war diary for Oliver Strangward's unit - the 8th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (Part I and Part II) - is now available on my sister's website.
Further information about the war diaries is available from the PRO website.
Further information on other information available from the PRO can be found in their series of information leaflets.