World War I Research, Thoughts for Veteran’s Day

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Veteran’s Day was originally called “Armistice Day” and it commemorated the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” The date was chosen to note the signing of the armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. On November eleventh of the following year, President Wilson proclaimed the first observance of Armistice Day. In 1938, the U. S. Congress formally declared it a legal holiday (52 Stat.351; 5 U.S. Code, Sec. 87a). In 1954, the 83rd Congress amended the earlier act by changing the name of the holiday to “Veteran’s Day” to honor all veterans, regardless of war (Public Law 380). In 1968, the holiday was included in the dates affected by the Uniform Holiday Bill (Public Law 90-363, 82 Stat. 250) that ensured three-day holidays for federal employees. Because of the ensuing confusion (in some years Veterans Day was observed as early as late October) and the belief that the patriotic significance of the specific date was too great, President Gerald Ford returned Veteran’s Day to its original date of November 11 (Public Law 94-97 89 Stat. 479).

Today, the last of the generation who fought to end all wars have almost all died. Ironically, as this loss has happened, the interest in this historic period and the soldiers themselves has increased.

I learned about the history of the World War I period in school, although it always seemed that the end of the school year would arrive just as my history class began to learn about the “modern” era. As there were no World War I veterans in my family, I was much more interested in the Civil War as I did have veteran ancestors. I thought little about World War I until I began to take annual trips to Scotland and recognized that even the littlest village had a World War I monument prominently located in a place of honor. This observation led me to learn more about that war, in particular how to find out more about the individuals who served, or were eligible to serve.

It is significant the Scotland lost 150,000 casualties between 1914 and 1918, over three times its combined loss in all the wars that followed. When I began extracting genealogical information for Clan Barclay International, I spent a long morning in the Scottish War Memorial in Edinburg Castle transcribing all of the Barclay entries from the regimental honor rolls, or casualty lists. (The guard was none too sure what I was doing, but warily let me continue.) The enormity of Scotland’s loss of young men was made very clear in the page upon page of deaths designated as “KIA, F&F” – killed in action, France and Flanders. Now this same research can now be done on-line, but the impact of the magnitude of fatalities is somehow lost by not paging through the records. A surname search in the War Memorial’s World War I database returned a list of 135 Barclays and two Barkleys in seconds. This search provides surname, first name, service number, death date, roll of honor (regiment) and rank. If you click on the entry number to the left of the name, you may find additional information including decoration, if any, place of birth, and theatre of death. You also have an opportunity to purchase a certified “copy of extract” for £5 (overseas price) which may provide additional information such as cause or location of death. If you had a family member in Scotland who served in a British regiment during World War I, this site is a must. The information provided will assist you in locating further military service information either in War Office Records or in regimental museums and histories. In addition, I recommend a title in the Public Record Office Readers’ Guide series, William Spencer’s Army Service Records of the First World War (3rd expanded ed., Cromwell Press, 2001). This title is particularly helpful in explaining the various types of World War I related records in the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office), including service records, war diaries and operational records, maps, campaign medals, awards for gallantry, courts martial, prisoners of war, casualties and war dead, records of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as records housed elsewhere.

In the United States, an important set of records for genealogists is found in the World War I Draft Registration Cards, available at the National Archives and other institutions on microfilm, and online at ancestry.com. It is important to note that despite their name, these records represent a civilian registration, and are not indications of induction or actual service. Only a small percentage of registrants were called into service; most, like my grandfather, were not. The significance of these records for genealogists, however, cannot be understated. About twenty-four million men lived in the United States in 1917 and 1918, and approximately 98% of all men under the age of 46 registered. While the content may vary among the three separate registrations that were held, the records include name, place of residence, date and place of birth, race, country of citizenship, occupation, employer. Often they include a physical description, the name and address of the nearest relative, dependent information, and marital status. In my grandfather’s case, I learned that he registered on 5 June 1917, was twenty-seven years old, single, and living at 538 Union Street in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was a clerk in the City Clerk’s Office and was described as tall, of medium build, with brown eyes and brown hair. Josiah Edwin Griffin and his brother Everett Kingsley Griffin, whom I knew as much older men living in Huntington, Massachusetts, where my grandfather had a summer home, were living in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the time of the World War I registration. Josiah, known as “Ed,” was a gas worker at the Lowell Gas Light Company; Everett was a lumber surveyor. I was recently on a research trip in Washington D.C. and having exhausted my work plan for the day (that means I found absolutely nothing!), I decided to fill the rest of my day researching the Griffin family, about whom I knew very little. It was the World War I registration cards that alerted me to the fact that the Griffin brothers, although born in Grantham, New Hampshire, were indeed the same family of Griffins who lived in Lowell. I immediately found multiple generations of the family and could create quite a well documented pedigree. While my original research plan went nowhere, this substitute research was very successful and fun! You may also want to check Christina K. Schaefer’s The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All of the World’s Fighting Men and Volunteers (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998, reprinted 2006).

A search in Ancestry.com’s card catalog function using the term “World War I,” yielded eleven databases. In addition to the World War I Draft Registration Cards, a Canadian soldier’s database contains images of the two-page attestation papers for men enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (includes name, address, birthplace, date of birth, age, name of next of kin and relationship, and regimental number); a full text version of W. M. Haulsee’s three-volume Soldiers of the Great War (Soldiers Record, 1920), provides information on U. S. deaths, arranged by state; a list of the approximately 11,000 mothers and widows of World War I soldiers buried overseas certified by the War Department as eligible for a government-sponsored “pilgrimage” to visit the graves of their loved-ones, the first being sponsored in 1930 (includes mother or wife’s name, city and state of residence, relationship, deceased name, rank, unit and cemetery); as well as a variety of other related databases including one enumerating U.S. naval deaths during this period.

Footnote.com provides several World-War I related databases. One of note is the Naturalization Index for World War I Soldiers. During this war, soldiers were not granted citizenship on the basis of their service. Instead, naturalization was often expedited by waiving the normal Declaration of Intent and reducing the residency requirement. Courts were often held on military bases and application and naturalization could sometimes be accomplished in one day. These digitized images from National Archives Microfilm Publication M1952 (Index to Naturalizations of World War I Soldiers 1918, RG 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service). These records include the name, date of naturalization, the court, certificate number and military base.

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