Friday 25 September 2009

Unit war diaries of the First World War

Ninety four years ago today, allied forces attacked the German lines at Loos and in diversionary attacks further north. By the end of the day, nearly ten thousand British troops lay dead.

There's an increasing appetite for all things WW1; an appetite that will surely continue to increase as we approach the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war, the 100th anniversary of Mons, of Festubert, Neuve Chapelle etc.

The majority of our work is concerned with First World War soldiers and even though, thanks to a 1940 bombing raid on London's docklands, the majority of service records for Other Ranks no longer survive, it's still possible in many cases to make assumptions about a soldier's service based on his medal index card (if he has one) and the war diary of the unit to which he belonged.

War diaries often provide a treasure trove of information and are really the primary sources of information (along with Brigade and Divisional diaries) when it comes to the day to day routines of a particular battalion or battery or other army unit.

So if your ancestor's service records went up in flames in 1940, don't despair. Get in touch with us and who knows, you may find him mentioned in a war diary.

Friday 18 September 2009

Old Harrovians in the Great War

I get sent so many links one way or the other and I forget that not everybody may be aware of the treasure trove of information available on-line. This link will take you to biographies of Old Harrovians who died during the Great War:

Harrow School - Fallen in WW1

The period covered in this volume is 23rd August 1914 to 20th March 1915.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Updates - week ending 12th September 2009

It's been stop-start at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission this week. First there was a new search facility on its on-line Debt of Honour and then, in the blink of an eye, it reverted to the old one again. Meanwhile though, work at the Fromelles burial site ended this week. The BBC news website carries a number of articles on the work at Fromelles and if you have a relative buried there, the BBC website is a good first port of call.

Some interesting commissions this week involving soldiers who fought in the Crimea, South Africa and Egypt. I have a separate project covering British Army Medals and I've already touched on the Egypt Medal. In time, these pages will be updated to include details of the British Regiments which served in each campaign.

A friend of mine has sent me a link to some WW1 Regimental histories which are available on-line and can be downloaded. All you need is sufficient space on your hard drive!

Finally, I know that many enquiries for army military history research are coming via my Army Service Numbers blog. Work on the database continues apace and the data I publish on the blog is just a small sample of a far bigger work. There is limited data available elsewhere on-line but the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry is one of those regiments which is comprehensively covered. If you have a relative who served with the 46th (South Devonshire) Regiment of Foot or the DCLI, then THIS SITE is for you.

Drop me a line if you'd like us to quote on your military history project.

Thursday 10 September 2009

CWGC update

From the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:

"Following extensive consultation with users of the popular CWGC website, we have made several changes to the “Search Our Records” section , which will make it easier for people to search our database of 1.7m Commonwealth casualties. However, a technical problem has affected these changes, which has required the temporary reinstatement of the previous search tool.

"It is our intention to adopt the improved system, once the technical problem has been resolved. As well as providing a more intuitive system, the changes to the records search facility allow for greater security of our database but regular users may wish to note that one of the likely results of the security upgrade is that external websites will be unable to take advantage of the links to individual casualty details which are currently available.

"We are confident that these changes to the search facility represent a significant improvement on the previous system and that users will find the changes useful."

It's a shame that external sites will not be able to link to individual casualty details but presumably CWGC has its reasons for including this restriction.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

National Archives - update

New from the National Archives:

"To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Second World War, we have created a series of six videocasts entitled 'War on Film'. These describe key events that inspired popular war films, using extracts from real government records and archive footage.

Discover the real stories behind films such as 'The Dam Busters' and 'The Longest Day', as retold by our military records specialist William Spencer.

The first videocast looks at the Blitz and the evacuation of children from large cities, as shown in the film 'Hope and Glory'. Watch it now."

Having reported yesterday on the new-look CWGC Debt of Honour website, I see that today it has reverted to the old-look.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

A makeover for

It's a pity that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has missed an opportunity to make its on-line Debt of Honour Register more user friendly.

The new-look Register appears today but its only so much old wine in new bottles and could have offered a lot more. I've always found the search function frustrating. The CWGC holds a lot of information about the men and women it commemorates but only allows the visitor to search on basic terms. The old look-look site allowed visitors to search on surname and initial and then war, year of death, service (ie army, navy etc) and force (ie British, Australian, Canadian etc). The new-look site allows visitors exactly the same options albeit you now have to make one extra click to bring up the "advanced" [sic] search options of war, year of death, service, and force if you discover that typing in "Smith" and "J" is simply going to present you with too many possibilities.

They've changed the font and the point size and also laid out the information in a different order but the search engine still falls woefully short. Why for instance can we not search on the person's full name, or actual date of death, or army number, or regiment, or battalion? Why can we not search on keywords contained in the additional information? The CWGC contains all of that data and it therefore surely can't be such an onerous or difficult task to include these as search options.

In its favour, there are more search options once the results have been returned. I see that there are 1001 results for J Smith (that's the equivalent of a WW1 battalion of men named J Smith) and once the results are returned it is then possible to sort the information by surname, rank, service number, date of death, age, regiment/service, force, memorial/grave ref, and cemetery/memorial name. All of this is an improvement and proves that it is possible to manipulate all of the data fields. So why then can we not search on all of these?

The CWGC has also missed an opportunity to link in with The War Graves Photographic Project and include details of individuals for whom a war grave or memorial photo exists. This is both surprising and disappointing, particularly as TWGPP works as a joint venture with CWGC.

If I was a teacher, marking this latest piece of 'homework' from CWGC I'd be writing "could do better" in the margin. Let's hope that the next upgrade, whenever it comes, makes the site even more user friendly.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Updates - week ending 5th September 2009

I've started another blog; this time commemorating the dead of WW2.

The Second World War has never held the fascination for me that the First World War does. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that my relatives were mostly Great War era veterans rather than Second War. My childhood was peppered with anecdotes of the horrors of the trenches rather than atrocities in Burma, or heroism at Dunkirk. But this week has marked the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two and so on 3rd September 2009, 70 years to the day that Britain went to war against Germany for the second time that century, I started a WW2 Remembrance blog and like the WW1 Remembrance blog I'll be updating that daily.

I've also started a site for military books, an attempt to draw together publishers under one roof, and again highlighting British military involvement in conflict since 1800. The Military History Bookshop is HERE.

And whilst on the subject of books, I recently picked up a number of medal reference works which make great companions for the various medal rolls that I hold and which I've used on the British Army Medals site. Medal collecting is an area I've dabbled in, albeit not as much as I would have liked to. That's one hobby that requires deep, deep pockets.

Finally, it's been a busy week again on the military research front; mostly WW1 era but with some interesting Victorian projects spanning the Indian Mutiny and Boer War. Get in touch if you'd like us to help with your own project.

The photo shows a very sodden Kirkee War Cemetery, Pune. I took around four hundred photos there for The War Graves Photographic project a few years ago.

Thursday 3 September 2009

How burnt is burnt?

I was adding a WW1 Remembrance post for a man who died on this day in 1914 and I thought it might be an idea to say a few words about the documents held in the WO 363 series at the National Archives. Commonly referred to as the burnt documents, these are the papers that were damaged when the Germans bombed the War Office Record Store at Arnside Street, in London's docklands in September 1940.

The majority of papers stored at Arnside Street were completely destroyed and many of those that survive bear the scars of flame or water from the firemen's hoses. What that means for today's researcher is that if your ancestor's papers haven't been turned to ashes or even singed, the water may have obliterated the content.

Nonetheless, the WO 363 series does contain records of servicemen who died, unlike the WO 364 series which, as a series for pensions awarded to WW1 servicemen is not supposed to. That at least is the theory, but having personally found records for soldiers who died in the WO 364 series, I would suggest that it is always worth checking.