Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Online military searches

If your relative served in the British armed forces there are two websites which must absolutely be at the top of your list: Ancestry and (FMP).

Ancestry has the best WW1 collection: WO 363 (burnt records), WO 364 (pension records) and WO 372 (campaign medal index cards).

Find My Past has the best pre-WW1 collection: a superior Boer War offering, WO 97 (Chelsea Pensioners discharge papers) and WO 96 (militia attestations - due on-line in late spring 2011).

Both Ancestry and feature datasets from the Naval & Military Press stable - Soldiers Died in the Great War (SDGW), Ireland's Memorial Records, WW2 Army Roll of Honour etc - and both sites also have other minor data sets licensed from third parties. For some reason, FMP doesn't include the regimental number field on some of its N&MP datasets - like SDGW for instance - and this can lead to frustrations. On the upside however, FMP's version of SDGW features often features much useful additional information about the unit a man served with. See below as an example.

When it comes to the on-line search experience, Find My Past is way up front, and here's why:

1. Transcription accuracy is way ahead of Ancestry when it comes to accuracy of transcription. What's more, if you do spot a mistake you can suggest a correction. Ancestry offers this facility too, BUT, you can only correct limited fields AND there appears to be no system of checking a customer's correction. This is foolhardy because customers get it wrong too. With FMP, you can correct multiple fields and your corrections are checked by a third party before they're accepted for publication. Furthermore, whilst Find My Past strives to improve on accuracy of transcriptions, Ancestry gives the impression of being content to let glaringly obvious transcription errors languish on its database when a simple find-and-replace action by a half-knowledgeable software developer could cure all of that at a stroke.

2. Speed service records download roughly four times faster than the Ancestry records. So if you're a heavy user, as I am, it means that you can squeeze far more findmypastrecords into a day, than you can Ancestry's. The WO 97 series is a joy: speedy access and full colour scans.

3. Search
There are far more search options on than there are on Ancestry. Ancestry's WO 364 records do not allow you to search on regiment, a catastrophic failing that beats understanding. Thankfully they got it right by the time the WO 363 records came on line and on this record set you can now search on:

first name
last name
estimated birth year
residence location
birth county
regiment name
regiment number

The search would be perfect if it gave the option of a keyword search. It doesn't, and so it doesn't get ten out of ten. It does however offer the following search options:

first name
middle name
last name
country of birth
county of birth
year of birth
town of birth
parish of birth
regiment [drop down list]
year served from
records to search [presumably for when the WO 96 series is added]

What's more, you can sort the records by name or year of birth AND you have the ability to include variants in the search. So, search for Simon Smith, tick the variants box and you'll also get Simeon Smith and Sime Smith.

4. Wildcard searching
It's always been a frustration for me with the Ancestry searches that you can't conduct a wildcard search on less than three characters. It's not so bad with name searching, but for number searching - which I use a lot - it can be a right royal pain in the backside. So to give an example, if you're looking for a man with a number beginning with 3, you can't just type in 3*. And if you just type in the number 3, you'll get every number under the sun that contains that number (even though you've ticked the "exact matches only" box). On Find My Past it's a doddle. Wildcard search on one, two or twenty twenty-two numbers (and remember, on Ancestry, if you're just searching on numbers you can ONLY do a wildcard search on numbers of three digits, nothing more, nothing less.

and finally...

5. Results' screen
Call up an original image on Ancestry and it opens in the same window. Call up an image with FMP and it opens in a new window. What's more, even if you've called up the 38th image in a set and have forgotten the name of the man you've been looking for, there he is, transcribed in a handy summary at the top of the page. Want to open a new record? Easy, just go back to the original search screen and find somebody else. With Ancestry, it can be a laborious process getting back to that original screen.

So all in all, FMP wins the search wars as far as I'm concerned AND it's MY great great uncle Bertrand Elam who features in FMP's latest campaigns. See HERE to read more about him. Now if only FMP carried more WW1 records...

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