One of the biggest differences between researching this project and researching for my MA Thesis in 2002 is the complete lack of paper involved in this process. In 2002, although I could see attestation papers of Canadian WW1 soldiers through Library and Archives Canada (LAC), in order to see a full military file, I had to file a request to have it copied and mailed to me. The time lag between wanting to see the record and actually seeing the record was weeks, and there was a cost involved for the retrieval, copying, and mailing of the records. As part of LAC’s Great War commemoration activities, they are working on completing digitization of all WW1 service files by the end of 2018. They are working on them in roughly alphabetical order, and new batches of files are added to the database every two weeks. As of their last update, they are up to the last name “Russell.” The scans are beautiful high quality colour images, allowing for a very detailed examination of the documents. The files contain information about the attestation, service, medical treatment, action, pay, medals, and next of kin of the soldiers, and read in conjunction with the soldier’s battalion’s war diary, can provide at the very least a chronology of the soldier’s service, and in some cases, even a sense of what their experience of the war may have been like.
A similar experience can be had with the British Military Service files. The scans are lower quality–they look more like what one would expect in scrolling through microfiche–but the biggest challenge with these records are the condition that they were in when they were imaged due to their physical history. Whereas the Canadian files are largely in good shape and can be handled relatively easily by archivists and conservators, the British files, like the British capital, were victims of the bombings in London in WW2. In September 1940, a War Office repository where the records of WW1 soldiers were stored was hit, and up to 60% of the records were destroyed through fire and water damage. These are referred to as “burnt” records. Those records that do exist can sometimes be very tattered and difficult to read. As such, there is not always a full record available for a British soldier, and one has to rely on other records such as military honour rolls or war graves records to learn more about the units in which they served.
As I’ve mentioned in the project description, I am quite certain that I have American ancestors who took part in that country’s efforts in the Great War. Unfortunately, the American records were also largely destroyed, in this case affecting files from WW1, WW2, and the Korean conflict, as in 1973, a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Centre in St. Louis destroyed 80% of service records of men discharged from American military forces between 1912 and 1960.
There are many more Davids in my family tree than I will ever know, as my list of 52 men was shaped by the availability and quality of records available. The stories that get told are the stories that can be uncovered in those boxes in archives and shown the light of day through careful conservation and, certainly in the case of this project, digitization. Bless the archivists and conservators and those who fight to fund them–they are the best defence against more stories being lost.