The National Archive at Kew holds the records of ordinary soldiers whose service in the British Army finished before 1920. For officers the date is 1922. Unfortunately however, well over half of all WW1 records were lost during the second World War due to a fire in 1940 as a result of bombing.
A forebear of mine, Alfred was killed in action in 1916 and a recent visit to Kew showed that his records had survived.
Chronologically the first document is the record of Attestation, that is when the recruit signed up to enter the Army. It provides the age, address, nationality and occupation of the recruit, all of which are valuable to the family historian. But what I found most interesting was seeing my ancestor’s signature for the first time. Previously I have used the census records to find information but that of course is recorded by a third party, whereas the Attestation record is actually signed by the recruit.
Descriptive Report of Enlistment
The Descriptive Report of Enlistment shows more family history as well as details of the soldier’s service history. Details of Alfred’s dependant children are included showing names and where born as well as details of the soldier’s wife and when and where they were married. Again personal details are given, the soldier’s height and chest measurements, even including the range of chest expansion. Distinctive marks are recorded, in my ancestor’s case, the Descriptive report shows he had tattoos on his forearm and a scar on his face. Again a real person begins to emerge.
The Description Report also shows Alfred’s Statement of the Services, in other words his service history. He signed up on May 25th 1915 and was immediately posted to the British Expeditionary Force. He went to France in November 1915 and was promoted to Lance Corporal in December 1915. The only other entry is his death in 1916. Killed in Action, 22.6.16.
Medical History Sheet
The Medical History Sheet again gives personal information about Alfred. He is 5 feet 2 ½ inches tall and only 122 lbs. It also shows parish in which born as date of enlistment.
The Statement of Services (Army Form B 200) repeats the service history but includes no new information.
The Military History Sheet again offers no substantially new information but confirms the service history and gives details of Alfred’s wife and dependant children.
Casualty Form – Active Service
The next papers in Alfred’s file all come after his death and make very sombre reading. The Casualty Form – Active Service was filled in two days after his death in June 1916 and shows the date on which Alfred was killed, the place is simply given as ‘Field’.
Army Form 104-90 is dated just two weeks later and is a request and subsequent reply for details of the pay and separation allowance that was being paid to Alfred’s wife. It does not mention Alfred’s death.
Form 118a, Memorandum for the Officer in Charge of Infantry Records at Hounslow is dated October 1916, three and half months after his death, shows to whom personal property and medals of the dead soldier should be sent.
January 1917 shows the award of pension to Alfred’s widow, the rate is shown as 25s per week for herself and her four children still dependant upon her.
The final papers are dated February 1921 and are receipts from Alfred’s widow, Betsy, of his war medals, the British War and Victory Medals and the 1014-15 Star. These show Betsy’s signature and is probably the only tangible or written record she has left behind her.
The War Graves Commission website provides details of where the Word War 1 dead are buried and a search for Alfred shows he is at the Gorre British and Indian Cemetery and shows the reference to the Grave.
A little about Alfred
I had always known that my ancestor had been killed in the Great War but he is figure that I, and the rest of my family knew very little about. My grandmother, who died in 1984, could remember him but apart from her, but that was all. His widow went on to re-marry but about her first husband very few details him survived, except the date of his death and the regiment he belonged to.
Although I had always known he was killed in the trenches in France, to see his name there amongst all the others, Lane not being a particularly rare surname there are lots of others of the same name, brought home the horror of war and also gave me a very personal connection to it.
There are of course many sites that provide a wealth of information on the First World War. I found the Military Genealogy site very to use and gave me some valuable new information.