In July 2014 I spent a day at the WWI Roadshow in Trinity College Dublin helping people to find their First World War Irish Ancestors. The event, organised by RTE and the National Library of Ireland in association with Trinity College Dublin was an enormous success and attracted unexpectedly huge crowds. It seems that the lid has been lifted in on identifying and acknowledging our First World War Irish ancestors. People around the country are now looking to document the service of their family members. Here are a few useful tips for finding your First World War Irish ancestors.
Before you start, try to gather as much information as you can about the ancestor in question. Try to establish their date and place of birth. You may find numerous men with the same name, such as James O’Reilly or Michael Byrne and one of the only ways that you may be able to identify the correct person is by their date and place of birth. It is also important to consider the variant spellings of a particular surname. I recently had difficulty finding a service record for a young man named Peter Whelan, who eventually appeared under the spelling Whaelan!
If you can identify the regiment that your ancestor served in before you start your research you will have an advantage. However, don’t just assume that because they were born in Cork that they served with the Munster Fusiliers. Men who had joined up earlier in the century may have joined an entirely different regiment and you run the risk of missing a record for them if you incorrectly confine your search to one specific regiment. However, if you have evidence of the regiment that they served in, you can focus your search on the records for that regiment.
Irish genealogical research would not be Irish genealogical research, if we were not grappling with the loss of a significant set of important records. This is, unfortunately, the case with First World War service records. Roughly 65% of First World War service records were destroyed when the Ministry of Defence was bombed during the blitz. This means that you may have difficulty locating a service record for your ancestor. However, there are other sources that you can use to try and build a picture of their service between 1914 and 1918.
A good starting point are the Medal Rolls. Anyone who saw service overseas during the First World War was entitled to a Campaign Medal. This was not a medal for valour, but an acknowledgement that they had served in a particular campaign. Of course many Irish men did not claim their medals, but this does not mean that they were not recorded in the Medal Rolls, which was a record of entitlement and not confirmation that the award was made. The Medal Roll is a collection of 5 million card indexes and if you can find the card index for your ancestor, it will identify the regiment that he was serving with and should record his regimental number. This number will greatly assist your search for a service record.
The Medal Roll Card Indexes are available on the website of the British National Archives and the original image of the card can be purchased from their website. The medal card rolls are also available through ancestry.co.uk, although you should check whether their collection is complete. Ancestry have also very recently released Service Medal and Award Rolls, a slightly extended collection that includes some civilians, such as doctors, nurses, people in the colonial labour corps and allied personnel who assisted the British army, in some cases behind enemy lines. These rolls may also provide the Battalion that the soldier served in, which may prove useful when searching for a Battalion War Diary (see below).
Searching the medal card indexes can be daunting when you are looking for someone with a common name. However, some of the cards record a street address from the early 1920s and you can use this information to help distinguish which medal card pertains to your ancestor. Because these records pertain to all overseas service, you should be able to find a medal card for your ancestor. Once found, you will have your ancestor’s Regiment, Battalion and Regimental Number and you can start piecing together details of their service.
The card itself will identify the medals awarded and in some cases the theatre of war in which the soldier served and whether they were discharged because of injury. A certain amount of the information on the cards is written in an alpha numeric short hand, but a quick internet search should locate the relevant translations of the codes used on the cards. If your ancestor was entitled to the Silver Star they were discharged because of injury, if they received the 1914 Star or Mons Star they participated in the 1914 Campaigns. The Medal Rolls is the start of the story of your ancestor’s service.
With the Regimental number from the medal card, you can undertake to search for a service record, if one survives. Service records can be found online at www.findmypast.co.uk and you can search this collection by name and service number. If you cannot find a service record for your ancestor using their service number, it was most likely destroyed. However, I have come across soldiers who had more than one service number. Men who served prior to 1914 and who reenlisted or who were in the reserves may have received a new number. I have also found brothers who shared a service number and appeared to use two numbers interchangeably. It is still possible to find such anomalies in the records.
A service record will state the name of the soldier, their age at the time of enlistment, whether they had previous service and the regiment that they joined. Don’t forget to check for additional pages, as some surviving service records can run to as many as 10 pages. You may find a physical description of your ancestor, including birth marks or tattoos, details of the next of kin, which can include the name and address of a wife or parents, date of marriage and the names and dates of birth of children. There will also be reports on the soldier’s conduct and health throughout their service as well as the details of where they served.
Even if you cannot find a service record for your ancestor, there are other sources that you can check for information about their experience of the war. One of the most valuable of these are the Unit War Diaries a daily account of life on the front line. Although soldiers are not always named in the diaries, the accounts of life and death of the unit that your ancestor served in at the front will starkly illustrate their experiences.
One example that I found was that of a soldier named Christopher Byrne. All his family knew about him was that he died during the First World War. I found a reference to him in Ireland Memorial records 1914-1918, which recorded that he was a Private in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars and was killed in action in France on 31st October 1914. The Unit Diary for the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars recorded that they were fighting at Hollebeke “Shelling started in morning and German Infantry were seen on the ridge. Counter Attack was ordered on the East Side of the canal but this never got very far. As the day went on the shelling became steadily heavier. Machine Guns were destroyed. Capt. Hunt and North were killed. All the damage was done in trenches provided with overhead cover. Narrow trenches without parapets were immune….after heaviest possible shelling a strong infantry attack developed and we called in French to strengthen trenches…. At 9pm we withdrew to St. Eloi. There was heavy sniping there so had no billets. Went on to Voermezelee and bivouacked there.” In the margin beside this account was a list of 5 dead and 17 wounded, the dead included Private Byrne. This account was the backdrop to the last day of his life, on a battlefield in France in October 1914.
Christopher Byrne was memorialised in Ireland Memorial Records 1914-1918, compiled by the Committee of the Irish National War Memorial and published in 1923. It accounts for 49,000 Irish men or men of Irish birth who died during the First World War. The volumes, beautifully illustrated by Harry Clarke are available online at www.findmypast.ie and if your ancestor died during the war, his entry in the Memorial Records should tell you his service number, regiment, date of death and often place of birth.
Another source for soldiers who died during the First World War is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which recorded that Christopher Byrne who died on 31st October 1914, was commemorated on Panel 5 of the Menin Gate at Ypres. This extensive collection will identify soldiers of Irish birth or Irish ancestry who also fought with Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand forces as well as the British Army and may contain more detailed biographical information.
Another source for finding information on Irish soldiers who served in the First World War are contemporary newspapers. Soldiers who returned home on leave or because of injury were interviewed and asked to account for other local men who were in the same unit. Researching the family history of BBC Radio DJ Chris Moyles for Who Do You Think You Are? found a number of newspaper reports on the death of great grandfather, James Moyles, in November 1914. Returning soldiers, with whom James had been serving, reported the details of his death in the Western People, a newspaper published in his home town of Ballina, Co. Mayo. These vivid accounts and testimonies to his character were a moving conclusion to Chris Moyles journey into his family’s past. Of course casualty lists were also published in local newspapers, and in the early months of the war, there were reports on local men who had joined up and departed for France. More and more Irish newspapers are being made available online at www.irishnewsarchive.com and www.findmypast.ie
Tackling the vast amount of material that has become available as we commemorate the centenary of the First World War can be daunting. However, if you take a methodical and organised approach to the records available, armed with the full name (and variant names), year and place of birth of your ancestor, you should be able to piece together some of the story of their service and the experience of their time at the front.
You can also exploit the many, many forums, facebook pages, websites and regimental museums that are publishing guides and information about the men and women who served in the First World War.
You can also listen to our Free Podcast, episode one is about Tracing your First World War Irish Ancestors
Free Online Resources
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – http://www.cwgc.org/learning-and-resources.aspx
First World War Records at the British National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/
Prisoner of War Records of the International Red Cross http://grandeguerre.icrc.org