Research a Soldier
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This Matrix Utility Wiki page describes the basic process of researching a soldier of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. It is based on the process developed over time by many CEFSG members, the results of which are regularly posted to the CEFSG Forum. There are a large number of web sites that have the information readily available. These sites form their own web as you can go deeper and deeper into the process of researching your soldier. As such, this wiki page will be updated regularly to expand the process. Unfortunately we have not yet moved all of the CEFSG Matrix pages from the web site to the Wiki version. As such, you may need to refer to the original pages until the process is complete. Any discussion on the topic may also be at the Research a Soldier Post on the CEFSG Forum.
Much of what is discussed here relates to the process of researching a soldier in the ground forces of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The majority of these were in the Infantry Battalions of the Army Corps. Many of those that served were in the Army Troops. When starting your research you must keep in mind that the soldier you are researching may have moved between group within the Corps or the Troops, or moved from the Corps to the Troops. The detailed service records will take you through the process. For a complete list see - The CEF Wiki Page Index.
If you run into any problems doing the search, try checking the Matrix Utilities to see if you can find the detailed information that you need. The wiki version of the utilities will have two (2) links, one to the web based version (already complete) and the other to the new wiki based utility (being transferred). Until the transfer of all the information is complete you will need to also refer to the web based utilities. Almost all questions have been asked and answered on the CEFSG FORUM, a free resource for everyone. The SEARCH function on that page can be used to search titles or the details within posts. If you want to search all of the resources of the CEFSG sites then use the CEFSG GOOGLE Search Engine found at the bottom of the main CEFSG web site page (CEFSG Google Search). If you want to enter a specific site of a web site you can also use the standard Google code. Enter your information as follows in the Google search bar, such as here to search for information on Depot Battalions: (enter as what is shown in "quotes")
"Depot Battalions site:http://www.cefresearch.ca"
For your convenience, a search bar is also included at the bottom of the web page noted above where you can enter your search terms to find information within the CEFSG sites or on the world wide web.
To get a better understanding of the extent of the Great War from 1914 through to its official conclusion in 1921, you might want to take a look at the Chronology of the war. The wiki pages shows summary tables of what counties declared war against each other, along with links to the chronology of the war on a year-by-year basis. Most researchers are amazed at the extent of the war - thus the name the "Great War". A classic example is Canada's knowledge of the actions outside of France and Flanders, such as operations in North Russia and Siberia in the last days of the war. Remember that November 11, 1918 was only the Armistice.
A Genealogy Primer
Some of our new researchers do not have a great deal of information on the soldier they are researching, perhaps because it is not a family member or the family records are either incomplete or have not been passed down through the generations. At the time of the outbreak of the Great War there were a large number of "new Canadians" who had come from the United Kingdom and were hastily returning to support the King. A common problem comes from trying to find out "if and when" the person being researched was living in Canada at the time. Here are some of the basic web sites, some free and others either subscriber based or pay-per-use.
- Genealogy and Family History: Library and Archives Canada developed this site for those just learning how to find their way through the process of researching a Canadian. Here you will find basic information about "researching" as well as details describing what you can find on LAC sites.
- Automated Genealogy 1911 Canadian Census: This is a searchable transcribed version of the original 1911 Canadian Census. You can enter split view to take you to the original pages of the 1911 Census. This census is important as it is the last one completed prior to the start of the war. Keep in mind that it will not provide any information on persons who came to Canada after the census was completed. It was also a manual process, completed over 100 years ago, thus it is not complete - some people were missed. Some groups have made "local lists" from this information - see here for the example of Milton Ontario 1911 Census.
- Canadian Censuses: Here you will find all of the databases for the Canadian Censuses. These are not as easy to search as the Automated Genealogy site but an excellent resource to go back in history to look at the family of a CEF Soldier. The 1921 Canadian Census is the last to be released and the way to check for soldiers returning from the war. Unfortunately you need access to Ancestry to search that database.
- Family Search: Operated by the JCLDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) this is an invaluable and "free" site for researching a person anywhere in the world. The link takes you to the search page, as you may not be doing family based research.
- Find A Grave: A good site if you are looking for the grave site.
- LAC Passenger Lists: Immigration records based on the passenger lists of those immigrating to Canada up to 1922.
- National Inventory of Canadian War Memorials: A listing of the rolls and war memorials across Canada, often with detailed lists of the names shown on the memorial, or as names in the photographic images. Note that these are not just the community memorials but also the many church, schools, museums or commercial memorials. If you are researching inside your community, take the time to visit the many memorials located in your community. As an example, see the Milton Ontario Rolls and War Memorials which lists all those from the community posted in all locations. Many business, colleges and universities also had printed "Rolls of Service" or "Rolls of Honour", so check for those as well. Some of those located to date are posted here - Matrix Rolls of Honour Listing.
- CEF WWI Soldier Blogs: This blog index site provides links to a number of examples of basic research completed on Canadian soldiers of the Great War. If you are new to this process you might want to look at a few examples to get an idea of what you can find for the soldier you are researching.
- CEF Soldiers of Canadian Communities: This is also a blog index site but more for communities that are collecting information on their soldiers. You can have the men and women of your community listed here, or use these as examples of how to conduct your research.
The Basic Search
A great deal of information is available on the soldiers of the Great War on web sites around the world. Our site focuses on soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, however you can also find extensive records on soldiers in many of the other allied countries. To date we do not have details for searching for enemy soldiers.
- If you know the soldier served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), search for the Attestation Papers (signed when they joined the CEF) that are on-line at Library and Archives Canada.
- If you find your soldier's Attestation Papers page then from there you can order the complete service record from LAC. That is the most important part of researching a soldier. Library and Archives Canada are now in the process of digitizing these records for the Great War Centenary, thus some records will be out of circulation during the process. Please see the LAC IMPORTANT NOTICE about this project. If you wish to order a service record before they are all digitized (and then free!) refer to: How to Order Service Records from LAC
- There is a chance that another person or researcher has already ordered and paid for the service records. If that happened the digitized file may be linked to the Attestation Paper page. It is also possible that the service record is in the collection of the CEFSG and posted to our shared MediaFire site - F2 CEF Service Records; F3 Service File Summaries; or F4 CEF Service Records Image Files.
- If your soldier did not serve in the CEF but you are sure the soldier served in the war, it is possible that as a Canadian he went back to England to serve with the British Army. A number of Canadians also transferred from the CEF to the BEF to assume an Officer's Role. For that information you need to search the UK National Archives. You can also search the British Medal Card Index.
- If the soldier has previously been researched, there may be a posting on the Canadian Great War Project - CGWP. If the soldier is not listed there, you can go back later and add your research to that web site. The CGWP site often has additional information about the soldier, including images and letters, as well as groupings of soldiers. Groups might include those from the same community or those that served together. From that same site you can download the CEF Names Program which will allow you to search for names in the LAC database. If using that program, take note of the coloured bars in the search results that provide additional information on the individual, such as medals, whether they were a POW and if an entry is on the CGWP web site.
- You might like to see an image of the Cap Badges that the soldiers wore into battle. The style of these changed as the war progressed, from a standard issue CEF cap badge to a large number of unit specific cap badges. The uniforms of those serving would normally also display Distinguishing Patches on the shoulder.
- Was your soldier issued a Medal or Decoration for services during the war? You can read more about that and see examples at Medals & Decorations. Take particular note of the difference between a medal (for service in a place and time) versus a decoration (for particular valour during the war).
- An excellent primer on interpreting all the information in the records was uncovered by Marika from the resources at Library and Archives Canada. You will find it here: Lest We Forget / First World War Cenotaph Research Project
Searching for War Dead
- Do you know if the soldier survived the war? You can search the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see if the name is listed - CWGC War Dead. If you have additional details you can use the advanced search option to enter the Service Number etc. - CWGC Advanced Search.
- If the casualty is listed on the CWGC site, you will also find details about the cemetery where he is buried (if known) or on what memorial his name is listed if the body was not recovered. If the cemetery is listed, you may also find details giving the grave site number and a sketch of the cemetery. You can search for any cemetery directly as well: CWGC Cemetery Search. With that you can often use Google Earth to find the grave with in the cemetery. You can find an example of that process from the research on the soldiers from Milton, Ontario Canada - Milton Soldiers on Google Earth.
- If the soldier does not have a grave site, he is most likely listed on one of the major memorials. You can search for the name in some instances. For example: Search Names on the Vimy Memorial. The other common memorial does not appear to have the names photographed: Menin Gate Memorial. For others please go to: Veterans Affairs Canada WWI Overseas Memorials.
- It is possible that someone has already taken a photograph of the cemetery stone for you soldier if he is buried in a CWGC site or in a military section of municipal cemeteries under the care of the CWGC. For Canadians please first check here, where many CEFSG members have sent images: Maple Leaf Legacy Project Photo Search. Images are also available from other international groups and individuals, some listed on the CWGC site: CWGC Photographic Services
- Most of the information contained on the CWGC site is also posted on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial, with the advantage that there may also be digital images of the soldier or grave site uploaded. Many pages now also contain images of newspaper clippings or other reports that mention the soldier or his death. CEFSG Member "canadawwi" (Marika Pirie) has assembled the greatest collection of newspaper stories and images and posted them to the site. For more information on using the press resources for your research, please see the CEFSG Utility for Newspapers. There you will find a number of excellent ideas presented by CEFSG Member "AvidGenie".
- If you want to learn more about the events leading to the death of the soldier you can start a rather cumbersome task by searching the database for the record: Circumstances of Death Records. Learn more about the options for searching those records before you start by reviewing hints from the CEFSG members: CEFSG Help for Searching Circumstance of Death Records.
- To find the page where your soldier is listed in the records held in the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, check the searchable database - Canada's Books of Remembrance
Expanding your Search
Once you have identified your soldier and found the basic information you can start to look for additional details. Here are some examples:
- Check for reports of medals, mentioned in despatches, promotions, etc. - Search the London Gazette. You should also check records in Canada - The Canadian Gazette.
- Did your soldier go AWOL (Absent Without Leave), strike an officer or otherwise face a charge under the Army Act? If you think there may have been a court martial, or his service records reports that event, then you need to check here - Courts Martial of the First World War.
- If your soldier survived the war but you do not know what caused his death later in life, try a search here using a similar process as used for the Circumstance of Death Records, but in this case - Veterans Death Cards of the First World War. It appears to me that not all veterans are recorded in this database or the cards are not all sorted properly.
- Is it possible that the person you searched for was not in the army - try the naval services here: Service Files of the Royal Canadian Navy.
- There were no women combatants from Canada in the Great War but there were a large number of women on the front lines serving in the capacity of a "Nursing Sister". Like the soldiers, many of the Nursing Sisters did have records which you will find at Library and Archives Canada. They are not always as easy to find (example: NS Dorothy Cotton). Please note that CEFSG Member "canadawwi" has posted a number of Nursing Sister files to: Great War Project - Nursing Sisters There is also an excellent CEFSG Forum Topic Nursing Sister Records On-Line. That is an excellent place to post any questions if you are researching a Nursing Sister. A page has been set aside on the Wiki for Nursing Sisters with information to be solicited from the Nursing Sister Research Team!
- Perhaps you are not researching a soldier, or have already completed that work and are now looking for family of the soldier. If you think that your soldier had married while overseas or brought back a wife-to-be then you want to check CEFSG Member AvidGenie (Annette Fulford)and her web site Canadian War Brides of World War One. You will find many of AvidGenie's posts on the CEFSG Forum of assistance to those following the genealogical route.
Following your Soldiers Unit into Service
Finding out what happened to your soldier after he attested is a more complex process. To start down this path of research it is almost mandatory that you have the soldier's service record from Library and Archives Canada, unless you have detailed information from family history records, or the personal records left by your soldier. Even if you have personal records, you should order or download the official service record. Here are some tips to help you go to the next phase:
- The Service Number or Regimental Number will tell you the unit to which the soldier attested, however the vast majority of the numbered and named battalions were broken up or absorbed for replacements for those lost in action. The service record will contain the details of the path followed by your soldier. Reading the service record takes some experience so search the CEFSG Forum for assistance. Check out these links: Acronyms & Abbreviations (the first post in that topic is kept up to date by CEFSG member Brett Payne) or the CEFSG Matrix List - CEF Abbreviations List. This is now also on this Wiki as the Abbreviations page in the utilities.
- If you do not have the information on the unit to which your soldier attested, you can look up the number on the Matrix lists in a few places - Matrix Utility Regimental Numbers or once moved here on the wiki at the page for Regimental Numbers. Blocks of these numbers are also shown on the Summary Tables.
- If the number shows the unit was in one of the active serving 12 Brigades of the 4 Canadian Divisions you can start the process of learning more about how these units served in the CEF. You should start with reading a bit about how the CEF was structured: The CEF Organization or CEF Organization on the wiki. You can follow the header links on the web or wiki version to the Army Corps and the Army Troops. You need to use the web based Matrix version if the wiki pages have not yet been created.
- If the unit was not an active serving Infantry Battalion then you need to check the list for other details: CEF Reorganized Units or Reorganized Units once completed.
- Information on the Reserve Battalions (page not finished on the wiki) is also on the web site version at the Matrix Reserve Battalions Utility.
- In the latter parts of the war, those that enlisted (may also have been drafter under the 1917 Military Services Act) may have gone to Depot Battalions by a more direct route, which then sent men to the Reserve or Active battalions in the field.
- You can use the Matrix Troopships Utility now fully function on the wiki site as the Troopships page, to find out when a ship carrying your soldier left Canada, where it left from and the date and port of arrival in England.
- The CEFSG maintains a number of collections of Nominal Rolls which list the soldiers in a unit on a specific date. CEFSG member Bob Richardson donated his complete collection which can be found on our shared MediaFire site here: Nominal Rolls.
Following your Soldiers into Action
If your soldier went into the battle zone you can find out a lot more about what happened to the unit, often pinpointing exact locations of actions where an injury or death may have occurred. Combining the information from the War Diaries with the Trench Maps can be a rewarding experience. If you are researching an officer then there is a good chance you will find mention of the soldier. Other soldiers are sometimes listed as casualties or if awarded a medal. War Diaries have appendices, often with detail reports of battles, including sketches and segments of maps. Very often the trench map coordinates are given.
- Reading a Trench Map: A Matrix Utility that explains the process.
- CEFSG Matrix Google Maps: Explains how to use the overlay process and provides examples of projects completed to date.
- McMaster University WWI Trench Map Collection: An invaluable resource, however it requires some practice to learn how to use these maps and track the action.
- The Nicholson Matrix Utility: On the Wiki: Nicholson Utility This contains a complete transcription of Nicholson's work on the history of the CEF during the Great War - a mandatory read for any serious researcher of this era. You will see that there are links to all the coloured maps, and many sketches, that provide extensive detail about the actions where your soldier may have participated.
- War Diaries of the First World War: Most of the active units kept a daily record of the war, the content of which was highly dependent on the Adjutant (or other) who prepared the records. Personal diaries of the war were forbidden - but often existed and survived. At the end of the daily record of events for any month there are normally a number of appendices that contain extensive details, as well as maps and sketches. If you are reading the war diaries, and you start at the Battalion level, remember then to go and read the Brigade War Diary and then the Division War Diary for that same period.
- ORBAT Directory: The ORBAT is the "Order of Battle" that shows what units served in what capacity at any specific time. It changes not just by year or quarter as shown in our directory, but in some cases daily. For research purposes you can use the ORBAT to find out what Army Corps Brigade or Division the unit you are researching was located. The same applies to the Army Troops. For the web version see: Matrix ORBAT Utility.
Was Your Soldier Subject to Courts Martial?
There were a number of Courts Martials during the Great War, for a wide variety of charges, from the severe of desertion to striking an officer. If the charge was not so severe, then Field Punishment was ordered - which is recorded in the soldier service files.
There are two main sources for Courts Martial records:
CEFSG Member "bluna" tells us that she found the records she needed on the Heritage Site using the reference from the Library & Archives Canada site.
Community Based Projects
During the Great War Centenary of 2014 to 2021 there will be a number of communities undertaking research into the men and women who served from 1914 to 1921. These projects may be undertaken by private researchers, school groups or associations (i.e. Legion Branches). To assist in that process, this Wiki will have an index of Canadian Communities that are participating. The index (Research a Soldier - Community Index) will direct you to a specific page where you will be able to find:
- community groups that are participating in the project,
- local coordinators from the CEFSG who can be contacted for assistance,
- additional resources that can be used to initiate the research,
- work that has been completed by others to date, and
- the results of new work undertaken for the centenary celebrations.
If you are a member of the CEFSG then you can register for the Wiki and enter data for your community. Individuals, school groups and associations can register with the (CEFSG Registration Link) to become part of the process. Once a member of the CEFSG you will also need to register for the Wiki (CEFSG Wiki Registration) using your Forum member name.
An example of the use of the Community Based Projects system has now been uploaded for Milton Ontario - please see Research a Soldier - Milton, ON. Details are provided on the Research a Soldier - Community Index page to copy the code for any community based page.