You can try and find out about the First World War service of your ancestors by searching the on-line data collection WWI British Army Service Records and WW1 Medal Records at Ancestry.
When the war broke out in 1914, the British Army was just 730,000 strong. However, a wave of patriotism drove millions to enlist and, as the war grew, so did the number of recruits.
By the end of the war in 1918, more than seven million men had seen service in the British Army and all their details were noted down in their service record, from enlistment to discharge.
If your ancestor had an unusual or distinctive name you're more likely to get a good result. For example, Michael's grandfather was Maurice John Arthur Murray. Now there are countless "Murrays" in the records but only one M.J.A. So there's a high degree of probability that the record we found is the correct one.
However, we can be 100% certain the record is a correct match because we also have Maurice John Arthur's service number. This is a vital piece of evidence if it's available to you but I'd guess that not too many people have that information.
We only know Maurice's service number because in 1937 he wrote to the War Office requesting a duplicate of his discharge certificate. For some reason Michael's grandmother (Sarah Murray 1885 - 1958) saved the letter that was received in reply.
I think it's remarkable that Sarah hung on to the letter especially as she died in 1958; and even more remarkable that it wasn't thrown away in the ensuing years.
The story of the WW1 Service Records is quite remarkable too. After demobilisation, provided that they did not re-enlist prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, copies of the records of service of the millions of men who enlisted in the WW1 British Army were stored centrally in the War Office Record Store in Arnside Street, Walworth, London SE17. During the night of 7/8th September 1940, there was a heavy German air raid on London and the repository was hit by incendiary bombs. The greater part of the 1,400 tons of War Office records which were held there were destroyed. Approximately two thirds of the soldiers' service records were completely destroyed and those which survived were partly charred or water damaged when the fire was extinguished. The surviving records became known as the 'burnt documents or burnt collation'.
So, although you might achieve a result searching for your ancestor in the Medal Records, you'll be lucky to find anything legible in the Service Records. It's well worth looking though because if you do hit on a service record it could contain a wealth of information even at the most basic level.
I was reminded of the story of the War Office Fire when a reader contacted me this week and in the course of our correspondence she told the story of her father's World War Two photographs. His naval service took him to many conflict zones and he accumulated an extensive collection of photographs. Some considerable time after the War he took his photographs to his workplace to share with colleagues. He left them there overnight and during the night a fire broke out. The photographs hadn't been left in a secure storage and were all destroyed. What a sad tale and how devastated he must have been.
I have only a small collection of photographs passed down by my dad from his WW2 service and I cherish them now. I've scanned them and stored them on a CD, a memory stick and on-line. (You can see them here if you've time to take a look.) The original photos are in a poor condition: they weren't very good to start with following many years of storage in an old suitcase in the loft but at least the digitised versions won't get any worse. So long as the Internet doesn't go down and the power supply remains they'll be available for ever!
You might also like
I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety: The Diary of a Petty Officer in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II.
Available as an ebook in the Amazon Kindle Store.
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Details of all the ebooks I've published can be found at http://www.spurwing-ebooks.com
Thanks for reading my blog today.
I'm a former primary school head teacher now enjoying family history, e-publishing and gardening. I'm the author of "Cabbage and Semolina: Memories of a 1950s Childhood" and was delighted when the book became an Amazon 2015 bestseller in the Social History category. I'm the founder of Spurwing Ebooks which is at http://www.spurwing-ebooks.com for book details and information about new releases and special offers. Details of my books are at https://www.amazon.co.uk/C.-Murray/e/B009R7CRVC and the other books I've published are at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Michael-Murray/e/B007AQZMZK