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Family History Research and British Military History, 1801-1945

Many of the enquiries received by British Library Newspapers reflect a growing interest in genealogy among both academic researchers and the public.

'The Role of Honour'

'The Role of Honour' The Sphere 11 December 1915. Copyright © The British Library Board

Newspapers themselves provide a wealth of information relating to:

  • biographical details of individual soldiers, sailors & airmen and their service records
  • individual battalions, regiments, Royal Navy and merchant ships, and
  • specific battles and campaigns from all theatres of conflict,

which often expands upon the facts and data which can be gleaned from the official records.  More often than not, the best sources of information on individual soldiers, regiments, and battalions can be found in regional newspapers. During the Boer War (1899-1902) and both the First and the Second World Wars, local newspapers published:

  • weekly casualty lists,
  • memoriam notices,
  • obituaries of the fallen, and
  • details of gallantry awards obtained by local men,
  • reports on local regiments and individual battalions, and
  • graphic accounts of the fighting at the front

Reports on individuals range from one-line references to full column obituaries, which can include full biographical details and photographs.  Although full citations for decorations are rare, except for the higher gallantry medals, such notices can be a vitally important source of information. Sources that often contain letters from commanding officers, interviews with the recipients and even detailed accounts of the circumstances in which awards were won or individuals fell. They can also open up other avenues of research. In addition to this, general reports on unit actions, battles and campaigns (although often heavily censored or rewritten for home consumption) published in the local and national press can be extensive and often provide valuable supporting contextual information.

Many of the local newspapers relied on details supplied to them by the next of kin, while others systematically trawled through the official casualty lists and the London Gazette on a weekly basis, extracting the details of those listed from local regiments. However, the extent to which this was done often depended upon the particular editor's enthusiasm for the task, sense of duty, or the readerships demand for information. Geographical and residential factors also played an important part in determining what is available today in the press. Those from regiments with strong geographical ties, such as the Royal Sussex, Black Watch, Royal Warwickshire or Norfolk regiments, are well reported in their local press, which results in the researcher having a far greater chance of finding detailed information. But, on the other hand, newspapers that covered the metropolitan areas often printed only an individual's name, rank, and number. Moreover, during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, social considerations were extremely important, since officers generally receive better coverage than the other ranks.

In addition to the reporting of military casualties, detailed reports on the results of enemy action against coastal towns and the sustained aerial attacks on British cities featured prominently in both the national and local press. Local newspapers, therefore, can be a useful source of information on civilian casualties during both world wars.

The major national newspapers do not generally contain a great deal of information on individual soldiers, unless in connection with, either, the higher gallantry medals, specific actions, controversies, or if they were well connected in higher society. General casualty lists were published (as well as lists relating to the award of medals and decorations for bravery to individuals), although they contain very few details beyond name, rank, and number.  The Newspaper Library provides access to very useful printed indexes to The Times from 1790 onwards, as well as a CD-ROM index covering the period 1790 to 1980, nevertheless the vast majority of publications held are not indexed and can, therefore, be difficult and time-consuming to search. Particularly when reports could take many months to appear in print.

It is, however, a sad fact that many casualties, for whatever reason, were never mentioned at all and that the family historian may never find a final epitaph in either, the local or national press.

Other useful sources

Our holdings of UK national and local newspapers are extensive and of immense value to the family historian. There are, however, a large number of publications held in the newspaper collection that are of interest to the genealogist but remain frequently overlooked as sources of information. A select listing of some of the less well known is given below.

  • The Police Gazette

    During the First World War, London's Police Gazette published a weekly list of 'Deserters and Absentees from His Majesty's Service', covering all branches of the armed forces. The lists contains detailed information, arranged alphabetically by surname, relating to an individual's place and date of enlistment and desertion, regimental details, and, in some cases, a physical description including age, height, complexion, hair and eye colour, and distinguishing marks. In certain cases, these lists also contain the individual's occupational details as well as their place of birth. Moreover, this particular publication contains details of military personnel wanted by the police in connection with civil criminal acts. Some photographs are included.

    It is important to note that the Police Gazette is closed for 75 years. Readers wishing to see issues published during that time should obtain written permission from the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard.

  • War Office Weekly Casualty List

    In 1917 the demand for up-to-date information on casualties from all branches of the armed forces lead to the creation of the War Office Weekly Casualty List. Published by HMSO the list was an attempt to provide an accurate and comprehensive list of those killed, wounded, missing and captured in all theatres of the Great War.

    The list itself can be of great interest to the family historian, but the information contained is limited to name, rank, number and place of enlistment or hometown. By 1919 the weekly list also contained details of repatriated POWs.

    This is not, however, a straightforward alphabetical listing and it is useful to know the regimental details and service number of the individual sought. Moreover, this source is not easy to use and contains many inaccuracies, with frequent corrections to previous entries.

  • The Territorial Service Gazette

    Established in 1859 as 'the official organ of the territorial forces, and all the principal rifle clubs', the Territorial Service Gazette is an invaluable source of information on the army's territorial battalions during the Great War. Of particular interest to the genealogist are the extensive published casualty lists, rolls of honour, obituaries, printed appeals for information on those posted as missing in action and reports on those awarded decorations for bravery. Of particular note is the way in which the Territorial Service Gazette made extensive use of photography and published large numbers of photographs of individual soldiers, regardless of rank, under all of the aforementioned categories. Moreover, this particular publication contains a wide range of articles, letters and accounts of trench warfare as experienced by the 'Terriers'.

  • Lloyd's List

    Although the 'official organ of Lloyd's for reporting daily movements of, and casualties to, the shipping of all nations' Lloyd's List was heavily censored throughout both world wars. Nevertheless, this publication contains many reports and accounts on the war at sea, as well as published casualty lists and obituaries of personnel of the merchant navy and fishing fleets. In addition to this it also contains details on RFC/RAF& RNAS decorations awarded for attacks on enemy shipping and U-boats.

  • The Aeroplane

    As 'a popular and well-illustrated weekly, dealing with current events in the aviation world' the Aeroplane responded to the clamour for information from among its readership by publishing extensively on the war in the air. Material that included a weekly roll of honour listing casualties from both the RFC/RAF and the RNAS, as well as more detailed obituaries of the fallen. Moreover, the Aeroplane published weekly lists containing information relating to promotions and decorations for bravery (including mentions in despatches) within the air services, as well as providing details of those confirmed as being 'in the hands of the enemy'. Together with the more general articles and pictures this weekly publication is a useful source of information on the war in the air.

  • Nursing Mirror & Midwives Journal
  • Nursing Times & Journal of Midwifery

    Being respectively 'the accredited organ of the Nursing profession' and 'the professional journal for trained nurses', the Nursing Mirror and the Nursing Times are of particular interest for those wishing to find information on those who served in the nursing profession during the Great War.

    Both these journals published extensively on all aspects of nursing during the Great War, often including weekly lists of honours and decorations awarded to individuals in the nursing profession, with some photographs and biographical details relating to the posting of individuals to nursing establishments both at home and abroad.

Before Visiting

Potential researchers are advised to find out as much background information as possible on the individual, unit, or subject in question before visiting British Library Newspapers.

Useful information to uncover includes principally the following:

  • regimental and battalion details;
  • residence at the time of death or enlistment, of either the actual soldier or the next of kin;
  • full date of death;
  • date of the official announcement of decorations in the London Gazette (the 'gazette' date);
  • date of enlistment;
  • occupational details, which may yield results with our collection of trade journals in particular; and
  • exact dates of the battle or service action.

Our extensive resources are of immense value to the family historian while also furthering our general understanding of those who fought, as individuals, as well as the society and culture of which they were a part.