Thursday, February 17, 2011

Looking for military history on Ancestry

In the last post we looked at searching the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Another excellent source for military service records is Ancestry. If you are lucky, your search will turn up a wealth of information. Here is an example, using my cousin twice removed, Robert Harry WALTERS.

I knew from census data that Robert Harry was born around 1882 in Birmingham. The 1891 census had given Robert's name as  "Robert H. W., while in 1901 he was listed as "Harry".FreeBMD confirmed that his name was indeed "Robert Harry" in the birth registration in the June 1882 quarter in the Birmingham Registration District. In the 1911 census, Robert is listed by both names and lives with his wife Florence Ada and his son Robert Harry in Leicester at 185 Humberstone Rd.

Because of Robert's age I thought it likely that he would have served in World War I so I searched the WWI Military Service Records on Ancestry (you have to have a paid subscription to see the details). I was rewarded with 22 images covering the records of Robert Harry WALTERS born about 1882 of 35 Manington Street.

The original images of Robert's service record show that he signed up in 1915 as a 33 year-old. At that time he was 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed just 125 pounds and had a 33 1/2-inch chest. His physical development was listed as "fair". He had been vaccinated in infancy. He had several moles, and under the heading "Slight defects but not sufficient to cause rejection" he was described as having stiff big toes. Not an outstanding physical specimen, but good enough for the army where he joined the Bedfordshire Regiment at the rank of Private.

His wife Florence is given as next-of-kin, and it lists her maiden name (PINSENT) and the date and place of their marriage (12 April 1909, 35 Mornington St., Leicester - note the mistranscription by Ancestry of Mornington as Manington). It also shows Robert and Ada as having three children and gives their birthdates - useful! Their son Robert Harry had two brothers: James Arthur and Horace.

Robert was wounded twice in action in France in 1917, injuring his arm and face. There are more details of minor events in his army career, and it appears that everything in his file was included in the imaging because it contains blank pieces of paper as well as the actual records. Robert Harry was one of the lucky ones - his injuries were not too severe and his record is otherwise uneventful. He survived the war and was demobilized in 1919.

The military service records are very informative; sometimes there are pages of details that tell you all kinds of things. You might find that your ancestor was drunk and disorderly and prone to all sorts of bad behaviour! The service records will also give you the regimental number and this is useful if you have someone with a common last name - if you happen to know the number already you can pin down the right record on Ancestry. Having the number makes it easier to check the British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards. These are another source of information available on Ancestry - Robert's shows nothing other than the Victory Medal and the British Medal (these were given to everyone).

After the war, Robert and his family stayed in Leicester. I have traced the descendants of his son Robert into the 1990's - still in Leicester.

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