Researching the WW1 military involvement of your ancestor in the United States has unique challenges. A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) destroyed about 16-18 million official military personnel files (OMPF). The official National Archives web site states that 80% of the records showing personnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960 were destroyed, and no duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained.
I recently purchased a series of WW1 newspaper pages showing faces of men who had been killed in action, or died of disease, or airplane accidents. I wanted to share these photographs and to add information on their life. Who were they? Who did they leave behind for family? What role did they have in their branch of the service? Where specifically did they die, and in what manner? Where are they buried?
Researching these WWI heroes was not easy, I admit. Persistence is your greatest tool. I will share with you where I looked for their records. Caveat: be aware that some of these records are at paid sites, though the majority are absolutely free. I would be remiss if I did not mention that interviewing your own family, even extended cousins, is of utmost importance as you may find a great deal of information within your personal circle.
BRIEF BACKGROUND OF WWI:
American losses in World War 1 were less than its counterparts in Europe. Though the numbers even today are not definitive, it is estimated (by the International Encyclopedia of the First World War) that there were 116,516 deaths, and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded of the 4.7 million who served. “The USA lost more personnel to disease (63, 114) than to combat (53, 402), largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918.” WGBH provides a table showing all losses in that War.
You need to be familiar with some of the terminology to understand what you are viewing. Today we call it World War One/I/1, while most of the records of the time call it “the Great War.” Acronyms like AEF (American Expeditionary Force) and Aeroplane rather than airplane will be terms that may confuse, or need to be included in your keyword searches. [Editor’s note: If you are wondering which is correct, WWI or WW1 read here]
- DEATH AND BURIAL. It may seem backward to some, but usually the first thing I do for someone who served in World War I is to check and see if they are buried in France.
A. AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS (Europe) Commission maintains a web site, where you can search for burials of American soldiers on foreign soil, and includes those Missing in Action. If they are listed here, I now have knowledge of the military branch they served in, along with their Company and Regiment. I follow up on Find-A-Grave that has a mirror site for all of these American Battle Monument burial places. Find-A-Grave may contain more information (just verify what you see) and perhaps there will be leads on who the soldier’s family members were.
B. MARINE CORPS. If your ancestor served in the Marine Corps, and died overseas, you will find his name in this free online book. It is published by the US Veterans Administration, and is free, located on the Internet Archive.
C. NATIONWIDE GRAVE-SITE LOCATOR. A searchable database for burial locations of veterans, buried in United States National Cemetery, free.
D. ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY. Locate a grave in this cemetery using your iphone (mobile) or your PC (web).
E. US HEADSTONE APPLICATIONS FOR MILITARY VETERANS 1925-1963. [FREE site, must register for a free account]. Realize this database would be about markers ordered for soldiers who had no previous stone or marker.
F. US ADJUTANT GENERAL MILITARY RECORDS 1631-1976. [PAID database at Ancestry] that shows those in the US ARMY who lost their lives during WWI, and also STATE reports of officers, national guard and military reserves, rosters. Again this is available for free, for many through your local library log-in.
G. Officers and Enlisted Men of the United States Navy who lost their lives during the World War 1917-1918 (free online book)
H. HONOR SERVICE. A free web site showing some of the men lost in WW1, searchable by state
I. AMERICAN FIELD SERVICE. Did your ancestor die in France before America entered the World War. Possibly they served in the American Field Service. A MEMORIAL VOLUME that mentions many of those who died in this service can be found on the Internet Archive (free).
2. DETERMINE SERVICE. There are several ways to determine possible service of your ancestor during World War I. Some of these are shown here. Many states, counties and towns published their own booklets to memorialize those who participated or were killed, so always contact a historical society or library local to where the person being researched resided, to see what the archives contain. A search engine (such as google) using the person’s name and “WWI” or “The Great War” using quotations marks to limit the search, are often helpful and keep the results manageable.. A focused search on “Google Books” may also present new information. Keep in mind that those men in certain essential jobs would have been disqualified from service.
A. MILITARY REGISTRATION. In the Selective Service Act of 1917, men over the age of 21 were required to register, and three registrations occurred between 1917 and 1918. These cards are available on paid sites, but are FREE on FamilySearch. You can view scans of the original cards that include the registrant’s description, signature and of course details about when and where he was born, and if employed, married, and person to contact.
B. BOOK SERIES on WW1 SERVICE – in 1920 a series of books was published listing Soldiers in the Great War, by State, and alphabetically. Free online. Some photographs of the soldiers are included with each state.
B-a) SOLDIERS IN THE GREAT WAR, VOL 1, Compiled by W.M. Hauslee, F.G. Howe and A.C. Doyle, v1, published 1920 [Alabama-Illinois]
B-b) SOLDIERS IN THE GREAT WAR, VOL 2, Compiled by W.M. Hauslee, F.G. Howe and A.C. Doye, v2, published 1920 [Massachusetts – Ohio]
B-c) SOLDIERS IN THE GREAT WAR, Vol 3, Compiled by W.M. Haulsee, F.G. Howe and A.C. Doye v3, published 1920 [Oklahoma-Wyoming, Supplements and Foreign]
C. CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTIONS. Not all men eligible to fight did so, for religious or personal reasons. They were greatly mistreated, and were sent to either military camps, or to prison. The Swarthmore College Peace Collection has dozens of primary source collections of documents, photographs, posters, and other materials on conscientious objection during World War I, and from around the world.
D. NEWSPAPERS. Do not overlook the use of newspapers in your WWI research. It has been one of my best sources as often local papers would report a soldier heading off for training, another notice when he was sent to Europe, and yet another if he fell in battle or died by other means. Make sure that you extend your research into 1921 and 1922 when many bodies of the dead, originally buried in Europe, were returned and reburied in the United States. There are many newspaper stories about these events. [Editor’s note: I subscribe to 3 paid services, GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com, and Newspaperarchive.com, that order showing my preference. Your choice of which newspaper will help the most depends entirely on the location where you are searching. Check with a library local to the area to see what newspapers would have been available at that time. A relatively unused source is free, “United States Bulletin” showing Newspaper notices from WW1 [Additional editions]
E. NATIONAL ARCHIVES. This U.S. government source maintains a web page providng other options for researching WWI.
F. NATURALIZATION. If your ancestor was born in another country, or immigrated from another place to the United States, it is definitely worth a look at the United States Index to Naturalization of World War I Soldiers, 1918. There were over 18,000.
G. INTERNET ARCHIVE REGISTERS. The Internet Archive, a free online service, offers a variety of registers, of both U.S. and U.K. honor rolls, memorials and other recognition of those who served in “The Great War/WWI.” For example, one excellent source in my research for soldiers from Massachusetts was “Gold Star Record of Massachusetts”. Also see WWI Registers online.
H. AWARDS: Awards to soldiers and citizens of the US who were decorated by the American Government for exceptional heroism
F-a) WW1 Congressional Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal Awards, alphabetically by State.
F-b) Heroes All! – official citations, includes names not found in F-a.
I. THE GREAT WAR SOCIETY – additional resources for WWI soldier research.
3. PERSONAL DETAILS & FAMILY
A. BASIC INFORMATION — I always start on FamilySearch to see if I can locate the soldier. If you know the person’s birth year and at least a location where they were born or lived, it will help hone in on the correct document. The strength of FamilySearch is that many times you are able to view the original document. Secondarily, I will look on paid genealogy sites (pick your own favorite).
B. CENSUS RECORDS, specifically of 1900 and 1910 are a great source of information about who your ancestor’s relatives were, their birth date [the 1900 census gives a birth month and year, though realize it may not be accurate], and other potential relatives in the same house hold.
B-a) I always check the census records available on FamilySearch first.
B-b) Many people do not realize that HERITAGEQUEST is owned by Ancestry and uses the same database as the paid site. In New Hampshire, and many other states, if you have a library card you can often access these census records for FREE, from your home computer. Check with your local library. [Heritagequest also offers online books, and a variety of great databases not related specifically to WWI].
C. GOLD STAR MOTHERS. In 1929 the U.S. Government paid for widows and mothers of servicemen who died in WWI and were buried in Europe, to visit their graves. [Also see “Internet Archive,” under the SERVICE category below]. These journeys were often recorded and shared in local newspapers, and provided in detail a soldier’s service along with information on the family.
D. PUBLISHED STORIES. It never hurts to perform a search engine search with the military personnel’s name in quotation marks. If you have a story you’d like to share, consider submitting it to the United States World War One Centennial Commission. The entire site is entirely searchable using the menu prompt at the top of each page. Read stories others have submitted too!
4. SURVIVORS OF WWI.
A. HOSPITALS AND HOMES. Survivors of WWI returned home often with lingering injuries that resulted in their entering a Veteran’s hospital or home. Local directories, newspaper reports, and census records can give you an idea of whether they were institutionalized. Unless you are considered a next of kin, these places may not share more than the fact that they were residents, and the branch of the military that they served in. At any rate this information does provide you with insight into their service.
B. CENSUS RECORD CLUES to WWI Service. The 1920 Census did not ask any questions specific to military service. However, the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Censuses did ask questions about veterans that may indicate service in WWI. [SEE Census Records in category above].
5. OTHER WWI RESOURCES
If you are like me, you enjoy knowing a bit of WWI history, in order to understand the world in which your ancestor lived. Here are a few of the lesser known FREE resources that will help you to immerse yourself in the history of the time.
A. REGIMENTAL HISTORIES
a-1. Online books: US WWI Regimental Histories
a-2. WWI, the Order of Battle – American
a-3. WWI, more on the Order of Battle – American [thanks to Sara Kidd for suggesting this]
B. PHOTOGRAPHS & MEDIA
-. The National WWI MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL, DIGITAL IMAGES
-. Library of Congress: Photos Prints, Drawings, World War I
-. News Reels, WWI (Internet Archive)
C. OTHER EPHEMERA
-. WWI Glossary (NY National Guard website, PDF)
-. WAR TIME COOKING GUIDE
-. WWI Pamphlets 1913-1920