How to trace the people behind the names

Private Robert Burns, killed in action on 1 July 1916 at the start of the Battle of the SommeWe recently answered an enquiry from a member of the public who wrote to tell us that she had started what she hoped would become a tradition with her young daughter on Remembrance Day.  They walk to the local war memorial and leave a poppy with a message.  Each year they will pick out one name and try to find out more information  about that person.  

She wrote to us because she was looking for advice on how to go about this.

The first thing we do is check our records to see if we hold any information about the people named on the memorials. Unfortunately in this case we didn’t yet have that information. 

The next simple thing to do (if the memorial is to the First or Second World war) is to try to find the individual on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Debt of Honour database.  This would then give you useful information such as age, service number and regiment, which can be used in further enquiries.

CWGC Debt of Honour database

However, if the only information you have are surname and first initial (which is very common on First and Second World War memorials) then it could be very hard to identify which of the many people with the same name is the one on your local memorial.  Obviously, it’s easier with more unusual surnames.  Even with common names it might still be possible.  Sometimes next-of-kin were listed and you may find someone with family who were living locally.  A word of warning regarding the regiments though, don’t assume that just because someone is listed as serving in a local regiment that they lived there.  Men could be recruited for any regiment and sometimes moved between regiments over the course of the war.

Another very useful thing to do is to contact your local history society.  It’s possible that someone has already done this research.  If that draws a blank, you might try looking through the archives of old local newspapers.  These should be in a local studies centre – usually stored on microfiche. Try to find a newspaper report for the unveiling, as these sometimes listed the full names. If you can find out the full first name, you’ll have a better chance finding him on the CWGC database. Most First World War memorials were unveiled sometime between 1919 and 1925 so start with those dates and expand from there. 

The other thing you can look for in local newspaper archives are obituaries and reports from soldiers at the front which were often printed. These can provide interesting information about the person you are looking for and others serving at the time.

Once you have positively identified the individual there are other sources for research, such as unit war diaries and service records. Below is a link to some useful downloadable PDF leaflets on how to get started.

Click for information sheets about tracing service personnel

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