The centenary of the start of the First World War has brought a number of new releases of military records relating to this and other conflicts. Sometimes, there appears to be confusion in the publicity between war diaries, which are the official day by day records of individual service units, and those personal diaries kept by soldiers, sailors and others. Both have their individual value.
The Imperial War Museum (www.iwm.org.uk) in south London is currently closed until July 2014 while the galleries and exhibits are transformed to mark the centenary. The other centres of the IWM remain open as normal. IWM has a number of projects in progress.
Lives of the First World War aims to build a digital archive of personal and official memories. It is a partnership between the IWM and D.C. Thomson Family History (best known for Findmypast) and will be launched at Whodoyouthinkyouarelive in February. Further details are at www.livesofthefirstworldwar.org/index.php.
Voices of the First World War is the IWM collection of sound recordings of soldiers and many others of their personal experiences. You can listen online or download, and a transcript is provided. Go to www.iwm.org.uk/centenary/voices-of-the-first-world-war.
The National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) has started digitising unit war diaries so that they are available online. This will be a long process, as there are so many of them, but they are already available in their original form if you go to Kew. My own experience is that they usually record the deaths of officers, but not those of other ranks, and may not necessarily be informative about what the unit was doing when someone was injured or killed. The National Archives have also recently released online documents relating to appeals against First World War conscription, but these cover Middlesex only.
Findmypast (www.findmypast.co.uk) is currently promising a redesigned website and many new databases, but already has several relating to the First World War. The latest is WW1 Ships lost at sea 1914-1919, and uses record cards from The National Archives. I found this difficult to use and that it provided scant information. For example, the number of casualties only counts officers. More informative was the Naval Casualties 1914-1919 on the same website. Don’t forget that service records for Royal Navy and Royal Marines are available online from The National Archives.
Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) has a good collection of First World War records, including the main series of Army service records and medal cards, but has not recently announced anything new. However, it has just released a collection of records about civilian casualties for the Second World War.
Forces War Records (www.forces-war-records.co.uk/) has nearly 2 million First World War Records, and many more from other conflicts. Some of these records duplicate what is available elsewhere, but others are exclusive to this website. Finding that extra piece of information may be worth the subscription, and these are available for as little as one month. The latest data the site has added is from the Second World War, and is of prisoners of war in Italy in 1943.
There are many other websites which cover the First World War, but the original and still one of the most useful is that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at www.cwgc.org/. This does not just show when someone died and where they are buried, but often includes details of next of kin and gives the all-important service number. Military burials in the U.K. Malta, Cyprus, Egypt and Singapore are now included on Deceased Online (www.deceasedonline.com), while Find a Grave (www.findagrave.com) also includes some war memorials and military graves.
For a list of events commemorating the war, go to www.1914.org.
Another free source of GRO records of births, marriages and deaths is now available at FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org). The period covered is 1837 to 1920, and I cannot see if this is a new transcription or one copied from elsewhere. The search options and information provided are rather sloppy, as one has come to expect from FamilySearch, and in this instance Registration District is taken as being synonymous with birthplace. This same website has recently added some more parish records for Bristol, but these appear to contradict what was listed previously. I will check against the originals when BRO reopens and report next time.
One big development in recent years has been the digitisation of old newspapers, and their availability online. The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) is also available to Findmypast subscribers, while 19th Century British Newspapers is available free through many public library websites, including Bristol. Other newspaper websites are specialised or restricted. A useful summary of what British and Irish newspapers are available has been compiled by Richard Heaton and can be found at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~dutillieul/BritishandIrishNews.html.
Sabre (http://www.sabre-roads.org.uk/maps/) is a website about roads, complete with a chat room and sections on such arcane subjects as old road signs with photos of examples. For the family historian, the most interesting part may be the collection of old road maps. These are mostly twentieth-century, and at a scale of half-inch or one inch to the mile. The 1923 map shows the Portway as just a proposed road, so red and dotted, Falcondale Road has not been built, and there is a main road from Brentry past the Inebriates Homes, through the lost village of Charlton and meeting up with the A38 at Gypsy Patch Lane. There’s many a happy hour to be spent here.
I began with a digital archive looking for contributions from the general public, so I shall finish with another. Cymru1900Wales (www.cymru1900wales.org/) is a project to transcribe the place names and other text which appear on a 1900 map of Wales, and to offer alternatives if you know them. So if Coed-cwm-ty-du means something to you, here is a job to do.