Over There

Over There

The Great War engulfed the entire world—including your ancestors, whether they headed to Europe or stayed home. Here's how to trace them in records of World War I.

My grandfather Victor Fryxell wasn’t among the more than 2 million doughboys who went “over there” in 1917 and 1918 to “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I. He was a bit too old, having reached his mid-30s. But that won’t keep me from learning about him in WWI records: Although he was never called up, my grandfather – along with 24 million other men – had to register for the draft.

Even if he had gone to war, Victor Fryxell’s records probably would’ve burned in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, which destroyed some 18 million Army service records from 1912 to 1963. If your ancestor did fight in World War I, though, don’t despair. Other documents at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> and in state archives’ collections might yet tell his story. To find the facts about your WWI ancestor, you may have to dig a little deeper and use a bit of ingenuity, but eventually — like the Yanks who proclaimed, “Lafayette, we are here!” at the French general’s tomb — you can claim victory.

Caught in the draft

At the advent of the Great War, the ranks of the US military were thinner than at any time since the Civil War. The Army (whose only recent engagement had been chasing Pancho Villa after the Mexican bandit’s attack on Columbus, NM) numbered just 200,000 soldiers, of whom 80,000 were in the National Guard. So on May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act.

Headed by the Provost Marshal General, the Selective Service System operated under a plan of “supervised decentralization,” with 4,648 local draft boards in the 52 states and territories doing the actual registration. Each county had its own board, and more-populous counties and cities had one board for about every 30,000 people. Three massive draft registrations, each covering a different range of birth dates, ultimately created records on almost every male US resident born between 1873 and 1900. The drafts took place:

  • June 5, 1917, for men between the ages of 21 and 31
  • June 5, 1918, for those who’d turned 21 in the past year (a supplemental registration, filed with this second batch, covered those turning 21 by Aug. 24, 1918)
  • Sept 12, 1918, for men ages 18 through 45 not previously registered

The information collected varied by registration. The first round used what’s sometimes called the “10-question card,” which asked for name, age, address, birth date and place, citizenship status, employer, nearest relative, race and physical appearance. In the second registration, the “12-question card” added occupation and any claimed exemption from the draft. Lucky for me, my grandfather didn’t register until the third and final push, which upped the questions to 20, including several related to physical description. From his draft registration card, I can confirm his birth date in 1883, my grandmother’s first name and their address in Moline, Ill. I also find details not always available elsewhere: He was employed as a bench woodworker at Wright Carriage Works. He was tall (the registrar could check tall, medium or short), slender (as opposed to medium or stout), with blue eyes and light hair. Perhaps because of his woodworking job, my grandfather had “two Broken Fingers on Right Hand” and “One stiff Finger on Left Hand.”

The easiest way to find an ancestor’s draft card — it took me less than a minute to find my grandfather’s — is the pay site Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com >, which has the entire database in searchable form. If you don’t want to shell out for a $155.40 annual subscription, you can get the cards on microfilm at NARA, or from the Salt Lake City-based Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org>. (You can rent FHL microfilm through your local branch Family History Center; find one near you using FamilySearch.) The original records are at NARA’s Southeast Region branch in Morrow, Ga. (<archives.gov/southeast>, 770-968-2100); order copies for $10 each through NARA’s Order Online system <archives.gov/research/order/orderonline.html>.

The cards take up 4,383 rolls of microfilm, so it’s vital to narrow your search. They’re arranged alphabetically by state, then by city or county, and finally by name. If your ancestor lived in a small town or rural area, ordering the right film is easy: Do a place search for the state in the FHL catalog <www.familysearch.org/eng/library/fhlc/frameset_fhlc.asp> and look for Military records — World War, 1914-1918, then the entry for draft registration cards. Next, click on View Film Notes and find the roll covering your ancestor’s place of residence in 1917 and 1918.

In larger cities, finding the right roll is trickier: New York City alone had 189 draft boards. You’ll need to know your ancestor’s street address at the time — an old city directory can help — and then match that against the draft-board jurisdictions. The FHL has the Selective Service System’s guide to boards in New York, Chicago and 35 other major cities (film 1498803). You can find maps of draft boards at major genealogical libraries, such as the Allen County (Ind.) Public Library <www.acpl.lib.in.us/genealogy>, and try a variety of online finding aids (link to them on our Web site at <www.familytreemagazine.com/wwi>).

In particular, search Roots Web’s free database of abstracted WWI draft cards <rootsweb.com/~rwguide/WWIdraft.html>. Though it covers only 15 percent of US counties (listed at <usigs.org/library/military/links/wwi.html>), you might get lucky if your kin registered in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana or Mississippi. You’ll find other online indexes or partial abstracts for a handful of places, including:

Go, Canada

If your WWI ancestor was among the more than 600,000 Canadians who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) from 1914 to 1918, your military records research will be a lot easier than for your genealogy-minded neighbors to the south. Library and Archives Canada boasts an online index of CEF personnel files, which includes more than 800,000 digitized images of Attestation papers (enlistment documents). The search results link to instructions for ordering copies of the original documents from the archives. To search the database, go to <www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/cef/index-e.html>. For more information on Canada’s WWI records, see <www.collectionscanada.ca/genealogy/022-909.006-e.html>.

Under fire

Almost 2.7 million draft registrants were actually conscripted, and 300,000 people volunteered to fight. More than 25 percent of 18-to-31-year-olds wound up in the military during America’s brief but decisive involvement in “the war to end all wars.” (Unsure whether your ancestor took up arms? Check the 1930 census, which identified veterans.) Ironically, though, the service records of this first modern war are less complete than those of earlier conflicts. Chances are your WWI soldier’s service records were lost in the NPRC fire, along with those of 80 percent of Army personnel discharged between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960.

But if your ancestor was in the Navy or Marines (or was commissioned as an Army officer before the war) and his records survived, you can order them from NARA using the instructions at <archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/get-service-records.html>. Deceased veterans’ next of kin can take advantage of NARA’s eVetRecs ordering system <archives.gov/veterans/evetrecs>; others should use standard form 180 <archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/standard-form-180.html>. Give as much detail as you know, including the veteran’s full name used while in service, service number, Social Security number, branch and dates of service, and birth date and place.

Service records of a National Guard unit member will be in a state, not a federal, repository. Contact the state archives, library or historical society in the state from which he served.

Record group thinking

Even if the service records you need were destroyed, NARA may have documents about your relative in one of its record groups covering World War I. These papers aren’t microfilmed, so you’ll need to travel to the Washington, DC, area to use them, or hire an on-site researcher — see <archives.gov/research/hire-help> for recommendations.

For officer ancestors, check the officer training files in entries 407 through 415 (an “entry” is NARA’s way of referring to record categories) of record group 165, as well as the general correspondence files (entry 25), in the Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s-1917, record group 94.

The surviving documents about enlisted men can be trickier to find. Most are in two record groups:

  • Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), record group 120, has information on Pioneer Infantry regiments and quartermaster labor units, comprised almost entirely of African-American units in the then-segregated Army. See entries 1255 and 1262 through 1294.
  • In Records of US Army Mobile Units, 1821-1942, record group 391, you’ll find miscellaneous correspondence and other papers organized by unit type: cavalry (entry 2122), infantry (2133), field artillery (2118), engineer (2124) and coast artillery (2100 and 2101). If you suspect your ancestor was wounded, look for special orders relating to Wound Chevrons (badges denoting wounds received in combat against enemy forces). See entries 2141 and 2160 for information on African-American quartermaster labor units.

It’ll be helpful to know your ancestor’s unit number when using these records. An excellent guide to WWI unit organization, camps and posts is the four-volume Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War, 1917-19, available in some federal depository libraries.

For those in the Navy, look for Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel in record group 24. This group contains the Index to Rendezvous Reports, Naval Auxiliary Service, 1917-1919, also available on microfilm T1100. It gives the sailor’s name, ship, enlistment date and the date he was detached or reassigned.

World War I was the first conflict in which soldiers also fought in the skies — a total of 78,495 men. Check the Records of the Army Air Forces, record group 18, entries 767A through 767II, for correspondence that might mention your aviator ancestor. Soldiers’ air service is recorded in Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919. It’s entry 644 of record group 120, but it’s also available on NARA microfilm M990.

WWI pension records, which may exist for injured soldiers, were stored in regional offices of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and thus escaped the 1973 blaze. There’s no established system for requesting those pensions, though, the way there is for Civil War pension records. For more information, contact the VA office covering the place where your ancestor lived after he was discharged from service. Search for the facility at <www1.va.gov/directory/guide/home.asp?isFlash=1> or link to its Web site (if it has one; not all offices do) at <www.vba.va.gov/ro/ro_inter.htm>.

Fallen heroes

America’s WWI forces suffered more than 116,000 casualties. Visit <www.abmc.gov/search/wwi.php> to search 33,717 records of those interred overseas in American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries, or who are listed on the commission’s Walls of the Missing. Use <gravelocator.cem.va.gov> to find veterans buried stateside in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, and other military and Department of Interior facilities (private cemeteries, too, for post-1997 burials that have government-issued grave markers).

For WWI soldiers who died — as well as a chronology of the war and many individual photographs — see the three-volume Soldiers of the Great War by W.M. Haulsee (Soldiers Record Publishing Association). It’s available on FHL microfiche 6051244 and online at Ancestry.com. Organized by state, it gives each soldier’s name, residence, rank and cause of death.

Naval casualties are in Officers and Enlisted Men of the United States Navy Who Lost Their Lives during the World War (Government Printing Office), also available on FHL microfilm. Besides information on each sailor, this book also lists next of kin. You can search a similar compilation, US Naval Deaths, World War I, on Ancestry.com.

Because this was the first war in which so many American troops were buried overseas, a national movement of “Gold Star Mothers” lobbied for government help to visit these graves. In 1929, Congress authorized the secretary of war to arrange pilgrimages for mothers and widows to European cemeteries. When the project ended in 1933, 6,693 women had made such a trip. Questionnaires they completed and other overseas burial documents are among the records of the Graves Registration Service in NARA’s record group 92. The women’s records are in folders under their sons’ or husbands’ names, which are arranged alphabetically. Although the soldiers’ burial records aren’t indexed or microfilmed, the pilgrimage participants are listed in Pilgrimage for the Mothers and Widows of Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of the American Forces Now Interred in the Cemeteries of Europe (Government Printing Office, out of print), also available on Ancestry.com. For more on the Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage, see <archives.gov/publications/prologue/1999/summer/gold-star-mothers-1.html>.

 
State of war

Even if you strike out at NARA, you still may be able to research a WWI ancestor at the state or local level. Start at his hometown county courthouse, where a soldier usually filed a typed or handwritten transcript of his discharge papers. Then try his state archives Web site. Some states have online indexed or abstracted copies of the service cards for their state’s troops, information on war dead or applications for service medals. For example, if your doughboy hailed from the states covered in these databases, you’re in luck:

Ancestry.com contains several state and local WWI databases, including rosters for Colorado, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota and Ohio. The FHL has some similar records, such as a card index of Michigan soldiers (films 1001930 through 1001966). See whether it has your ancestor’s records by running a catalog place search on the state and looking for a military records heading.

Virginia researchers have a particularly interesting resource in the WWI History Commission Questionnaires Collection. In 1919, the Virginia War History Commission sent printed questionnaires to the state’s WWI veterans. These four-page recollections from 14,900 soldiers are searchable at the Library of Virginia Web site, with digitized images of the original pages plus accompanying material such as photos. Start searching at <www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/mil/wwiqabout.htm>.

Picture this

To bring your WWI ancestor’s experiences to life – and perhaps ferret out more facts – consult newspapers and images of the time. On its American Memory Web site <memory.loc.gov/ammem>, the Library of Congress has several WWI collections (click War, Military and scroll down to the WWI listings). One, The Stars and Stripes (covering Feb. 8, 1918, to June 13, 1919), lets you read the same words soldiers did. A fleet of trains, automobiles and motorcycles braved the front lines to deliver this Army newspaper – printed on borrowed Paris presses – to a half-million soldiers. You’ll also find voice recordings from American leaders of the time, as well as newspaper pictorials – created using the then-new rotogravure process – accompanied by a pictorial timeline of the war and background essays.

Explore NARA’s Archival Research Catalog for more war-era digital treasures, including posters and 320-plus photos. Find a guide to searching out these and other WWI documents at <archives.gov/research/arc/topics/ww1.html>. The box on page 21 names additional resources for pictures of uniforms, badges and other artifacts from US military conflicts.

With the 90th anniversary of the war’s end just a year away, on Nov. 11, 2008, only three American WWI veterans are known to be alive. But the “Guns of August” that started the Great War still reverberate – and, with a little digging, you can uncover the story of your ancestor who heard their first echoes and marched America into world leadership.

Toolkit

Books

The First World War. A Complete History by Martin Gilbert (Owl Books)

The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All the World’s Fighting Men and Volunteers by Christina K. Schaefer (Genealogical Publishing Co.)

Organizations

NARA

Textual Archives Services Division, Modern Military Records, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740, (301) 837-3510, <archives.gov>

NARA National Personnel Records Center

9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132, (314) 801-0800, <archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel>

NARA Southeast Region

5780 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, GA 30260, (770) 968-2100, <archives.gov/southeast>

National World War One Museum

100 W. 26th St., Kansas City, MO 64108, (816) 784-1918, <www.libertymemorialmuseum.org>

 
From the November 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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