Start by asking your family
As with all family history research, the best place to start finding your family’s military history research is with those closest to you. Ask your relatives what they remember, perhaps they have photos, medals, letters or diaries which have been passed down to them. As soon as you have a name and a date, you are ready to start investigating.
If you know that your ancestor was born in the US between 1878 and 1900 there is a good chance that they would have served, or were registered for the draft, in the Great War. 4.3 million men from the United States served during WW1, even after significant diplomatic efforts to prevent our entry into the fight.
While originally the US claimed neutrality in the events leading up to, the first months of the war, we did in fact mobilize our defenses and stood with the Allies against Germany and other aggressors. 116,516 US soldiers and sailors were lost to the war.
Finding your ancestors in historical records
Researching your WWI ancestor will take you on a journey through several archives and libraries. One of the best places to start is the World War I Draft Registration Cards. The Selective Service Act empowered the Federal Government to draft men for the armed forces, and this was passed on May 18, 1917.
The collection, available on Findmypast, includes 19 million military records, and is considered one of the key sources for early 20th century family history research in the United States. Just due to the sheer magnitude of the collection, identifying your ancestor within these pages will give you valuable data on their place of residence during the draft, their next of kin, and occupation.
All of these bits of information can lead you to additional clues if they were called to active duty.
Tip: Do not just look at the front page of the draft card, be sure to examine the back as well. The back of the draft card includes space for a physical description, giving you an “image” of your ancestor.
Where to go from there
Once you have obtained a copy of your ancestors’ draft card, you will need to utilize several other resources to identify their role in the war. The National Personnel Records Center, part of the National Archives and Records Administration (or NARA), in St. Louis, Missouri, houses military personnel records from World War One forward.
Through this establishment, you can order copies of records, but you must be aware of their regulations and processes to move through the system successfully. Review the NARA Genealogy page for more information.
In 1973, the St. Louis Center was damaged by a tragic fire, and many records were lost. Approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) were destroyed. This is crucial for those with Army or Air Force family members, as the majority of the loss was from those two branches of the military.
No duplicate copies, microfilm, or even indexes were created prior to the fire, so the material that was consumed that day can never again be replaced, and no one can say with any certainty exactly what was destroyed.
Since then, NARA, and specifically the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), has collected numerous series of records, referred to as Auxiliary Records, which are used to reconstruct basic information on an individual serviceman’s history. The efforts to replace this national collection continue today.
Due to the severe loss of official records, it is important to use creative research skills in piecing together the story of your ancestor’s role in the Great War. Seek out personal memoirs written by soldiers in the same unit, or from the same county back home. Utilize resources such as the Library of Congress for materials that can provide insight to the day to day experiences of the U.S. men and women that served abroad.
The extensive records on Findmypast to research your WWI ancestor include:
- U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918
- U.S. Veteran’s Gravesites
- U.S. & World Newspapers
- 1910 U.S. Census*
- 1920 U.S. Census*
- Examine our Birth, Marriage & Death collections for records state by state.
- Canada Letters from the Front 1920
*Tip! Search the 1910 and 1920 Census to see what your ancestors’ household looked like before and after the war. Taking a more in-depth look at the community they lived in can help you to understand the changing dynamics and effect the war had on their home life.
Records available at the NPRC include:
- 80% of Army personnel files for those discharged between November 1, 1912 and January 1, 1960 were lost in the 1973 fire.
- Officers separated after June 29, 2917, and
- Enlisted personnel after October 31, 1912.
- Enlisted personnel separated after 1884.
- Officers separated after 1901.
US Marine Corps
- Officers separated after 1904.
- Enlisted personnel separated after 1905.
US Coast Guard and Predecessor Agencies
- Coast Guard Officers separated after 1897.
- Coast Guard enlisted personnel separated after 1905.
- Civilian employees of agencies such as the Revenue Cutter Service, Lifesaving Service, and Lighthouse Service, retired after 1919.