Researching a family's military history used to be a real challenge, but as more and more paper archives go digital and are transferred to the internet, it's becoming possible for anyone to leaf out a family tree in surprising detail by using a few tricks and knowing where to look.

"The biggest thing that's changed is the ability to find digitized documents through simple things like Google and search tools specific to military family histories," says Alex Herd, lead researcher for the Historica-Dominion Institute Memory Project in Toronto that aims to increase the public's knowledge of Canadian history.

"There almost seems to be some prestige involved with finding an ancestor who served in the military and particularly in any wars, and a lot of information that was difficult to get before has become available," adds Jeannine Powell of Duncan, B.C. Her day job is with a secretarial company, but an "18-year obsession" with genealogy has made her an expert (her nickname is GenQueen, a play on her name), and she's involved with groups ranging from Genealogy Helplist Canada, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' Family History Centre, to an array of historical websites.

"Two of the highest things people use the internet

[to search] for are pornography and family ancestry. One will tear a family apart, the other will build it up," she says with a laugh.

What's out there

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Jeannette Holm looks for more ambulances to pick up incoming wounded soldiers in the early months of 1945 at Royal Air Force Station Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, England. This photograph appeared in Harper's Bazaar magazine, May 1945. (Courtesy Historica-Dominion Institute)

There's a growing collection of personal military minutiae available through paid websites that cater to people researching their family trees.

One of the biggest subscription sites is Ancestry.com, which has been adding databases and buying up other genealogy portals such as Footnote.com (which it renamed Fold3.com and gave an even stronger military focus). The monthly charge for Ancestry.ca, its Canadian portal, starts at $10 and the archival collections for Canada and other countries include burial and war grave registers, records of war dead, copies of attestation papers, and lists of deserters, dischargees and POWs.

"Ancestry.ca is the first and No. 1 thing that a lot of people have been using for this kind of research," says Herd.

Paid sites generally have extensive records that are slickly organized and easy to use.

"Ancestry.ca does much of the searching for you and will automatically use what you enter in your tree to search the billions of historical records in its database for likely matches," says Ancestry.ca genealogist Lesley Anderson.

"We have a number of [types of] military content available to users at ancestry.ca/remember," she said, adding that the online records are available to the public for free until Nov. 13 in honour of Remembrance Day.

Besides their centralized search capabilities, subscription-based sites also offer access to some material that isn't readily available elsewhere.

"In terms of World War II, for example, it's just recently that more records have started to become available, and many of those are on the big commercial websites," Powell says.

But paid sites aren't the only research option, and they only contain a portion of the information that's available. There's an enormous amount of information published free through government and educational sites, and shared by genealogy hobbyists.

Library and Archives Canada and other government and educational agencies are steadily digitizing their free paper records, Herd says, and they date back to conflicts such as the War of 1812 and the rebellions of 1837 and 1885. "In the last few years they've become an important link for family members interested in finding veterans in their broader family tree."

Where to start

Contrary to what many beginners think, documents related to recent conflicts tend to be scarcer than those from older ones, and it's due to confidentiality laws governed by statutes of limitation. But there are extensive public records online about soldiers in the First World War and previous wars, and more and more military records from the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam are being released as time passes. The documents range from service records and images to papers containing interesting personal and service-related information.

In fact, there's so much information available today that beginners can feel lost, says Maj. Michael Boire, assistant professor of military history and native studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont.

But with the right approach, finding basic information about English and French Canadian soldiers, sailors, support workers and even war brides is very manageable even for novices.

Jeannine Powell's five-step process for beginners

  1. Start with what you know, such as a name or military unit.
  2. There's a lot of information out there and it's easy to get lost in it. Having a specific target for your research — such as finding a service record or list of medals earned — can keep a search focused.
  3. Look at what's available online and get a feel for the types of records available for that period to see if the type of record you're after is likely to have existed.
  4. If you can't find something online, identify and check other types of resources such as hard copy documentation, books, microfilm and newspaper reports that might have leads.
  5. Even if you seem to have drawn a blank, carefully analyze the information you've collected. It often contains clues pointing to a new angle for your search.

You've got to ask the right questions at the beginning, Boire says, and that will help build up a picture of the person that will start to come alive as you gather more information. "The most important part of looking for dad's, granddad's or great-granddad's records is to find the details about the unit he joined and where he served, and work outwards from there. Without knowing who great-granddaddy was, really, you can come to understand where he fought and build a fairly accurate idea of what his life was like in the trenches."

"Every military unit keeps records," Herd adds. "When you're looking for information on things like the regiments and battalions that fought on D-Day, for example, all these units had list and rolls of who served in them. So if you can establish when and where a family member fought, that should be a great starting point for getting detailed documentation on them."

Canada's National Archives site has the names and personnel files of all Canadian soldiers from both world wars, plus information from the attestation paper WWI soldiers signed when they volunteered for the army.

"What you get in this personnel record is this little spark that detonates a chain that takes you through where and when, and you add on to that," Boire says. "There's all kinds of information in a personnel file, especially medical stuff such as what hospitals they went to if they were hurt or sick, and so on."

Some of Boire's research tricks include:

  • If you know or suspect a soldier was injured, check the hospital records available through Canada's National Archives.
  • Find the soldier's hometown, and read the local newspapers from that time period — many of which are now in online archives such as the B.C. Historical Newspapers collection. A lot of small-town papers published announcements about a death or injury, who was overseas, and even notes from people writing in and saying things like, "I heard from John Smith, he was at Normandy and he's OK."
  • If the soldier fought in a unit that's still around in the militia, go to the militia armouries and look at their records. Many have detailed archives and scrapbooks with every single paper and clipping about the unit and its members.
  • Query Veteran's Affairs if you think a relative had a military pension.
  • Check the Salvation Army and Knights of Columbus archives, since they deployed people overseas and kept records of who they worked with.
  • Visit the local library and read the books of regimental histories, such as The Official History of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and Over The Top, and look for the soldier's name. You may not find it, but you'll learn about all the places they fought and what kind of life they had.
  • Don't trust archive indexes because they're often incomplete. Work backwards through archives, because there were large backlogs of information in wartime that were often not added to the records until long after an event.

The Great War Forum can be a handy source of advice if you hit a dead end on your search, Anderson says.

Online best-bets

There are many types of military archives online, and pulling information from them can be as simple as doing a Google search with terms such as "Canadian military history," Herd says.

"You'll pull up things like the Canadian Military History Gateway, or the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies, and those kinds of sites will give you a lot of very general and broad information that will lead you in new directions."

The British Commonwealth War Graves Commission is another good site, he adds. "They've done a fantastic job maintaining records of Commonwealth war graves overseas."

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Canadian soliders on leave in Paris, 1945. (Courtesy Historica-Dominion Institute)

But Herd cautions that not all archives are created equal, and the quality of the information and thoroughness of the records can vary.

"People should rely on established government and education websites where they can. For the less formal ones, don't disregard them but use a discretionary eye."

Still, Boire says it's amazing how much information even indirect sources can offer.

"You're doing all sorts of CSI-style investigation, you're picking up little snippets about great-granddad from all over the place that were created in no real logical order and putting them together in this composite drawing of him. The snippets are out there, but you have to be clever."

Some of Powell, Anderson and Herd's favourite websites for researching a family's military history are:

  • Library and Archives Canada: A good jumping-in point, it has a large and growing collection of wartime records. For example, its index of Canadians involved in the First World War often includes a soldier's signature, next of kin, a physical description and in some cases a photo.
  • Canadian Virtual War Memorial: An extensive database of the location of military graves, and an option to order a copy of a specific soldier's entry in the Book of Remembrance.
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Personal and service details and places of commemoration for the 1.7 million members of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First or Second World Wars.
  • FindAGrave.com: Not limited to the military, it can help locate the gravesites of specific people and has photos of cemeteries and graves.
  • Canadian Post War Military and Dependant Graves: Burial locations of service members and their dependants who died outside of Canada and the USA but were not returned to Canada.
  • Cyndi's List: This site gathers lists of links to useful genealogy research sites. There's an extensive list of military sites, databases and help forums.
  • FamilySearch.org: A jump-off point to multiple databases and resources. For guides to finding military information, follow the "Learn" link at the top of the page, click on "Research Courses," and choose "Military" from the left-hand column.
  • Canadian Merchant Navy War Dead Registry: And index of merchant sailors and their ships.
  • WorldVitalRecords.com: A collection of everything from personal information to tombstone photos.
  • AutomatedGenealogy.com: Links to census information and wartime databases.
  • Genealogylinks.net: A collection of links to smaller Canadian military archive sites.
  • FindMyPast.co.uk: This United Kingdom-centric site includes military records pertaining to other countries.
  • Odessa3.org: A genealogical library drawing on sources of information about people of German and Russian descent.

Powell adds that one of the latest sources of new information on the web is digitized books, through sites such as internetarchive.org and books.google.ca.

"They're now putting so much information and books online, and as time goes on there'll be more resources available. Things are only getting better."

Portals for free

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Corinne Kernan Sévigny was 19 when she enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, the CWAC, during the Second World War. (Courtesy Historica-Dominion Institute)

There are also ways to access the paid portals for free. Many libraries in the U.S. and Canada have subscriptions to paid services that can be used by visitors to their branches, for example.

And the Family History Centres across North America operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are open to the public and offer free access to many paid-subscription databases. The centres are also tied into the extensive genealogy databases in Salt Lake City, Utah, and are staffed by volunteers and family history consultants who can help with tricky searches. 

"Those options are an untapped resource because many people just aren't aware of them," Powell says.

Taking the search offline

While more and more military records are being digitized and put online, a bit of real-world legwork is often still necessary to fill out gaps in a soldier's profile.

"There are more and more indexes and digitized records coming online every month, however many of these collections point to a military service record and for that you will need to visit or contact the archives to view the file," says Ancestry.ca's Anderson.

"As a historian myself I like to go look at paper documents, and my greatest ally is the archivist," Herd says. "Whether you're looking at paper or electronic resources, put in your requests and see what you can find."

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Paul and Joan Dumaine on their wedding day in England on July 4, 1945. (Courtesy Historica-Dominion Institute)

For those who can make the trip to Ottawa, it's free to look at any National Archives documents that haven't yet been digitized and snap a photo.

If something isn't online and you can't go to where the hard-copy documents are stored, look for historical societies in the area, contact the archive's administrators, or try groups such as the Canada Genealogy Forum and Genealogy Helplist Canada, Powell says. Sometimes local volunteers dedicated to genealogical pursuits will look up a fact or document if you'll cover basic expenses like parking and photocopying fees.

Above all, the experts all say it's important to remember the hunt can take time, particularly if you're building a detailed genealogical profile of a family member's military history.

"There's a lot of information out there, and anything to do with family genealogy and official documentation is probably going to require a fairly large search," says Herd. "So be patient and ask as many questions as you can of people who have taken the time to set up these websites and archives."

"It's a labour of love. Don't give yourself any kind of deadline and when all kinds of leads come up at zero just realize that it's all part of it," adds Boire. "A hobby is the best way to look at it, do an hour or two here and there and keep gathering —  never assume the search is over, and it's amazing what you'll find."

Successfully finding an elusive piece of information can be a real triumph, Powell adds, remembering the day she finally found details about her husband's third-great-grandfather.

"I'd been looking for him for 10 years and when I finally found him in an obscure listing in a book, I was just so excited. Everybody in Duncan heard it, because I was jumping up and down and doing the genealogy happy dance."