Researching Canadian Soldiers of the First World War

By Michael O'Leary; The Regimental Rogue

Part 1: Find Your Man (or Woman)

This page introduces the availability of CEF soldiers' service records at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Beginning in late 2013, LAC has started to place groups of files out of circulation as they start to digitize all of these records.

Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files

From Library and Archives Canada website:

The digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) service files is underway and a substantial number of digitized files have been added to our website as part of the Government of Canada First World War commemoration activities. We will add new files every two weeks, as the CEF digitization initiative is a priority for us. LAC will ensure that Canadians have access to the files throughout the digitization process, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018.

For statistics and information about this digitization project, please consult LAC's monthly updates on the Discover blog.

More info at this page.

elipsis graphic

Canadian soldiers' service records for the First World War are held by the Library and Archives Canada (LAC). For researching soldiers of the First World War, the place to start is the Personnel Records of the First World War (1914-1918) database.

Sub-groups of the available records include the following:

The introduction page at the Library and Archives Canada Soldiers of the First World War (1914-1918) database.

The introduction page at the Library and Archives Personnel Records of the First World War (1914-1918) database.

Using the search form, look for your soldier by name. Unique or rare combinations of surname and given names will be rather easy to find in the database, for example, there's only one man named "Gladiator." For more common names a little more effort may be required, in contrast to the lone Gladiator there are 7432 entries for the surname "Smith" and 734 of those have the given name "John." Use full given names to search when known, or use initials with an asterisk "J*" if the initial is known but it is not certain what the given name is, or how it might have been entered on the soldier's Attestation Papers (ex. "J*" for John, Jean, Jack).

The search form at the Library and Archives Canada Soldiers of the First World War (1914-1918) database.

The search form at the Library and Archives Canada Soldiers of the First World War (1914-1918) database.

As you can see in the results table below, your search can be much assisted if you know the soldier's service number and given names. The service number can be found on any surviving documents you might have, such as a discharge certificate, or it can be found on the back or bottom edge of his medals if you have them.

An example of results returned when searching on a surname (Silcox).

An example of results returned when searching on a surname (Silcox).

If your name search still leaves you will multiple possibilities, and you don't have a service number, all is not lost. When you have a "short list" of possibilities, such as men all with the same given names, try to narrow your choices by the birthdate. Note that those without a service number listed were officers, although officers who also served as soldiers before their commissioning will often be shown with a service number in the LAC database record. One further method to distinguish between similarly named individuals is to go to each record and look at the linked Attestation Paper. the front of the paper will include next of kin, place of birth, and home town at the time of enrolment. It should be possible to match any or all of these details to previously known family history and confirm the appropriate record.

If your attempts to narrow the field are still frustrated, consider the following possibilities:

Hopefully with few problems, you will quickly be led to the correct LAC database record for you ancestor.

An example of results returned when searching on a surname (Silcox).

An example of an individual record in the Library and Archives Canada Soldiers of the First World War (1914-1918) database.

The record will provide links to scans of the soldier's Attestation Paper. About 90% of the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force have their attestation papers on line. The remainder simply weren't among the mass files of Attestation Papers that were scanned when the database was built, but copies will be in the individual service record files.

The Attestation Paper will probably provide you first lok at new information on your ancestor. There are two different documents linked with records. Most will have the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force Attestation Paper (example). Others, conscripts, will have a single-sided form showing that they were Drafted Under [the] Military Service Act, 1917 - Particulars of Recruit (example).

The next step, exploring the service record, will have to wait until you have the service record in hand, but please, read on.

Part 2 - The Service Record.

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