Researching Canadian Soldiers of the First World War

By Michael O'Leary; The Regimental Rogue

Part 1: Find Your Man (or Woman)

This page introducues 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

"LAC, with the support of Public Works and Government Services Canada, will undertake the digitization of about 640,000 service files of members of the CEF (some members having two or more files in their name due to changes in their status) to complement the more than 620,000 attestation papers and the approximately 13,500 service files already available on LAC's Soldiers of the First World War Web page.

"As of March, 2014, LAC will be required to temporarily close portions of this collection. To allow us to perform a number of complex and delicate tasks to ensure the digitization of the collection, the files will be digitized alphabetically by CEF members' last names. The first quarter, beginning with the letter A through D, will be closed as of March 2014 and will be available on-line as of Summer 2014.

"While 75% of the collections will always be open, LAC will not be able to accept requests to consult documents in person, nor take orders for copies for a period of up to 4 months on the portion of the collection being digitized."

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 Soldiers of the First World War (1914-1918) database.

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 Canada Soldiers 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 6955 entries for the surname "Smith" and 676 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 rerecord 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 individual record page on the LAC database will also provide a link to instructions for ordering the soldier's service record. These instructions are reproduced below:

Library and Archives Canada
Soldiers of the First World War (1914-1918) database

How to order a copy of a complete service file

Most of the attestation papers have been digitized and appear online in the database.

The service files are paper originals. Beginning in May 2010, Library and Archives Canada has started to add digitized copies of the files to the database to make them more accessible, to help preserve the originals and to avoid copying the same file more than once.

For files not yet digitized, you can order photocopies or scanned images. The cost is the same. When a photocopy or digital copy is requested, the complete file will be scanned and the digital images will be added to the database the next time it is reloaded. In this way, all Canadians can help contribute to the preservation of our country's military heritage.

Due to the large volume of inquiries we receive, we are unable to provide a service for selecting and copying specific documents from within a file; we only provide copies of complete file. As well, the documents are not paginated and we cannot undertake page counts of files prior to ordering. However, most Canadian Expeditionary Force service files contain an average of 25 to 75 pages, with those for personnel who were drafted or enlisted later in the war typically having smaller files. They are open to the public without access restrictions.

How to order copies

See: Price List and Service Standards - Photocopy

• To obtain the students or seniors citizens (65 years of age and over) reduced rates, you must send a photocopy of your ID card with your written request or present your ID card to the staff when placing your request in-person.

Orders can be placed using our secure online Order Form for Photocopies and Reproductions, or by mail or fax. Please include your credit card number and the expiry date.

Reproduction Services
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0N4
Fax: 613-995-6274

• We do not accept orders for copies by email as we cannot guarantee security for your credit card information. However, our online Order Form for Photocopies and Reproductions is secure.

Cite the full archival reference as it appears in the database.

Example:

COOPER, ADAM PORTER
Regimental number: 328870 (or rank if the individual was an officer)
Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1965-1

If you are having problems identifying the correct file, please consult this section.

In brief, files will cost 40 cents per page plus postage and each file may be between 25 and 75 (on average). Once the LAC has your order, either by letter, facsimile or through their on-line ordering system, it can take four to six weeks to receive the records. (This time can increase if they are backlogged, as they can be around Remembrance Day or other times when people's interest in researching their soldiers ancestors is piqued. Ordering a digital copy may reduce your wait time.

One final point for your consideration. It may be recommended that you request "only" a genealogical package which will focus on record of service documents. Having handled a number of service records I would caution against this choice. Although many of the documents omitted in the genealogical package will be of little value, others may (and I stress may) hold clues for further research. Details on medical documents or a next-of-kin's address on a pay ledger may be a valuable clue for further family research.

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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