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Overheard in GenForum: 2 Grandads Killed in Action in W.W.I
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

September 21, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am looking for information/web sites on World War I. Both my grandads were killed in action 1914-1918. One was Charles Lay RAMC and killed at Salonika. The other was John Macdonald, 2nd Gordon Highlanders. I would so much like to have some information on them. -- Norma

A: Unlike the researchers of World War I military in the United States, in Great Britain, it becomes necessary to know a lot more about your ancestor before you can hope to find records on them, especially in the case of one who was killed in action.

Unfortunately, due to the bombings during World War II, many of the World War I records did not survive. There is only about 40 per cent still available, amounting to about 33,000 boxes. This is only about two million soldiers.

Bombs and sheer magnitude make it difficult to research World War I soldiers from Great Britain.

Great Britain in the War

Great Britain did donate a large number of its men and women to the Great War. There were some five million men and women who would be directly involved in World War I in the some 1,700 infantry battalions and 4,000 other units.

Despite the thousands of men who volunteered to enter the army during World War I, the casualties forced the country to institute a conscription, or draft, program. It was begun in January 1916.

That original conscription required that all men who were between the ages of 18 and 41 and were single or widowers were required to enlist. There were exceptions for those who were unfit for service and those who were working in civil work in an indispensable way.

In May of 1916, the conscription requirements were extended. In an effort to get enough soldiers, the conscription in May required that married men also sign up.

Surviving Soldiers Files

While your specific research problem is not related to those soldiers who did come home from the war, I mention these records here so that others may be aware of the treasure trove available. The surviving soldiers' pension files, also known as the "unburnt" documents have been microfilmed.

These records come from the Ministry of Pensions and represent only eight percent of those who served. These microfilmed records are available at the Public Records Office. The microfilms are also available through the Family History Library.

The "burnt" documents, which represent the 33,000 boxes, are now in the process of being microfilmed. This ongoing process is not expected to be completed until 2001.

Those Who Didn't Come Home

The casualty count for Great Britain was quite high. There were approximately 750,000 soldiers killed during the war, most of those from wounds or illness. For those British soldiers who died in hospitals in France and Belgium, the Public Record Office has death certificates for them.

After the war, there were some 1.2 million memorial brass plaques that were handed out to the next of kin of those men who did not survive. Each brass plaque had a scroll on it and included the name of the deceased, their rank and their number.

Another place that researchers of British soldiers can look for information on their deceased ancestors who died in World War I is in the 17 volumes of Soldiers Died in the Great War. There are 80 parts to the 17 volumes, each part representing one or more regiments.

In this large collection, you will find some 667,000 men listed. There is another volume that lists an additional 39,000 deceased officers.

Finding a soldier in this list requires knowing the regiment and the battalion as the men are listed alphabetically under the regiment and the battalion. Additional information that can be found is:

  • Rank
  • Number
  • Place of birth
  • Place of enlistment
  • Place of residence (if difference)
  • Date of death
  • Theater of War in which they died

For your grandfather's a search of this was made and only one was found. This does not mean that the other one is not in these volumes. However, as each separate battalion is alphabetized, it is necessary in some instances to search through a number of lists before finding an individual.

John McDonald, who was a member of the 2nd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders was born in Oban, Argyllshire. He enlisted in Aberdeen. His number was 10726 and he was a private. He was killed in action in the France and Flanders theater on 30 October 1914.

In Conclusion

You will want to search on your own for these volumes to see if you can track down your other grandfather. You can also write to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to request information on exactly where he is buried. Be sure to supply them with his name and his unit.

Enquiries Section
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 Marlow Road
Maidenhead, Berks

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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