As Canada marks 100 years since the defining battle at Vimy Ridge, many people are curious to learn more about their ancestors’ possible contributions.
In the past, finding out whether a relative had fought in the First World War would have required asking older relatives or digging through library archives.
But, with Library and Archives Canada gradually uploading full First World War service files, plus a growing web of online family trees, Canadians can find out not only whether their forebears fought in the Great War, but also see dozens of pages of digitized records. Here’s a guide to starting your research.
How to find government military records
If you have a name of an ancestor who may have fought at Vimy, you should start by searching Library and Archives Canada’s online database of Personnel Records of the First World War.
The Personnel Records of the First World War database includes the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service files.
So far, nearly 417,000 out of 640,000 of these full files have been digitized, with more added every two weeks.
The service files are typically 25 to 75 pages long and include records on enlistment, training, medical and dental procedures, disciplinary actions, payments, medals, discharges and deaths.
In cases where the full service file isn’t yet uploaded, you may still be able see digitized enlistment records that contain birthplaces, next of kin, addresses, religions, trades and physical characteristics.
Start by typing in the surname and hitting search on this page. Click on the name in the search results. You will likely see an uploaded image of their enlistment document that you can click on that to enlarge it.
If you also see the words “Digitized service file – PDF format” followed by a number, click on the number and the entire scanned service file will open. These files are very large so it may require a fast internet connection to download, or take minutes to appear on your screen.
For example, you can see the service file for journalist Gregory Clark, including his waist size, height, religion, payment history — and the fact that he was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.”
It’s not always clear in the service files whether a person served in a particular battle, like at Vimy Ridge. However, that may be found in the online database of War Diaries of the First World War, which include daily accounts of what troops did in the field. These diaries contain very little personal information, but do show where units were deployed.
For example, Clark’s service file indicated he was posted to “4th C.M.R.,” or the 4th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles when the battle began at Vimy Ridge. The war diary for the 4th C.M.R. on April 9, 1917 shows they had reached the “first enemy trench” by 5:35 a.m. and were established in the Zwischen Trench by 10 a.m. The entry for April 11 was comparatively grim: it says “we suffered severe casualties, one officer and seven other ranks killed and 20 other ranks wounded.”
The Canadian Virtual War Memorial also has some files on First World War soldiers, including digital images. Canadians are invited to contribute data files to the growing virtual memorial.
Try online genealogy services
If you don’t know whether any of your ancestors fought at Vimy, the best place to find out may be on Ancestry.ca, where Canadians can create an online family tree that may link to other relatives’ family trees.
Ancestry.ca suggests starting by asking family members for parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ names, birthplaces, birthdates, places of death and death dates. After gathering as many of these details as possible — including best guesses — they can create a tree.
Ancestry.ca may then connect them with family trees created by distant kin, like second and third cousins, who may have already entered information about forgotten forbearers who fought at Vimy — or were at least the right age to have been there.
There are a plethora of historical records accessible through Ancestry.com, which show up as “hints.” Accessing these hints requires a subscription. A 14-day free trial available.
Search for newspaper obituaries
Service in the First World War was a monumental event in the lives of most of those who served, so it was often noted in obituaries.
Canadians who know the name of a relative who fought or may have fought at Vimy can often confirm this and learn a whole lot more about that ancestor by reading newspaper obituaries
Many old newspapers are viewable in online databases that can often be accessed for free by entering your library card number and password in the website of your local library.
No luck online? Try contacting genealogical societies
Members of provincial and local genealogical societies might be able to provide leads on how to search records that aren’t online. Library and Archives Canada has an extensive list of them here.