Canadian actor and artist R.H. Thomson embarked on a Remembrance Day art installation to Commemorate and name those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War. His belief, we cannot truly remember if we see the dead as an unnamed collective. I must concur! As Canadians we have yearly sat through somber school and community ceremonies but it seems only now a more recent trend to actually acquaint youth with the individuals who gave their lives. Through the study of wartime letters, the biographies of individual soldiers, visits to European monuments and battlegrounds, and the recreation of World War trenches, students are being immersed in the lives and experiences of soldiers. It is an admirable educational evolution!
619 636 Canadian soldiers enlisted during the First World War, 59 544 lost their lives and in World War II 1.1 million Canadians served. The numbers are astounding and few family genealogies are untouched by these all encompassing wars meant to end all wars! Over a decade ago when I began my personal family history journey delving into the lives of my WWI CEF ancestors was costly and time consuming. While the Library and Archives of Canada provided an online index, one still had to send in a records request, wait for the requests to be processed, and pay substantial amounts of money for files to be copied and mailed, or later scanned and emailed.
The fantastic news has been that for the last five years a Library and Archives Canada project has digitized Canada’s First World War service files in their entirety and made them available online! You can read about the digitization process on the LAC blog.
Most genealogist will be familiar with the information I am presenting in this article however I think the interest in this family research may extend beyond those regularly involved in genealogical pursuits. My hope was that in spreading awareness regarding the increasing accessibility of these records the general public will learn how easy it can be to become acquainted with their ancestors.
One can access the Personnel Records of the First World War database and search by surname and first name and/or your ancestor’s regimental number.
You will be presented with a listing of those entries matching your search from which you may select.
The entry for your selected soldier will include some indexed details, a digital image of the soldier’s initial Attestation Papers, and a link to a PDF of the soldier’s complete service file.
(As an aside, the example I have used is that of my great great uncle, a casualty of the gas attack at the Battle of Ypres in 1915.)
These records may provide one with an initial introduction to one’s ancestor, or perhaps fill in the missing pieces regarding his service. I will write further articles expanding on this path of discovery later this week.
Not one Canadian veteran remains from the First World War. As time plods on fewer and fewer remain from the Second World War, and perhaps it is those ancestors who fought during WWII with which one is intrigued. Many soldiers returned with stories to tell, while trauma prevented others from telling the tales of their experiences. Many Canadians may have known their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents who fought in the second world war but may have known little of their wartime experiences, the battles they fought, and the places they were stationed. The privacy act in Canada is quite stringent and perhaps the idea of these restrictions has deterred people from thoughts of requesting this more recent information.
An online database index exists for those killed in action during World War II. Copies of these records may be ordered traditionally through the “how to obtain copies” link on the main database homepage. These are open records and anyone can request these with only the archival reference information.
All other WWII service files are classified as restricted. This only means they are not accessible to all. If the veteran is living he or she is the only one with access to his/her personal file. The file could then only be released with the written consent of the veteran.
If however the veteran has passed less than 20 years ago limited personal information may be released to immediate family members with proof of relationship and proof of death. Immediate family can include spouse, parent, sibling, child, or grandchild.
The files of veterans who passed more than 20 years ago can be requested by anyone with proof of death. This can include the photo of a headstone or an obituary which are often easy to obtain. All it takes is the completion of a simple application form.
Again, it can take a great deal of time for WWII service file requests to be processed and filled. The application for may be mailed or faxed and Library and Archives Canada send a confirmation letter.
The copies of the service records follow within 6-12 months’ time. This may seem a long wait however the records are provided free of charge which is an amazing public service in my estimation!
This Remembrance Day do something different. Though we continue to thank the collective of veterans and military personnel, stop and take a moment to look at the individuals who comprise that collective. Discover their unique experiences and personalities, and bring them to life for yourselves, your families, and your children!
Being remembered is living forever!