What the “Great War” Taught Us

Issue #06 - Armistice

On “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” November 11, 1918, the First World War officially ended, secured by an armistice designed to end the fighting as quickly as possible. November 11 became the first Armistice Day holiday of the 20th century, but it wouldn’t be the last. In 1954 President Eisenhower declared November 11 Veteran’s Day, to include the many devastating conflicts that transpired after 1918. In this week’s Without a Trace we have some tips on researching records related to the so-called “war to end all wars” that, unfortunately, wasn't.

It was the early 1970s and the American literary scholar Paul Fussell was thinking about the war in Vietnam. How to understand this devastating quagmire with its millions of victims yet no obvious victors? The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), was the result. “It's a book about the Vietnam War as much as it is about the First World War,” Fussell said later, because  the First World War “reversed the idea of progress” for the world as a whole, he argued, much as the Vietnam War challenged the United States’ own self-image as a progressive force for global good. 

World War I stunned the world with the brutality and terror of modern warfare. New weapons and strategies such as mustard gas, aerial bombing raids, tank attacks, and trench warfare conspired to make the conflict incredibly deadly while measuring troop advancement in mere inches. Eight million people eventually died as a result of the war; 20,000 British soldiers died on just the first day of the Battle of the Somme. After witnessing death on this scale, the world was in shock. 

Armistice Day was an attempt to honor those sacrifices and process the overwhelming grief of the survivors. There were also celebrations; a baby boy born in Chertsey, England at 11:11 A.M. on 11/11/18 was named Pax Guildford Yates, his name a tribute to the declaration of peace. 

Inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” (1918), written by Canadian military doctor John McCrae (who himself died during the war in 1918) in 1919 the British began wearing red poppies on Armistice Day as a way to remember the fallen. McCrae wrote the poem after serving at the Second Battle of Ypres, which left 69,000 people dead. He noticed bright red poppies blooming in the torn-up battlefields and wrote, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.”

Photograph of the poppies at the Tower of London, taken by Simon Jowett in 2014.

One of the greatest tragedies of World War I was its legacy. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson declared that the Allied victory would “make the world safe for democracy,” but in fact the opposite happened. The disillusionment and devastation of postwar Europe, enduring food shortages, and global economic crashes proved to be fertile soil for the growth of fascism across the continent. Just 21 years after the Armistice, World War II began. 

“By the time we got to the Second World War, everybody was more or less used to Europe being badly treated and people being killed in multitudes,” author Paul Fussell observed. But it was different for Americans. “Most other countries had experienced deep Vietnam-like defeats and had had to deal with [them]  intellectually and imaginatively… we didn't, until the Vietnam War, which helped us grow up a great deal.” 

In 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower formally renamed Veteran’s Day in order to include veterans of World War II and the Korean War. It was also an acknowledgment that “the war to end all wars” had in fact been only the beginning. Just two years later, in 1955, the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War and would not withdraw for nearly two decades. 

Paul Fussell was wounded in battle in Alsace during World War II and earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. His experience made him skeptical of attempts to valorize war. "Those who fought know a secret about themselves, and it is not very nice." Soldiers on the battlefield learned the violence they were capable of, and the countries they returned home to were forced to face their own culpability in the casualties, as well. 

As monstrous as the First World War was, when it ended, many optimistically sought ways to better their lives. British women over 30 won the right to vote in 1918, the Irish manifested the courage to fight for their independence from the United Kingdom, and of course baby Pax was christened, his name itself a prayer for the coming era of world peace. But that peace did not last. From Russia to Spain, an era of bloody revolution had begun. Just 21 years after the Armistice was signed, the Second World War began. On May 3, 1940, the Yates family was informed of the death of their son, killed in action on a British warship. He was Able Seaman Pax Guildford Yates, age 21. “His death is a grim reminder of how futile were those hopes of 22 years ago,” a newspaper reported at the time, “for world peace, a noble dream, is dead, too.”

Weekly Discoveries

  1.  As many church records were recorded in Latin, the ability to decipher the written language can be paramount in researching one’s ancestors. As such, FamilySearch is providing a virtual five-part series on Latin Handwriting, beginning November 9th.         

  2. DNA Explorers: Presentations on Genetic Genealogy is being offered by the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library, in conjunction with Indiana Humanities, on Saturday, 14 November 2020.  A genetic genealogist will lead this full-day genetic genealogy virtual program. Learn more about this free learning opportunity here.

  3. A book that may prove helpful to those with Norwegian ancestry, Research Guide for Norwegian Genealogy: For Beginning and Experienced Genealogists is now available for family historians..

  4. How a simple Google search led to an amazing discovery for a descendant of Joseph Napoleon Hewitt (b. ca. 1837).

  5. After 25 years in business and turning down repeated offers from Ancestry to purchase them, NewspaperArchives is acquired by a Chicago-based private equity company.

Secrets of World War I Military Records

New weapons, new strategies, new technologies, the First World War was also the first war to utilize all the new tools of modern bureaucracy, paperwork genealogists can be grateful for. Many family history researchers have utilized the World War I Draft Registration Cards at one point or another. For many men in the United States at this time, this may have been the first time their birth dates and locations were recorded in official records, as their births would have pre-dated most civil birth record mandates.  We are also able to learn where they resided, if they were married, where they were employed, citizenship status, a general physical description and if they were literate, their signature. The cards can also be the only source of this era for an ancestor’s middle name.  

What you may not know  is that after the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed, there were three registrations, consisting of approximately 24,000,000 cards.The first one was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31, which took place on 5 June 1917. The second phase took place on 5 June 1918, registering those who had turned 21 after the prior draft registration in 1917, followed by a supplemental registration, held on 24 August 1918 for men who reached the age of 21 after the June 1918 registration. The final registration, which was for men ages 18-45, took place on 12 September 1918. It should be noted that not all men who registered for the draft actually served in the military, and not all men who served completed a draft registration card, though there were stiff penalties, including imprisonment for those who met the requirements, yet failed to register.

Photograph shows line of men next to Bahnsen & Roeloffs grocery store in New York City, waiting to register for the draft during World War I

The threat of imprisonment was real for all males who met the criteria, as the World War I draft differed from that of the Civil War, in that no substitutes were allowed.  During the Civil War, a drafted male could avoid serving simply by hiring another male to serve in his place, but the Selective Service Act of 1917 specifically prohibited this practice:

No person liable to military service shall hereafter be permitted or allowed to furnish a substitute for such service; nor shall any substitute be received, enlisted, or enrolled in the military service of the United States; and no such person shall be permitted to escape such service or to be discharged therefrom prior to the expiration of his term of service by the payment of money or any other valuable thing whatsoever as consideration his release from military service or liability there to.

Have you ever noticed that some of the World War I Draft Registration Cards are missing a corner? This wasn’t due to improper handling or other damage, instead it served as a method for categorizing the race of registrants. Draft board officials were instructed to tear off the lower left-hand corner of the registration form for all Black registrants.During this time period, the United States military was racially segregated and remained so until 1948.

The image on the left shows a corner that has been removed to indicate the registrant was Black, while the image on the right remains intact, indicating a Caucasian registrant.

Digital images of approximately 24,000,000 World War I Draft Registration Cards, are indexed and available free of charge through FamilySearch, where they are arranged by state, by city or county, by local draft board, and then alphabetically by surname.

For those who actually served in the United States military during World War I, there are many state-level military records available, including the Georgia, World War I Service Cards, 1917-1919, which include Death Cards that provide details of military service, as well as date and cause of death and the name, address and relationship of the person (usually next of kin) who was notified of the soldier’s death. In addition to the Death Cards, the collection includes Statement of Service Cards and Victory Medal Application Cards.

More World War I training camps were located in the state of Georgia than any other state in America, but it is not the only state to have maintained state-level military records. Research the records of your ancestor’s state of residence to determine what records may be extant and where they are held. As most United States Army service records for World War I were destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Archives, the state-level records can reveal information not available anywhere else.

Another little-known change brought on by World War I was an act of Congress on 9 May 1918 to amend the naturalization laws provided that “any alien serving in the military or naval service of the United States during the time this country is engaged in the present war may file his petition for naturalization without making the preliminary declaration of intention and without proof of the required five years residence within the United States.” This act allowed for expedited naturalization of non-citizens serving in the United States Armed Forces; though the serving noncitizen still had to show that they had served honorably, were of good moral character, were attached to the principles set forth in the United States Constitution, and held a favorable disposition toward the good order and happiness of the United States. Becoming a naturalized citizen was not a requirement and citizenship was not automatically gained through  service . In order to become a naturalized citizen, the service member had to file a petition and swear to the required Oath of Allegiance. These naturalization records of World War I soldiers have been digitized and are available on Ancestry

Have an ancestor who may have served in the British Armed Forces during World War I?  You may be interested in the journey of discovery for one family that began with a mysterious letter from Buckingham Palace and a penny-like coin found within the effects of a deceased ancestor, detailed in our blog post World War I Memorial Plaques.

Military records from World War I can provide a wealth of information unavailable anywhere else, from information about basic training to reports from the battlefield, to photographs of a long-lost ancestor, records that are especially poignant when that ancestor gave the ultimate sacrifice in this tragic war.

Expert Corner, Ericka

Ericka is a member of the Trace research team and has been a professional genealogist for the past five years. She was previously a teacher with a background in history education. Her primary research specialty is in researching and reconstructing the records and experiences of American service members during World Wars I and II; and in providing historical context to service records which will enrich the narrative and give clients a stronger connection to their family's recent military history.

I found a World War I / World War II Draft Card for my ancestor, does that mean they served in the United States military?

Answer:  No; the World War I and II Draft Registration Cards were simply an inventory of available manpower taken by the United States government in preparation for joining (or supplying men to) both World Wars. These cards provide a wealth of genealogical information, but often family historians will confuse the draft serial and order numbers with a military-issued serial (service) number. The serial number on a draft card was simply the sequential number in which a man registered with his local draft board. The order number indicated the sequential order in which that serial number was drawn in the national draft lottery and, therefore, the order for which men could be inducted into the selective service system. Keep in mind that there were multiple draft registrations and men who were already serving in the armed forces at the time of each draft were not required to register. However, if a veteran was discharged from service before the end of that war then he was required to re-register for the draft, and sometimes an indication of his prior service will be noted on the card.

I want to know if my ancestor served in one of the World Wars, where do I begin?

Answer:  World War I veterans were typically born between 1872 and 1900 and World War II veterans between 1877 and 1925, so begin by identifying ancestors born within those time periods. Obituaries and headstones which mention military service or membership at a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or American Legion Post are great indicators of service. Additionally, some enlistment records are available on various genealogy websites and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs’ Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File, which recorded information from deceased veterans or beneficiaries who had received Veterans Administration benefits while they were alive, is available on Ancestry.com. World War I veterans can also be identified through the 1930 United States Census, which specifically recorded veteran status and the war or expedition in which they served. Finally, don’t forget to review your family’s personal artifacts! Photographs of your ancestors in uniform, medals, official paperwork and other memorabilia can also be a great place to start with your research.

Are all veteran records open to the public?

Answer:  No; all official military records are subject to privacy laws and government declassification guidelines. The National Archives and Records Administration considers personnel records archival at 62 years (currently for veterans with a military discharge date of 1958 or prior) and these records can be requested by anyone if the veteran is deceased. However, if a veteran is still living then his or her personnel file is only available to the veteran. If a veteran is deceased, but his or her service was within the past 62 years, then records are available to the next-of-kin with certain evidence.

What specific records were impacted by the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and how does that impact my research?

Answer:  The 1973 fire at the NPRC destroyed an estimated 16 to 18 million military personnel files, primarily from the Army and Air Force prior to 1960 and 1964, respectively. However, there is no index for the files which were destroyed or which still remain available, so it is always worthwhile to request a personnel file. Many partially damaged files are still able to be conserved and “reconstructed” files may contain service information from other record groups or submissions made by the veteran for the purpose of Veterans Administration benefits which will aid in research. Army and Air Force research is not a “lost cause,” it is simply a more involved research process to reconstruct your ancestor’s service. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel files remain largely intact and provide a wealth of service information, even sometimes containing photographs. There are also many other record groups and resources beyond a personnel file which can be utilized to find information and add context and detail to your ancestor’s military service.

Is there anything else you would like to add in regard to World War I or World War II military records?

Answer:  First, families often only know about one unit in which their veteran participated, perhaps a primary or final unit, but this is only one piece of the research puzzle! Nearly all veterans started out in training units, attended different service schools or courses based on their military occupation, and were transferred between units for various purposes. Each of these units typically has its own set of records which can be used to add to your knowledge about a veteran’s service. There are also records available, such as newspapers and histories, which were not produced by the military or federal government that can add enriching details to your research. One of the most rewarding aspects of military research is being able to follow a veteran from his or her date of enlistment/induction through to the date he or she separated from the service and provide a complete picture of the few months or years that were so impactful on that person’s life.

Second, if you are fortunate enough to have one of the few remaining World War II veterans in your family, take the time to interview them and ask about their memories, experiences and about the people they served with. Just be sensitive to the fact that, even 75+ years later, there are things that many veterans won’t share because their memories and traumas are still vivid.

Would you like help researching your World War ancestors?

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Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 8..

Imperial War Museums, (https://www.iwm.org.uk/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “What Was the Battle of the Somme?.”

Imperial War Museums, (https://www.iwm.org.uk/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “What you Need to Know About the Second Battle of Ypres.”

The White House, (https://www.whitehouse.gov/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “Woodrow Wilson.”

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/ : 4 November 2020), 2014 photo of “Poppies at the Tower of London 14860110555.jpg;” photograph by Simon Jowett.

The Atlantic online (https://www.theatlantic.com/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “The Other Side of War.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (https://www.va.gov/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs: History of Veterans Day.”

BYU Library (https://lib.byu.edu/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “The Initial Shock...A Conversation with Paul Fusell.”

"The Death of Pax - An Ironic Coincidence,” Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), 7 May 1940, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 4 November 2020), citing print edition, p. 4, col. 2.

National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “World War I Draft Registration Cards.”

“Prison, Not Fine, is Penalty for Failure to Register for Draft,” The Richmond Item (Richomond,  Indiana), 29 May 1917, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 4 November 2020), citing print edition p. 1, cols. 2-3.  

Library of Congress Online Catalog, “Bain Collection,” database with images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov/ : accessed 4 November 2020), digital image from original negative, “Waiting to register, 6/5/17,” digitial ID ggbain.24570; citing Bains News Service, 1917.

“Georgia, World War I Service Cards, 1917-1919,” database with images,  Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 4 November 2020), death card for Edwin A. Smith (1918), Army serial no. 2,595,745; citing, “World War I Statements of Service Cards,” Records of the Georgia Adjutant  General’s Office, Georgia State Archives, Morrow.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (https://www.uscis.gov/ : accessed 4 November 2020), “Military Naturalization During WWII.”

The end. 💌