In 2013, the United Kingdom’s HM Courts and Tribunals Service made thousands of World War I soldiers’ wills available to the public. The documents have since been viewed more than 1 million times, and more than 10,000 copies of wills have been ordered. This project is meant to provide insight into UK WWI heroes for historians, genealogists, and those whose ancestors fought in the Great War.
Before going to the front lines of battle, many soldiers past and present execute wills to simplify the settling of their affairs in the event they are killed in combat. The informal, short-form WWI wills released by the UK contain information like the soldier’s domicile, regimental number and rank, cause of death (i.e., “killed in action France,” “killed in action from gas poisoning,” or, simply, “died of wounds”), and date of death. Some records also include forms stating to whom the soldier would be leaving his property and the address of the beneficiary (many soldiers gave their property to their mothers), along with a “list of clothing to be in the possession of troops proceeding to join the expeditionary force.” Some even have handwritten letters to family expressing fears, hopes, and instructions for belongings.
The UK Probate Office has more than 41 million wills, approximately 300,000 of which are available online. Britain, Scotland, and Ireland have separate procedures for searching and obtaining PDFs of the digitized records. British and Scottish records cost from £2.5 to £10 (about $4 to $16) per document, while Ireland’s can be downloaded at no cost.
- Britain https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/#soldiers
- Ireland http://soldierswills.nationalarchives.ie/search/sw/about.jsp
- Scotland http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/Content/Help/index.aspx?r=2278
To read a young soldier’s letter to his mother from August 1914, go to this CBS News story.
The United States keeps military member files at the National Personnel Records Center and the National Archives. Although not all are digitized, these can be searched online and reproductions can be ordered for a fee. For more information, go to http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/fall/military-records-overview.html.