Genealogy

Geoff Winnington-Ball's MAPLE LEAF UP site (mapleleafup.org) was one of the first privately funded internet sites devoted to the Canadian Army and for years a terrific source of information,. Established in 1998, a year before canadiansoldiers.com began life on the web, the site flourished until Geoff's death in December 2010.

One of the features of the site was an information page on researching veterans/family members who served. The page is now gone, but copying the link into the Wayback Machine internet archive will take the user to an archive copy. The link is http://mapleleafup.org/locator/research.html

Relevant material from that page informs some of what follows here. There is an ongoing interest in genealogy and the study in particular of service histories as they relate to ancestors and family members. This interest has been aided by television programs with that theme, and the proliferation of tools now available to amateur researchers, notably through the internet. The canadiansoldiers.com website has always focused on military, rather than personal or family, history, but due to the overwhelming and ongoing number of requests, the following information is provided in the hopes it may be useful.


"He Never Talked About It"

A common theme among descendants of war veterans is the tendency of those veterans not to have discussed their wartime experiences. There were many reasons for this, depending on the individual.

  • Some didn't want their life to be defined by their war service - Canada only had a few thousand men in uniform in 1939, which grew to over a million by the end of the war. Very few of those that served would have chosen the military as a profession had it not been for the war.

  • Most, particularly combat veterans, saw terrible acts of violence, and were compelled to take part in such acts as part of the performance of their duty.

  • With so many Canadians in service, everyone would have closely known someone that was injured or killed during the war. For combat veterans, they would have vividly experienced being witness to gruesome deaths and grievous injury.

  • On return to Canada, lack of mental health supports would have been combined with a populace that had not been exposed to the horrors unleashed in Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Pacific. A common theme among returning veterans was that no one, including close family, could relate to their experiences of hardship and sacrifice.

  • Other factors including survivor's guilt, not only among those who served in combat, but also in those who served in relatively safe duties in Canada, the United Kingdom, etc.

Families had been content to leave things this way for decades. A few factors changed things in the latter part of the 1990s and through the opening years of the 21st Century:

  • Greater understanding of mental health needs of veterans, in part to the experience of the U.S. in the Vietnam War and a re-evaluation of how veterans of that period were treated

  • Renewed appreciation for the sacrifices of war veterans, particularly in the wake of the film Saving Private Ryan which created a renewed interest in the Second World War not only in the United States, but in many other countries that participated in the Second World War

  • The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq which once again placed Canadians and Americans in harm's way. The death of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan brought a renewal of interest in Remembrance Day.

  • The knowledge that the population of First and Second World War was dwindling due to 'natural attrition' and that opportunities to talk to, and thank, those veterans would eventually be gone forever.

  • A general societal shift, possibly linked to the death of Princess Diana in August 1997. In particular, the idea that grief should be a private affair was challenged in the wake of her death, and popular culture, aided by new technologies driving new social media, have encouraged a wider sense of openness and awareness.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the growing availability of digital records, families now grapple with the mysteries of their ancestors' military service. The following is offered as advice in the hopes it may be useful. One caveat applies - one should be aware that our current ability to access information was probably never imagined by soldiers living before the Information Age. Researchers should be warned that some of what they uncover may be unpleasant to read. The majority of wartime service personnel were very young, and for combat troops especially with legitimate reason to feel their lives could be cut short. Service records may thus include references to venereal disease, disciplinary infractions, criminal charges, and in some cases the relative that told family and friends about the nature of his service career may be proven by documentary evidence to have exaggerated his service in the belief that no one would ever have opportunity to read his personnel records.

How To Research

The best starting point is to document all that is known about the subject. If there are any documents such as commendations, discharge notice, paybook, correspondence, etc. they should be assembled and examined. They will often yield clues that will be valuable later on. The most important piece of information will be the service number.

Service Number (see also main article on Service Numbers)

Canadian soldiers have usually been assigned Service Numbers, particularly in wartime. This number was unique to the individual and was used to help identify the soldier in any official documentation. There are exceptions:

  • Officers in both world wars did not receive service numbers, as their name was considered sufficient to identify them

  • During peace time before 1945 service numbers were not issued.

  • After the creation of the Social Insurance Number (SIN) in 1964, the number was also used by the military, until Service Numbers were once again assigned beginning in the 1990s (at this time referred to officially as Personal Records Identifiers or PRI).

The Service Number (also sometimes called a Regimental Number) was assigned from pre-arranged blocks of numbers assigned to each military district and individual units. The number generally followed the soldier to the end of their career. The last three digits were often used in conjunction with the soldier's name, particularly in cases of common surnames shared by several soldiers in the same unit.

The term "serial number" is sometimes used incorrectly to refer to these identifying numbers. The term is used in the United States for that purpose, and in Canada a "serial number" referred to lists of numbers assigned to identify units, not individuals.

If you possess a soldier's service number, it will make researching much easier.

Online Records

A number of wartime records have been digitized for free access by the public. The repository for service records in this country is Library and Archives Canada (formerly the National Archives of Canada). The personnel files of all members of the Northwest Mounted Police as well as the Boer War and the First World War have been digitized and are available online at LAC. Military medal records from 1812 to 1969 are also available online at LAC. Unit war diaries have been recently added as well.

Links to all these collections can be found at the Military Heritage page:

https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/Pages/military-heritage.aspx

Digging In

Detailed research may be a daunting task, particularly for those unfamiliar with the military. There are two options on how to proceed:

  • research on your own using online and other resources

  • engage the services of a genealogist or archivist who, for a modest fee, will help you navigate the archives and obtain the information you're seeking. LAC may be able to recommend someone in the Ottawa area who can expedite requests for information

The commonly asked question of what a service member did on a day to day basis, where they served, etc., is best answered by knowing the soldier's unit.

  • Each unit in wartime was required to keep a war diary. As noted above, some have been digitized. These are usually fairly dry reading, sometimes make references to map coordinates rather than place names, and rarely go into details of individual activities. They do however give a basic summary of where the unit was and what in general was happening.

  • The Canadian Army produced official histories of the First World War, Second World War and Korea, but necessarily don't go into much detail on a unit-by-unit basis. These official histories (discussed in the article linked to in the left hand frame) provide a general overview of the Army as a whole and put individual unit stories into context.

  • Many individual units, particularly combat units, have produced their own histories over the years, and in many cases, more than one. These will all give a good general overview of the war as experienced by those specific units. Another link in the left hand frame will take you to a partial list of these, but a search at Chapters or Amazon or other booksellers/auction sites may yield dividends as well - in addition to your local library, or the holdings of LAC.


Military Service Files

Library and Archives Canada

All Canadian service personnel have their surviving records permanently retired to the Library and Archives Canada, a central repository for all branches of government. Before the First World War, with the exception of contingents sent to South Africa for the Boer War, permanent personnel records as we know them today were not created or kept. Earlier records at the regimental or unit level, such as muster rolls or pay lists, were kept, and these may be found in the LAC holdings. They do not contain personal information, and are not indexed, meaning in order to research the service of specific individuals, one would need to know which unit they served in first. It may be possible to research the Militia Rolls for specific counties, if one knows only the place of residence, by access the Department of Militia and Defence series (Record Group 9).

For soldiers serving 1900-1914:

Library and Archives Canada maintains a South Africa War database which includes reference to personnel records, medal registers, land grant applications and correspondence that relates to Canadian soldiers who served in the Boer War. The database may be found at the Library and Archives Canada website:

For soldiers serving 1914-1918 (First World War):

LAC has posted the Attestation Papers (the forms that a soldier signed on being recruited) for every soldier that served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1914 to 1918. This was the field force that served overseas during the First World War. Note that many soldiers attested into units that were broken up for reinforcements, and they therefore saw combat or other service with units other than the one they originally joined. The papers are not a complete service history, but one document among many chronicling their service.

The service files of the soldiers who served in the C.E.F. are archived at LAC, and an electronic index to finding them has been provided online:

The files include all pertinent documentation regarding when and where they enlisted, which units they served with, and may include other information regarding medical history, medals and awards, personal evaluation reports, dental history, and other miscellaneous information. Many families report that their relatives did not talk about their military experiences, particularly those who served in war. Service records are not 'sanitized' for the consumption of family by LAC, and prospective researchers are warned to be prepared for the possibility that relatives may have concealed or even fabricated elements of their personal histories. Adverse reports, medical conditions (including venereal disease), disciplinary actions and other potentially embarrassing revelations may all await the researcher.

For those serving after 1918:

Library and Archives Canada holds military service files for those who served after 1918, however, except for those who died in service during the Second World War, there is no online database for these records because of access restrictions. There are no access restrictions on the service files for members of the Canadian Army who died in service between 1939 and 1947, including those killed in action, those who subsequently died of injuries related to service and those who died as a result of accident or illness while in service. As with the First World War, there is an online database:

For all other military service files (1919-1997), including Second World War (not killed in action), access restrictions apply.

Requests for medical and dental records only of Canadian Armed Forces members who were released from service or who died in service more than five years ago are handled by Library and Archives Canada. From the LAC website:

How to Send an Inquiry Concerning Your Own or Another Individual's Records

We try to answer inquiries within 30 days; however, due to the large number of inquiries being received, we are currently experiencing delays in our response times. Clients who submit a written request should expect to wait six months for a response. Priority service is given to people who require documentation to prove that they qualify for pensions, allowances, claims and other benefits, therefore, these types of requests should be clearly identified.

For projects involving research in a large number of files, the request will be assessed by our staff to determine if current resources can accommodate such an extensive commitment.

  • Your request must be signed.

  • To identify a file, we require surname, full given name(s), date of birth, and service number or social insurance number.

  • If you do not know the date of birth, service number or S.I.N. (social insurance number), secondary information (e.g., the names of next of kin, postings, dates of service, place of enlistment) can assist in identifying the correct individual.

  • Consult the section below on Access Restrictions.

  • Please specify what document(s) you require. If you are doing family history research, we recommend that you request a "genealogy package," which will include copies of selected documents from the file that highlight/summarize the individual's service.

  • We do not accept email inquiries for these records. Inquiries must be sent by mail or fax.

  • Your request can be written as a letter or you can print off a blank copy of the Application for Military Service Information form available in PDF or RTF format, which should be filled in, signed and sent by mail or fax.

Inquiries should be sent by mail or fax to:

ATIP and Personnel Records Division
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0N4
Fax: 613-947-8456

Access Restrictions for info on soldiers serving after 1918

  • Access to personal information relating to an individual who is still living requires that person's signed consent.

  • If the individual has been deceased for less than 20 years, limited information may be released to immediate family. Proof of death and relationship must be provided.

  • There are no restrictions on access to information relating to an individual who has been deceased for more than 20 years. Proof of death is required.

Proof of Death: A copy of a death certificate, newspaper obituary, funeral notice or photograph of the gravestone. Note that proof of death is not required if the individual died while in service.

Proof of Relationship: A document that clearly demonstrates the relationship between the individual concerned and the person requesting the record. Both names must appear on the document. A newspaper obituary, baptismal certificate or full-form birth certificate are acceptable. A wallet-sized birth certificate that does not indicate parents' names is not accepted. Please do not send original documents; photocopies are acceptable.

Immediate Family: A parent, spouse, child, sibling or grandchild of the individual.

Should you wish to submit a formal request under privacy legislation, see: Records of the Government of Canada.

Records not Held by Library and Archives Canada

Rejected for active Canadian Armed Forces service on medical grounds: Library and Archives Canada does not hold military personnel records of these individuals. These records are no longer in existence; they were destroyed under a Treasury Board Authority, dated 7 May 1964.

Called up for Canadian Armed Forces service during the Second World War (1939-1945) but never enrolled: Library and Archives Canada does not hold military personnel records of these individuals. These records are no longer in existence; they were destroyed under a Treasury Board Authority, dated 7 May 1964.

Pacific Coast Militia Rangers: These military personnel records were never placed in Library and Archives Canada's custody, and it is our understanding that they no longer exist.

Members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who enlisted for active service but did not go overseas, Newfoundland Forces (Artillery, and Forestry Corps), Navy and Royal Air Force (Newfoundland Enlistments) all during Second World War (1939-1945): For records of these individuals, you should write to:

The National Archives of UK
Ruskin Avenue
Kew, Richmond
Surrey TW9 4DU
United Kingdom

Research Online

Personnel files after 1918 and the personal information contained in them are protected by the provisions of privacy legislation. For the same reason, the database and indexes that are used to identify the files cannot be made available on our Web site. Only staff may access them.

 


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