Posted on

Finding Your World War I Ancestor

Suppose family legend has it that your great-grandfather served in the Polish army during World War I. If his service records have survived, you assume you will be able to find them without any trouble. In reality, however, it is not quite that simple.

Between October 1914 and September 1917, for example, some Polish combatants served in the Russian Army. Why? Because, prior to the Russian Revolution, Poland existed as the Duchy of Warsaw within the Russian Empire. Following the establishment of a Provisional Polish Government in September, 1917, the Poles serving for Russia were regrouped into a new Polish army. Or, your ancestor could have been a member of the insurrectionary “Polish Legion” established in Vienna to serve the Empire of Austria-Hungary. Still other Poles served with the German army in Upper Silesia and East Prussia as the Polnische Wermacht, or with a Polish army on the side of France. In short, great-grandpa’s service records could conceivably be in Russia, Germany, France, or Hungary, as well as in Poland.

The Great War

The dispersion of Polish military service records for “The Great War” was not altogether unusual. Following the armistice, the victorious powers carved up the defeated nations and/or their territories. For example, if your Alsace-Lorraine ancestor fought for Germany, his records would have come under French jurisdiction after the Treaty of Versailles. For its part, Denmark acquired Jutland and Schleswig-Holstein from Germany. Similarly, the nations of Finland and Lithuania achieved their independence at the Soviet Union’s (Russia’s) expense.

Clearly, anyone on the trail of a World War I service record is more likely to be successful if she/he is equipped with a roadmap to the records of that tragic conflict. And roadmap, indeed, is exactly what genealogist Christina K. Schaefer has created in her magnificent guidebook, The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All the World’s Fighting Men and Volunteers.

Organized by country, The Great War provides at-a-glance information on the existence of records and how they can be accessed. Each chapter begins with an outline history of a given country’s involvement in the conflict as it impacts on the records. The author then lists all extant record groups for that nation’s army and navy. So, for example, we are provided with a list of every German army regiment, followed by another list of the capital ships and U-boats that served the Kaiser. The lengthy U.S. chapter lists the national repositories and then record holdings state by state. Each chapter concludes with a breakdown of that nation’s military archives and their holdings and a bibliography of suggested further reading.

For researchers who can profit from a brushing-up on their World War I history, Mrs. Schaefer begins the book with a detailed timeline of events from 1914 to 1918. The volume concludes with a number of very useful features: (1) records pertaining to the aftermath of the war (e.g. service records of the Red Cross); (2) a table of the political changes ushered in by the war; and (3) a list of World War I sources available on the Internet at the time of the book’s original publication in 1998.