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Tips from the Genealogical Society to help uncover the military history in your family

A recent presentation from one member of the Moose Jaw Genealogical Society could offer some useful hints to those looking into their own family's military history

Janie Fries, a member of the Moose Jaw Genealogical Society, gave a fascinating presentation about her ongoing search for more information about her great-uncles and their service in the Canadian military. 

For many, it’s a topic of great interest they’d like to dig into but it can also be a daunting task, as there are so many places to begin research — and more sources growing each day with the influx of online databases.

During her presentation, Fries shared some of the methods and sources she used to uncover her relatives’ service history from the First World War, to begin piecing together their story.

Breaking down service records

For the most part, Canada has fairly strict privacy laws regarding service records, but most documents are available for relatives to request copies, and many are even being added to online databases.

Military records from the First World War and wars previous are actually available to peruse online, after a huge digitization project undertaken by the Canadian government in 2014. Records from the Second World War, Vietnam, and the Korean War are continually being added as well.  

This project is available through Library and Archives Canada, which is also home to a number of other online databases regarding military history — service records from the South African War, the Royal Canadian Navy, records of war brides as well as war diaries and ship logs. 

Being able to see a copy of the attestation papers — the forms that soldiers filled out when they enlisted with the military — is an incredible starting point for research. 

They provide not only a name and birthdate, but also other details such as what they did for a living prior to enlisting, their religion, their signature, and who they listed as next of kin. Some records even include a photo, although many don’t, and nearly all will include a dental and medical history at the time of enlistment.

Most service records also include a war diary, which details things like where they trained, where they served during certain points in the war, and any injuries they suffered in the line of duty.

Fries found a number of sources from that information alone: any battalions that are still active can be reached through the Canadian militia armouries for their records, and many ships from the First and Second World Wars have their own websites, detailing any fatalities that occurred on their journeys overseas.

When looking for relatives you know died in the line of duty, there are a number of resources to search through. 

The Canadian Virtual War Memorial is a useful resource, and it has a searchable online database as well. It also contains digital copies of all seven Books of Remembrance, one for each war Canada has taken part in, which lists all the lives lost in the line of duty. 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has photos of all the headstones of fallen soldiers overseas, from the First and Second World Wars, as well as known service information. The Halifax Memorial commemorates all Canadian soldiers who died at sea, as they have no formal headstones. 

Learning about soldiers’ lives after they returned home

For Fries, some of her great-uncles’ service records were the end of their stories, but there were many who returned home and built a life for themselves after wartime. 

Tracking down the details of these stories, of course, requires a broader search. Fries began by asking around her existing family, to see if there were any stories to be told.

“Whenever you hear these little rumours, there might be a grain of truth in there,” advised Fries.

Using resources like archived newspapers or records of land ownership can tell a story about where a veteran settled upon returning home. 

The Moose Jaw Public Library has an extensive archives collection, including microfilm of Times-Herald issues and other useful resources —  like the Henderson Directories, which is an expansive collection listing the residencies and building ownerships in Moose Jaw from 1912 to 2004. 

The Library and Archives Canada site includes entries about service medals, and there is even a section on war brides. Looking through the Canada census archives can even be helpful, if you can locate your relative’s name, to find out where they lived and even worked following their return home.

Tips to remember if you find yourself stumped

Overall, Fries gave one important piece of advice for those doing this kind of research: don’t think about details in a linear fashion, but rather be open to think in all directions. 

One of the largest roadblocks she found was the tendency for people to simply list their initials on official forms, or use their first and middle names interchangeably, and to report inconsistent birthdates. 

But, with some open-minded searching, she was able to piece things together from a variety of sources to find some answers. 

What Fries found on her ancestors’ service records gave her a wealth of information and built a more lively story than just names and birthdates on paper, which is really all she began with.

She encouraged others to do some digging on their family, and to have their research public. She spent time contacting websites to update their information on her relatives, using what she uncovered about their names, service, and history. 

Fries also mentioned the value of submitting personal family research to the Royal Canadian Legion’s annual Military Recognition Book — a collection of service stories and veteran spotlights to commemorate military personnel both past and present. Copies of the Military Recognition Book are available from local Legion branches each year.

For Fries, knowing these details about her ancestors’ allows her to feel closer to them, especially on days like Remembrance Day. She finds this type of research so incredibly important to preserve the past, especially given how many stories simply end when there are no children in the picture.

“Every Remembrance Day, I think, ‘that is why [it's so important to save things],’” said Fries. “We really have to remember, . . . and we really need to make the effort to see who you can find down your own line.”

For anyone looking for assistance in their genealogical research, the Moose Jaw Branch of the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society is welcome to answer questions and offer advice.