Genealogy: World War I 1917-1919, Researching and finding military records

World War IBy Barry J. Ewell
The following categories and additional resources are provided to aid your research and finding of military records for World War I 1917-1919:

  • World War I Overview
  • Researching World War I military records
    • Build a search profile for each male
    • Where to find the personal information
    • Sample U.S. Civil War male search profile
  • Search World War I Records
    • World War I Draft
    • Service records
    • Pension records
  • Military history
  • Search the cemetery
  • Search Home

World War I Overview
Fought between the years of 1914-1918, World War I began as conflict in Europe and spread to 28 nations including the United States. Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I began in August 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium and France. Several events led to U.S. intervention: the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner; unrestricted German submarine warfare; and the Zimmerman note, which revealed a German plot to provoke Mexico to war against the United States.

It was referred by English speaking countries as the “Great War.”  The time period leading up to the war were very complex which outbreak of miscalculation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. World War I destroyed four empires – German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Romanov – and touched off colonial revolts in the Middle East and Vietnam. World War I killed more people (9 million combatants and 13 million civilians). Epidemics of influenza and other diseases, either induced or exacerbated by the war, raised the death toll by at least an additional 20 million. Millions of American men were drafted, and Congress created a War Industries Board to coordinate production and a National War Labor Board to unify labor policy. The consequences of WW I lead to and set the stage for WWII.

There were over 4.7 million men and women who served in the US forces (regular forces, National Guard, and draft units) with 53,402 being killed in action, 63,114 died from disease and other causes, and 205,000-plus wounded in action.

Researching World War I military records
I have made it practice to search for World War I records for males that I find in the 1900-1920 U.S. Federal censuses who would have been between ages of 16 and 50 during the World War years of 1914 and 1919.  With the online availability of records, searching for military records should be part of your research process for males who were born between the years of 1867 and 1901.

WWI SoldiersBuild a search profile for each male. Begin by developing a short profile for each male you will be researching. You will use the list as a reference for your search.  Include the following

  • Name of male and variations
  • Approximate age at the beginning and end of the World War I
  • Approximate birth year or birth date
  • Approximate death year or death date
  • Name of the wife and children during their life time
  • State (include county if possible) where male lived before, during and after WW I

Where to find the personal information
I would begin to build my search profile viewing the information on the 1860 and 1870 U.S. Federal census.

Check the 1900 U. S. Federal census to identify

  • Living males between the ages of 0/12 and 33
  • Place of birth for the male
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages
  • Place of residence (state and county) at the time of the census

Check the 1910 U.S. Federal census to identify

  • Living males between the ages of 9 and 43
  • Place of birth for each male
  • Whether they were single or married
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages
  • Place of residence (state and county) at the time of the census.

Note: If you can’t find you ancestor in the 1910 census, look at the 1900 census and see if they appear in the 1920 census.

Check the 1920 U. S. Federal census to identify

  • Living males between the ages of 19 and 53
  • Males who are in the 1910 census and not in the 1920 census (may indicate he died in the war)
  • Place of birth for the male
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages
  • Place of residence (state and county) at the time of the census

Check the 1930 U.S. Federal Census

  • Living males between the ages of 29 and 63
  • 1930 census asks if a person was “Veteran?” of military service through WW I.  The wife, widow, or under 18-year-old child of a veteran was also required to answer the questions. The codes used were as follows:
    • World War (W)
    • Spanish-American War; Philippine Insurrection or Boxer Rebellion (S)
    • Spanish-American War & World War (SW)
    • Regular establishment (Army, Navy or Marine Corps) Peace-Time Service only (R)
    • Other war or expedition (Ot)
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages
  • Place of residence (state and county) at the time of the census

Check the 1940 U.S. Federal Census

  • Living males between the ages of 39 and 73
  • For the first time, the census did not ask if a person served in the Civil War.Veterans were asked if they served in the previous engagement. The wife, widow, or under 18-year-old child of a veteran was also required to answer the questions. These questions were only asked of about 5% of the population.  The codes used were as follows:
    • World War (W)
    • Spanish-American War; Philippine Insurrection or Boxer Rebellion (S)
    • Spanish-American War & World War (SW)
    • Regular establishment (Army, Navy or Marine Corps) Peace-Time Service only (R)
    • Other war or expedition (Ot)
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages

Start with at least the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census and expand to the 1900 and 1940 censuses as needed. A sample search profile is as follows:

Sample World War I male search profile
Census yearNameAge and apprx birth year/DateFamilyLocationPlace of birth
1900 CensusThomas Stewart3 (1897)Living with father James Isaac StewartBlackfoot, Bingham, IdahoNebraska
1910 CensusJay Stewart13 (1897)Living with father James Isaac StewartBlackfoot, Bingham, IdahoNebraska
1920 CensusJay Stewart23 (1897)Living with father James Isaac StewartBlackfoot, Bingham, IdahoNebraska
1930 CensusThomas J. Stewart33 (1897)(F) Cleofa 31
(F) Mary 7
(M) Robert 5
(M) Joshua 4
(F) Martha 1
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, UtahNebraska
1930 Military Service QuestionServed in WW I
1940 CensusJ. Stewart43 (1897)(F) Cleofa 41
(F) Mary 17
(M) Robert 15
(M) Joshua 14
(F) Martha 11
1940 Military Service QuestionWas not asked question

Search World War I Records
Once you have developed a World War I search profile for  the males you want to research with available information, you are now ready to search multiple online databases, websites and microfilm.  I would recommend researching all members of the family.

World War I Draft.  The United States instituted a draft that included 24 million men between the ages of 18 and 45.  There were three registration periods which had requested slightly different information:

  • Version 1: June 5, 1917 for all men 21-31
  • Version 2: June 5, 1918 all men who turned 21 since last draft
  • Version 3: September 12, 1918 for all men 18-45

See an examples of all three draft registration cards  and an example of draft classification card in the article “Genealogy: Researching World War I Draft Registration cards.”

The type information by version on the registration cards includes:

  • Full name (V1, V2, V3)
  • Home address (V1, V2, V3)
  • Date of birth (V1, V2, V3)
  • Place of birth (V1, V2)
  • Age in years (V1, V2, V3)
  • Occupation (V1, V2, V3)
  • Name and address of employer (V1, V2, V3)
  • Name of nearest relative  (V3)
  • Citizenship status (V1, V2, V3)
  • Physical description (V1, V2, V3)
  • City, county and state of local draft board (V1, V2, V3)
  • No. of Dependents (V1)
  • Marital status (V1)
  • Date of registration (V1, V2, V3)
  • Signature of  applicant (V1, V2, V3)
  • Previous military service (V1)
  • Grounds of exception (V1)
  • Name and address of nearest relative (V2, V3)
  • Father’s birthplace (V2)

WW I Draft Card V3 WW I Draft Card V3Carefully record the information you gain from the cards to give you clues of other records to search. I have used the information on the cards to:

  • Learn the birth date and place of the individual. Use the information to birth records and more information about immediate family, parents, and siblings.
  • Learn the names of spouse, dependents and residence.  Use the information to look for additional records about the family such as census, church and land records.
  • Learn biographical details
  • Occupation which as lead to occupation records
  • Land ownership used to help find land records

You can research these cards on FamilySearch, Ancestry.com and other databases.

Service records. Service records cover the time an ancestor was actually in the service. These records almost always include a name, dates of enlistment, attendance and discharge, beginning and ending rank, and military unit.

Use service records to learn about the following

  • An ancestor’s military service
  • The necessary details to locate a pension file or military history
  • Place or date of birth (secondary source for this information)
  • Other details such as residence, occupation or citizenship
  • A physical description
  • Death or burial information
  • Medical information
  • Insights into the ancestor’s personality and performance (promotions, AWOL notations, and so on)
  • See if and where the ancestor was held as a prisoner of war

WWI HelmutService records are available from before World War I and are located in the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR), St. Louis Missouri.  The repository holds millions of military personnel, health, and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the 20th century.  Access to the records is usually to limited veteran or next of kin.  The next of kin is defined as the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister of the deceased veteran must provide proof of death of the veteran, such as a copy of the death certificate, a letter from the funeral home or a published obituary.

You may now use vetrecs.archives.gov to order a copy of your military records. For all others, your request is best made using a Standard Form 180. It includes complete instructions for preparing and submitting requests. Please Note: All requests must be in writing, signed and mailed to us at the address shown below.

Special note: On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF). The records affected:

BranchPersonnel and Period AffectedEstimated Loss
ArmyPersonnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 196080%
Air ForcePersonnel discharged September 25, 1947 to January 1, 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.)75%

No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced. Neither were any indexes created prior to the fire. In addition, millions of documents had been lent to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire occurred. Therefore, a complete listing of the records that were lost is not available. However, in the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information.

If you desire the service record of your ancestor, do not assume they were burned.  Go through the procedures that were outlined above.

Pension records. Pension records cover the post-service period when your ancestor (or his or her next-of-kin) may have received benefits. They usually include a name, dates of enlistment and discharge, beginning and ending rank, and military unit.

Use pension records to learn about the following:

  • An ancestor’s military service
  • The necessary details to locate a military history
  • Place or date of birth (secondary source for this information)
  • Dates and places of other life events
  • Names of spouse or children (and sometimes their birth dates)
  • Other details (such as residence, occupation, or citizenship)
  • A physical description
  • Death or burial information
  • Medical information
  • Insights into ancestor’s personality and performance (through his or her letters, affidavits filed by others who knew him or her, and so on)
  • Learn of an ancestor’s literacy, see ancestor’s signature
  • Learn more about ancestor’s post-war years and life

The Department of Veteran Affairs all the applications for pension files.  Veteran files are located in regional offices.  I would suggest that you start with the regional offices in your area.  Ask the staff in these offices to guide you through the request process and what relationship you need to be to obtain copies of the papers in the pension files.

Military history
Military histories (often referred to as regimental or unit histories) can add historical background to help you understand the conflict and your ancestor’s participation in it. They usually include a roster of those who served in the unit and dates of major engagements.

Use military history records to more fully appreciate the military experience of your ancestor, learn who he or she served with, learn which engagements he or she was involved in, and see what he or she looked like. If you are fortunate to find photographs, they can provide unit information as in this WWI uniform insignia for 2nd Army.

2nd Army WWIIf you have the company, division, squadron of your ancestor you can search the internet for available information that can include histories and lists to detailed records about individuals and units they belonged.  Example of Google search query could be:

  • 12th division infantry division
  • 15th  cavalry division
  • 2nd division
  • 2nd division OR indian head division  OR warrior division
  • V corps
  • 3rd areo squadron
  • aero squadrons
  • U.S. ambulance corps
  • 2nd army engineers
  • first united states army
  • united states tank corps

Also check with  U.S. military resources  regarding official military unit histories.  The following are few resources on the internet:

Search the cemetery
Finding graves of your ancestors from the World War I era is easier than you might think. The following are few resources.

Department of Veterans Affairs National Gravesite Locator. Search for burial locations of veterans and their family members in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, various other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and for veterans buried in private cemeteries when the grave is marked with a government grave marker using the Gravesite Locator.

WWI HeadstoneArlington National Cemetery provides information on service members buried there.

ArlingtonThe American Battle Monuments Commission provides information on service members buried in overseas cemeteries.

WWI CemeteryYou can search U.S. Headstone Applications for Military Veterans 1925-1963 on Ancestry.com.

For additional information, see the articles:

Books of interest. Check out these books about deceased soldiers and where they can be accessed:

  • Book, “Pilgrimage for the Mothers and Widows of Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines of the American Forces Now Interred in the Cemeteries of Europe,” lists the widow’s, or mothers name, relationship, name of deceased, rank, organization and cemetery arranged by state and county. Can be found on LDS Family History microfilm (FHL book 973 M23uw), Worldcat (See if you can find a copy in a library near you), and Ancestry.com.
  • Book, “Soldiers of the Great War,” lists all the soldiers who died (e.g, name residence, rank, and cause of death. May include photographs.  Can be found on LDS Family History microfilm (FHL book 973 M23s; fiche 6051244.)
  • Book, ” Officers and Enlisted Men of the United States Navy Who Lost Their Lives during the World War, from April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918,” lists the sailor’s name, rank, date and place of death, cause of death and name of next of kin. Can be found on LDS Family History microfilm (FHL 973 M23u; film 1415261 item 7)

Search Home
Home is great place to begin your search for learning about the military service of family and ancestors. For example:

WWI Service ribbons

  • Military records and artifacts. This can include disability records, discharge records, National Guard records, pension records, selective service records, service medals or ribbons, sword or firearms, uniform.
  • Photographs.  Photographs are great resource because you able to see clues such as branch of service, unit numbers, specific war or time of service, service ribbons and medals, rank,  patches and pins related to skills and training. Photographs exist from as early as the Civil War.
  • Writings.  As you research ancestor writings (e.g., post cards, letters, notes) look carefully at the time periods covering the various wars and conflicts.  These communications are among the most saved and treasured in families.  In our family we have the WWI letters between grandpa and grandma which share their inner most thoughts of being parted, activities, experiences, hopes and dreams. Look at clues such as post marks, stamps, inscriptions on post cards to see if they will give you any indications of where to look for information/records.
  • Scrapbooks and momentous. Look for collections of artifacts that include scrapbooks that are often organized by topic or timeline. I found a family trunk that was loaded with military images, letters, newspapers, postcards and much more from a WW I soldier.
  • Journals, written and oral family histories.  Check to see if journals exist for family members. Has any member of your family written their memoirs about their military service? Is there a an oral history or written history related to military service.   I’ve been fortunate to record the military experiences of my dad and his brothers for WWII and Korean War.
  • Newspapers.  Take the time to search microfilm or online collections of newspapers from the hometown of where family lived during the times of War/conflicts.  The newspapers were filled with stories about soldiers such as enlistments, graduations, letters from the front being published, promotions, images and deaths. Search every issue carefully; most stories about soldiers were on the front page of hometown papers.   In our family we have articles showing grandpas enlistment in WWI and series of articles about an uncle in WWII 1) June of 1943 his plane was shot down in WWII and was missing in action 2) July of 1943 he is in a prisoner of war in Germany and 3) April 1945 he is freed.  Your best chance of finding articles will be from 1890’s forward.
  • Death event records.  As I have search for death event records, I have been able to identify references that have helped me research military records.  For example, obituaries will often mention branch of military service and related details.  Headstones can mention service and rank or even have markers related to branch of service.