This is the third and final article in a short series about researching your WWI Army Veteran online. Also, if your veteran served before the war, or after the war from 1918-1939, a lot of these tips may also help you discover puzzle pieces. Be sure to read the first article and second article if you missed it. You will want those tips.
Part 2 of the Research Process
Once you have done the preliminary work and created your timeline, know what unit(s) your veteran served in, you are ready to explore unit-level records. These records may or may not be digitized online. You just have to do some searching. You will however, find them along with maps and photos at NARA College Park. Currently the fastest way to obtain these documents is by hiring a researcher. See the end of the article about working with me.
Unit-level records, books, diaries, maps, and photos help place your veteran into historical context. This context allows you to understand their overseas or stateside service. If they were overseas in combat, you will learn what those battles were like through narrative and also statistics. You will learn what they suffered like gas attacks, illness, infection, lack of food/water/supplies, and plenty of fear. The fear is always present in military records even if not specifically spelled out. This fear of death, wounds, illness, lack of necessities, worry about family at home, may have contributed to shell shock or PTSD or anxiety and any number of things that made it difficult for the veteran to function after the war.
This knowledge helps you identify the inherited trauma, family secrets, and lies that exist within your family. Only when we are willing to see this information can we heal it and tell the whole story.
What kind of records might you discover for WWI?
Unit histories from the top level down. Maps. Photographs. Operational Reports. Diaries. Journals. And so much more depending on what survives for each unit. These record are held at NARA College Park, MD, but may also exist online for some units.
You also want to search Internet Archive for digitized unit books for WWI and WWII. Most units wrote a narrative and photo book after the war for division and regimental levels. Sometimes even company levels. Many of those books are online.
Does a unit association/reunion group exist for the unit in which your veteran served? You might search for this and connect if they still exist. Many of these groups began after WWI and include all wars up to the present, while others started after WWII. These groups are similar to genealogy societies in that they are run by volunteers (or veterans) and close when the veterans age out or die. In some cases, like the 104th Division, the original bylaws did not allow non-veterans (I believe this is what i was told years ago) to run the organization. When it’s veterans began getting older, the original association was dissolved and the Timberwolf Pups began which was run by their kids. These groups sometimes hold physical reunions which you can attend.
Next, search your State Archives for WWI Bonus Applications or Veteran Compensation Payments. What it is called in each state may be slightly different. These Bonus Applications will contain military service details, biographical information, sometimes affidavits from family members, and details about family members. These may exist even if your soldier died in service as someone was named beneficiary and could apply for the payment. This was the case for my great grand uncle Michael Kokoska who died in France. His mother claimed his payment. ** These applications also exist for WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and more recent wars in most states. Privacy restrictions may exist but check.
WWI Travel & Museums
Finally, get out to a military museum or walk the battlefields! These photos are from my trip to the Mesuse-Argonne and Verdun areas of France in September 2019. Visit not only the American battlefields, museums, and cemeteries but also the German, French, and Belgian sites. See all sides of this war. Walk the trenches, climb the ridges, take it all in and just be there for a moment. I know a lot of people don’t like to travel when it’s raining but you get a better idea of the unpleasant conditions in which our men fought and often died. So throw on a raincoat, wear your yucky jeans and some high quality hiking boots and get out and get muddy! Bonus if you work with a private guide as we did, and get to see the hidden trenches, bunkers of WWI/WWII and other sites you wouldn’t normally get to see (or know exist)! I almost always hire a private guide for at least one day in an area because I love that extra history lesson I get and the access to normally off-limits sites.
When you have gathered some info, and along the way, be sure to write your story. This is vital even if you never plan to publish. Writing will show you where the gaps and errors are in the research. Share this with family so the memories of these individuals lives on.
Have questions? Please ask in the comments.
Are You Ready to Start Writing and Researching?
I would love to help you research and write the stories of your family members from World War I – Vietnam. If you are ready to start a research or writing project, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s set up a free phone consultation. I’m excited to help you bring your family’s military history to life and preserve it for generations. Also visit the Ancestral Souls Wisdom School to learn how a Genogram Session can help you identify your ancestor’s trauma and patterns and start to heal.
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