Canadian Genealogy

Exploring First World War Files online at LAC: A Top 10 List

In the next two posts, I’ll take you through exploring military records at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). I am by no means a military history specialist but I’ve done a fair amount of researching, have collected records for soldiers in the First World War and the Second World War, and I have recently completed another application for a Second World War military service file.

Read along with me as I look for digital records online for Canadian soldiers of the First World War.

LAC Military Records Online

If you’ve never had a chance to poke around LAC’s Military Heritage pages, I encourage you to have a look. The term “military” is a big bucket, and LAC has done a good job of consolidating its collections into digestible guides that are themselves a summary of the history of the land that became the country of Canada in 1867. A number of these are online. Let me repeat that: these are digitized collections, freely available online to all, anytime.

Top 10 List of First World War Files

This post is a select list of what is available at LAC.

LAC has a central page for the First World War here. I recommend reviewing it each time you visit. There’s a lot to absorb. I didn’t know about “Veterans Death Cards: First World War” until I wrote this post, and the card I found for my person had a fact I hadn’t previously known. Oh, the thrill of discovery.

Example: One of the 130,000 cards from “Veterans Death Cards: First World War” featuring Ernest Alfred Lee of Montreal.

Notable collections for the First World War include:

  1. Personnel Records of the First World War. [images and database online.] If you want a good place to begin, here’s the one I’d recommend. You should be able to grab the entire multipage file. After that you’ll have SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.
  2. War Diaries of the First World War. [explanatory blog post]. The next step after finding a WWI personnel file is getting the War Diary. It’s a bit complicated to find, but the instructions on this page are good. What’s in a war diary? At the risk of oversimplification, a war diary is a record of what happened to a battalion each day of the war. You likely won’t find your person named but you will see what happened to the battalion each day. If your person died during the war, you should look for descriptions of conflicts and losses on the date of death. If you want the whole picture, read the War Diary for every day your person was a part of that battalion.
  3. Commonwealth War Graves Registers, First World War. [database online]. Find your person here if they died overseas.
  4. Veterans Death Cards: First World War. [images and database online]. This is a site with about 130K imaged cards for World War One veterans who survived the war and died after.
  5. List of Canadian casualties from April 9 to 12, 1917. [downloadable Excel spreadsheet – clicking the link will download the file]. This is the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Over 3000 names, including given names, initials, honours, date of death, rank, regiment and unit. See photo below.
  6. How to Read a Medal Card (First World War). [blog post]. For everyone who has asked, LAC has an explanation page.
  7. Regimental Number List of the CEF. [downloadable PDF]. The Canadian Expeditionary Force, or CEF, were the Canadian soldiers for the First World War. This is a 49-page PDF that should help anyone needing to track their people using regimental numbers, block numbers, and unit numbers. Includes descriptions, i.e., “2nd Heavy Battery,” or “#5 Field Coy.”
  8. Circumstances of Death Registers, First World War. [images and database online]. Even if you already have a file for your soldier who died in WWI, you won’t have this card. These are from the Records Office of the Overseas Ministry, and aside from being complete in your search, you may find additional information not found in the personnel record.
  9. Courts Martial of the First World War. . If you find a result in this database, you can try looking for the file at Heritage Canadiana’s Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada : Courts martial records, 1914-1919.
  10. Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. [blog post and downloadable PDF finding aids]. Over thirty downloadable finding aids for more information, from Artillery to Tunnelling Companies. Check these guides if you know your unit and want to know what else LAC may have. Even reading the finding aids will be useful to your research.
Screen cap of the spreadsheet: “Canadian Casualties between Apr 9-12, 1917” – the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Military Records Before 1914

In addition to the above, LAC has many databases and resources for wars and conflicts dating from New France and the War of 1812 to the South African War. See Military Heritage. Here are a few interesting items.

Example: 23 page result for Andrew D. Jones in the “North West Mounted Police Personnel Records 1873-1904”
  • Black Loyalist Refugees, 1782-1807- Port Roseway Associates. [images and database online]. From the site: “This database provides access to 1,498 references to the Muster Book of Free Blacks who settled in Birchtown held at Library and Archives Canada.”
  • War of 1812. [collection and index lookup]. From the site, “There are no service files for the Canadian militia; however, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds a unique and vast collection of records about the Canadian men and women who were involved in the War of 1812. Their names can be found on muster rolls, pay lists, claims, certificates of service, land grants, and medal registers.”
  • North West Mounted Police (NWMP) – Personnel Records, 1873-1904. [images and database online]. From the site, “The records include the surviving personnel records for NWMP members who served between 1873 and 1904.”
Example: James Johnson, “Black Loyalist Refugees, 1782-1807- Port Roseway Associates”

LAC is re-opening (but there are rules)

Big news! As of October 13th, LAC has been reopening to the public. If you had Ottawa on your list of places to visit after covid, here is a friendly reminder that you won’t be able to casually drop by if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Research is by appointment only, and the bookings for research are going faster than rapid covid tests, and that’s after researchers first apply for a User Card and identify the fonds they wish to see.

The process to visit the archives is so involved that LAC has written detailed instructions to ensure visitors know everything they need to know before they go: Book your visit to Ottawa.

Next week: How to request a WWII file

When I sat down to write this post, it was to talk about my experiences in filing for a Second World War military service file this month, and then I got absorbed in what else LAC had to offer. Isn’t that the way?

What did you think? Discover anything new? Would you be interested in seeing a live exploration of WWI files? Let me know!

Thank yous

Thanks this week to the folks at LAC, who despite everything are still as friendly as ever, and to Margaret Dougherty of the Facebook Group Canadian Genealogy for her thoughts.

7 thoughts on “Exploring First World War Files online at LAC: A Top 10 List

    1. When you find your file, my bet is that you will be wowed with what you learn, suffused with pleasure at busting that brick wall, and then find more questions to ask. Genealogy: the gift that keeps us researching. 😉

  1. Great post! So wonderful to have a handy list of all these resources…I will certainly mention it to any of my library patrons who are researching their military ancestors… All my relatives who fought returned home, though at least a couple had some horrible injuries and suffered afterwards. Thanks for pulling this all together 🙂

    1. You’re most welcome! I was surprised by how much I learned writing this post, which is a reminder to self, yet again, that reading is good but writing is better.

      Enormous thanks for reading me and passing it along.


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