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Researching First World War officers

Keith Gregson explores the extensive First World War officers’ records held by The National Archives, which can give surprising insight into the men’s personal lives, including the suffering of loved ones left behind


Lives, loves & loss

Gordon and Fred Haswell, two Sunderland-born brothers whose WW1 records Keith has studied. Neither returned from the war


For the past five years I have been building up the biographies of more than 250 young amateur sportsmen who served in the Forces during the First World War. They all lived in Sunderland at some point and their main sports were cricket, rugby union, tennis and hockey. As a result of their social and educational backgrounds, a significant number of these men started the war as officers in the Army and an even greater number ended the war as such. The dread and accurate observation that ‘bloody war’ brings ‘quick promotion’ certainly applied here.

The records of many First World War officers have survived in The National Archives at Kew. Almost miraculously, nearly 100 of those relating to ‘my’ Sunderland sportsmen are there and can be examined in their original form. They appear in two series – WO 339 and WO 374 (see ‘Records at Kew’ on page 62). Having examined all of these, I am reminded of a useful comparison with my days in teaching. I used to take pupils to visit monasteries and castles. Monasteries were generally all the same – easy to traipse round with predictable lay-outs. Castles were not. Each castle grew and developed in a different way depending on its purpose at a particular time in history. If it makes sense, officers’ records are more ‘castles’ than ‘monasteries’, a feature which should become quite clear by the end of this article.

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Come on, it's time to roll up your sleeves, leave the pleasant pastures of the 19th century, the birth, marriage and death records, and the census - and trace your family lines further back in into the past. This is your chance to explore new records, stretch your research and revel in the lives and times of your Georgian, Stuart and even Tudor ancestors.
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