RECORDS of more than 300,000 soldiers killed in the First World War, including details of their final journey to the grave, are being released today by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to mark the 100th anniversary of the conflict.
The CWGC, which was set up in 1917, is releasing the original documents online for the first time to better educate the public on how Britain came to commemorate its war dead and provide a better understanding of the lives and deaths of the soldiers.
The documents will also give an insight into the process of commemoration undertaken by the army and the CWGC after the Great War, and include details of headstone inscriptions, dates of death, ranks, regiments and even some documents that show the journey of the dead to their final resting place.
Yesterday, Andrew Fetherston, CWGC archivist and records manager, said: “The documents are a window into the commission’s past and the incredible work carried out after the First World War to ensure those who died would be not be forgotten. They are the very foundation on which our work is built.
“As working documents, it is fascinating to see the typed and handwritten lists, the corrections and notes, as they strived for accuracy. For the families of those we commemorate, these records give a snapshot into the processes by which their relatives would have been identified and buried, or commemorated on a memorial, and give a direct link back to a time in the immediate aftermath of the war.
“It is this direct link back to a muddy field or a hastily dug grave, in any one of the hundreds of battlefields and theatres of war that made up the First World War, that imbue these records with meaning, authenticity and a sense of history. We believe the documents make the experience of searching through our records even more fascinating than before.”
It is hoped that the unveiling of its recently completed online archives, as well as a brand-new “Discover 14-18” microsite, will make finding and visiting memorial sites of those killed in the war easier than ever before.
The commission is responsible for marking and caring for the graves and memorials of over 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead from the two world wars and, in the run-up to the centenary of the First World War in August, has undertaken a five-year project to scan more than 300,000 documents relating to those who died in service and upload them to its website.
They will be available for the public to view for the first time from today. The online documents include registers of the people the commission is responsible for commemorating. Registers were produced on a cemetery by cemetery or memorial by memorial basis, and eventually ran to 1,500 volumes.
They contain an entry for each individual, with details of their rank, regiment, unit and date of death, with many also including extra information such as next-of-kin details.
The archive includes registration documents for graves and cemeteries that have been lost or abandoned and lists of people recovered or exhumed from their original burial location and moved to a particular cemetery.
One of those recorded is Second Lieutenant Charles Ussher Kilner, from the Suffolk Regiment, who was killed in October 1916 during the Allied campaign in Greece and is buried in Struma military cemetery there.
His great-niece Caroline Coxon, 58, from Buxted, East Sussex, said: “I’m really very proud of my great-uncle and it’s my ambition, one day, to visit his grave in Greece.
“So many people associate the First World War with the trenches without realising that many died in other places, in other circumstances. I think they deserve just as much recognition for their sacrifice.
“The idea that Ussher’s story may be given substance by being able to see his CWGC records online gives me great pleasure. It will be a few more pieces to add to the jigsaw which made up his life and death.”