Family History Research at the National Archives in England

We were fortunate this spring to be able to make a trip to Europe. During our 2 days in London we went to the National Archives to do some family history research.

What were our goals?

  1. Find the location in Italy where Peter’s father was wounded during World War 2 – we knew the approximate date, the name of his battalion and that he was in Italy.
  2. Track the movements of his battalion across North Africa and into Italy in 1943.

How did we do?

  1. It was a challenge to find where Peter’s father was wounded while serving in Italy in World War 2.  The first and best clue came during a presentation at a meeting of the Red Deer Branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society when Michael Dawe talked about researching Canadian soldiers in World War 1.  He described how each battalion kept a war diary.  If the Canadians did it then would the British? 
    1.   So I went to the web site for the British Archives  http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ and being an optimist I looked first in the online digitized collection – always best to check there first. It would be sad to go all the way to London to read from a computer screen what you can see on your computer at home. I found nothing online.  Then I went to the catalog for the collection at the archives – it’s called Discovery – at first I found nothing so I started changing the order of the words in the search  – is that “War Diary 6 Battalion Grenadier Guards” ? or “6 Battalion Grenadier Guards War Diary”?  or just “6 Battalion Grenadier”? and so on. The indexing was not always consistent.  I found several War Diaries for the 6th Battalion but not with the same search terms – usually for a whole year but some for just 6 months.  I copied the description, title, and reference number. 
    2. There was important work to do before we went to the Archives.  We each needed a Reader’s Ticket to be allowed to use the Archives – we filled in the online application form and were ready with 2 forms of identification including a picture (passport good for that) – but could only apply online within 6 weeks of going. 
    3.   Once we had created an account and applied for the Reader’s Ticket we were allowed to order documents, giving the date we would be there, and even selecting a table in the reading room where we wanted to work.  There is a massive amount of material in a national archive – if you just arrive and ask for a document you will be waiting at least an hour or more before it is available – or maybe a day? 
    4. There is no charge to use the archives. There is a charge for photocopying – and you can hire people to do the research for you.
    5.   The Archive building is large, modern, and located on the banks of the River Thames west of central London at Kew – a 10 minute walk from a tube station.
    6.   When you arrive “you should leave your coat and bag in the cloakroom on the ground floor, placing your research materials (notes, pencils and digital camera) into one of the clear, plastic bags provided, and head upstairs to the second floor to collect your reader’s ticket.”  – this was like going to the locker room at the gym but without the showers!  Note that you aren’t  allowed to take in a pen or bags – but can take a laptop,tablet or phone.  Pencils cannot have an eraser when did you last see a pencil without an eraser?  You can take photos of the documents, but should read the copyright rules. There is a very good video online that tells you how to use the archives.  At the second floor they took our picture, retrieved our online application, and quickly issued the Reader’s Ticket. 
    7. Then we went down to the first floor to see the documents we had reserved.  After checking in and showing our Reader’s Tickets were were told which numbered locker contained the documents we had requested.  They were there waiting for us! We were also directed to the table we were to work and security monitored to make sure we handled the documents properly – if sliding a hand across the page you must put a piece of paper (supplied by the archive at each table) under your hand.
    8.   It was a special moment when we opened the folder and saw the word “Secret” at the top of the page – it was secret in 1944!  We were amazed over how much was written each day about the activities and location of the battalion. The file also included plans for the deployment of troops and the logistics of moving the battalion.  No names were mentioned except for officers.  We learned about a parade with a general inspecting the troops just days before my father was sent into the conflict where he was wounded.  The location of the battalion was always clearly located in the diary –  what an amazing experience.  We now have the name of the place.  We just need to find a map!
  2. Similarly the War Diary for 1943 recorded the movements of the battalion across North Africa and eventually on ships and landing in Italy.  We made a list of dates and places.

I can’t tell you what a great experience this was.  Once we were there doing the work it did not take long – but we were grateful that we were well prepared before we went.

Completing research usually creates new questions:  1. Are there medical records?  He said he was hospitalized in the Naples area until Mount Vesuvius erupted and then evacuated to Sicily.  2. After he recovered he returned to active duty in a different battalion – and said that he helped recover some of the bodies of 335 patriots executed and concealed in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome.  When was this and what else did he do?

Suggestions:

  1. Don’t go to an archive until you complete exhaustive searches for the records online.
  2. Study and prepare before you go to an archive – each archive will have different rules and expectations.  You can save a lot of time when you get there by being prepared.
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