Transcript of podcast episode 14
Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
Over 640,000 men and women enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War as soldiers, nurses and chaplains. In this episode, we will look at the service files of these men and women to find out the types of documents that are found in them, their research value and how they ended up at Library and Archives Canada. Joining us today from Library and Archives Canada are archivist Marcelle Cinq-Mars, and genealogy consultant Sara Chatfield.
JO: Hello, Marcelle. Thank you for joining us today.
Marcelle Cinq-Mars: Hello! My pleasure.
JO: Can you explain to us what the Canadian Expeditionary Force service files are?
MCM: What are commonly referred to as the service files of members of the Expeditionary Force, when looked at physically, essentially consist of envelopes containing documents pertaining to each soldier or each nurse. It’s important to remember that the files of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War include files of nurses and chaplains, but in general the files pertain to soldiers, officers and nurses; the file is an envelope that contains these documents. There are several types of documents in each envelope. And like today, for each soldier still today, there is a file that documents the soldier’s career and advancement, health, promotions, sometimes punishments, and any decorations received. The same type of file was created during the First World War for members of the Expeditionary Force. The Expeditionary Force refers to Canadian troops who were sent primarily to Europe during the First World War. So we call it the Expeditionary Force because the soldiers went on expedition. They are the files of the troops who went to Europe for the war.
JO: OK. What type of information can be found in the service files?
MCM: There are some documents that are found in all files, or practically all files. The first would be what’s called the attestation paper. It’s the contract, if you will, under which the soldier enlists and commits to serving. So this was the first document that was placed in the file back then. The service files also contain information, for example, on the medals or decorations that a soldier received, as well as the soldier’s medical information. So if the person was wounded, you can find out what treatment was given, or what type of operation was performed…
JO: So the file contains a lot of personal information or things that can describe who this person was.
MCM: Yes. The information in the file pertains only to the individual. For example, the date of enlistment, location of enlistment, rank, age, all sorts of personal information documenting the individual. These are personnel files, files about individuals, not about the units. They tell us nothing about a regiment, an infantry battalion or things like that, it’s really individual, it’s specific to each individual. That information is complemented by other documents in our collections, which are not all currently available online. For example, we also have all the records from hospitals where Canadian soldiers were treated in England or even in France. There were different types of hospitals: emergency care hospitals, but also convalescent hospitals in England. So a soldier’s file tells us where the soldier was sent to be treated. We can go into our collections to look for the record of that hospital on the date in question, and we will find the individual we’re looking for. We have access to their records and when they arrived at the hospital, and we can see the treatments received and the date the individual left. So these records complement the information in the service file. For those who unfortunately did not return from the war, who were killed in action or died of wounds, the Library and Archives Canada website has what we call the circumstances of death registers. For each individual, the register, as indicated by its name, identifies the circumstances of death. The entries are entirely in English because, at the time, in the military world, everything was in English. For example, for some individuals, it simply says “killed in action”. Often, this means that the body was not found. Therefore, it’s “missing in action.” In other cases, there are more details about the circumstances. Sometimes, a witness might say that the soldier went to the front line with everyone else, prepared for assault. Then the witness would see the soldier get hit, and discover upon returning that he had been killed. Sometimes there is more information. The circumstances of death registers are also an online resource. Once an individual’s file has been consulted, it’s through this file that we learn which unit they belonged to. For instance, was the soldier with the 22nd Battalion, or the 14th Artillery Battery? The file tells which unit the soldier was with, and when. We also have in our collections what we call “war diaries” or, in French, “journaux de guerre.” These diaries are-as the name suggests—documents produced each day, by each unit. They contain information about what happened on a given day. For example, if we consult the diary of the 14th Battery or the 22nd Battalion, we can follow what happened day by day. So, if the soldier you are researching was a member of the 22nd Battalion, and you look at the diary of the 22nd Battalion, you can read about the life and the history of the unit. It can explain a lot of things, such as in which campaign or battle they took part on a given day. That information can be found in the war diaries, which are also available on the Library and Archives Canada website, and they are organized by unit, so it’s fantastic to be able to complete the information found in the personnel file with other sources also available online.
JO: Ah yes, you see the individual and you see the unit…
MCM: Yes, you can put it in context and understand, find out about which battles the soldier fought in, the location, and what the circumstances were.
JO: Right. Library and Archives Canada genealogy consultant Sara Chatfield joins us now. Sara, I understand that you work directly with clients who are looking to consult Canadian Expeditionary Force files. Can you give us an idea as to how often clients are requesting to consult these files?
SC: I’d say it’s one of our busiest collections. It’s a huge collection and really anyone who has a family member here before the First World War, it’s going to touch on their family somehow, so I try to bring people around to it every chance I get. I use it every day on the desk when I’m dealing face to face with people and also when I answer emails or letters I use it as often as I can. It’s a really great resource.
JO: Who uses these files mostly?
SC: At the desk we get people who this is their first time in a library in 50 years and they just want to see their grandfather’s file. We get medal collectors who like to put the file with the medal when they are selling it. We get school groups, Algonquin College has a genealogy program so we get a lot of students and I think it’s one of their projects to look at the files. We get people doing their genealogy that want the complete package of their ancestor because these ones are really the only ones that give a more of a physical description of them, it gives an idea. Because these records were updated over the course of the war, it’s not like the other records like the census where it’s a snapshot of a day and immigration is just when they came to Canada and that’s it. Whereas these ones you can see when they are married because they would have to ask permission, you can see on their pay sheets when it changes the address, so maybe their mother died and now it’s going to their sister-the money they are sending home-or if they are married it goes from the mother to the new wife. They are really evolving over that time, which I think is the best part of them.
JO: Yeah. So you can sort of see the evolution of the soldier over the course of his service.
SC: Yes, and things like there is a will in the file and they would have done that right away. So that would give you an idea, so there is a lot of little documents that you can get some information from. And they give actual street addresses because they had to mail everything, so you can cross-reference that with the city directories for each major city and get an idea, it really leads you to so many different places when you are doing your family history.
JO: Right. So they are like little jewels.
SC: Big jewels! They are great.
JO: Ok. Big jewels. How are people using the CEF files?
JO: What are they looking for?
SC: They are looking for more personal information. I like the files because they are one of the only collections we have that actually give detailed personal information. Things like medical reports and it lists tattoos, scars and hair colour and eye colour and religion, which you can find on other documents too. But one of the only ones that has actual descriptions of the person to get an idea of what they look like.
JO: Okay. So what are they generally looking for when consulting the files?
SC: A lot of times we use them for family members because they had to write their next of kin usually on the attestation paper. Also, they would use them for place of birth, date of birth. Where the soldier was demobilized, so if they stayed in England or if came back to Canada, it gives you an idea if you are trying to trace the family. Date of enlistment gives a little clue of when they immigrated to Canada because a lot of people will think, oh no, they came in 1916 but they enlisted in Winnipeg in 1914. It gives you an idea of when to start looking for the immigration record. Associations use them for when they do cenotaphs for memorials for schools. Towns do memorials for schools and for certain battles when they are doing historical projects because you can see where people enlisted and can get an idea of who listed from what town.
JO: What are the most common reasons why people can’t find their ancestor files?
SC: There are a lot of reasons why people can’t find them. They might have served with the British forces. The British Army had recruiting offices in Canada so it is common. Usually someone who was born in Canada would have enlisted with the Canadians, but if someone was born in England, immigrated to Canada, there is a chance they wanted to fight with the British. Or they could have been in the Royal Flying Corps because we didn’t have one at the time so if you wanted to be a pilot you had to go with the Brits or the Royal Navy. Or they might have served in the Canadian Navy and those records aren’t in the database. They might have served with the Newfoundland Regiment because Newfoundland wasn’t a province then, those records are considered British. They might have served in the local militia in Canada and there is very few service files that have been retained. We have some files for the non-permanent active militia, so those are the older guys who guarded lighthouses and canals in Canada, but they aren’t going to be on the database. They might have enlisted in the CEF under a false name and that could be another bunch of reasons. They might have been under aged or their wife didn’t give permission or they had previously enlisted and had deserted and wanted to rejoin. Some are career military and their First World War file is actually in the post-First World War collection because they continued in the army, it’s not considered, for archival reasons, it’s not considered just First World War anymore.
JO: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of these files?
MCM: Ah, they have quite a history! First of all, the way these files were created, Canadians were enlisting in Canada, and when they enlisted, a file was created for each of them. The files were created in Canada but these members were called upon to go to war in Europe. So they had to have a file, a file to follow them, because when the soldier was in Europe and in the trenches, if a document needed to be added to the file, the document wasn’t going to be sent to Canada. So what they did was create another file in England for each soldier or nurse. So there were the files that were created in Canada and left in Canada and the file in England. Once in England, when information needed to be added to the file, it was added to copy “B” of the file, if you will. So information was added to two files. At the end of the war, more information was generally added, and as the men and nurses returned to Canada, the authorities decided to bring back the files as well and what is interesting to note is how the files were brought back. When the war was over, the soldiers gathered in England to take a ship back to Canada. Each soldier was told: you will collect your file-which still consisted of an envelope-you will take the envelope, and to board the ship, you will need your file. It was like a passport to return to the country. When the men returned, the military authorities collected the files. The soldiers arrived, handed in the envelope with the file and, in exchange, received their discharge certificate. And during this time, the military authorities collected the files. Then, the original file that had remained in Canada was consolidated with the file that had been brought back. And that is what we have now, it’s an envelope with all the documents pertaining to each soldier.
JO: Wow. Quite an undertaking.
JO: Have you discovered problems or specific issues with these files?
MCM: Not really, in general these files are in good shape. I would say that sometimes the envelopes are a bit worn because they are the most heavily consulted documents at LAC. And for good reason because they give information about each individual, and there are many genealogists who are interested in these files. Hmmm…problems…some of the files were damaged by a small flood years ago, in the 70s I think, and some files had mould, so some mould developed. It’s a very small part, and these files, when someone wants to consult them, we treat them to ensure that there is no possible contamination, and they can therefore be consulted by researchers or genealogists. But in general there are no major problems with these files.
JO: OK. How and why did these files end up at Library and Archives Canada?
MCM: When these files were brought back at the end of the First World War, they were kept by the military authorities for a period of time. But once the members of the Expeditionary Force were discharged and left the army, these files no longer had value, hmm… how can I say this, they were no longer necessarily useful to the army because these men were no longer soldiers. But they were useful for issuing pensions to veterans, those who requested them, obviously. The files contain proof of service, meaning the years or months of service, and if a soldier, for example, had been wounded or permanently disabled, it was documented in these files. But the number of files-640,000 files-it’s a major collection that the Department of Veterans Affairs found slightly too large to manage because its mission is to provide services and pensions to veterans, not to manage archive collections. So in the early 1970s, in 1971 specifically, the Privy Council mandated Library and Archives Canada to collect these files and to preserve them, to assume responsibility for everything surrounding the conservation, preservation and dissemination of archives. So these documents were placed in the custody of Library and Archives Canada in the early 1970s. We’ve had them since then, and we will continue to keep them.
JO: Of course, definitely. In your work with the files, have you found interesting stories?
MCM: It’s a bit… I’m often asked this question, whether there are special stories, but frankly, each soldier, each nurse has a special story, so there are 640,000 special stories. I want to say, each time you open a file and you look, there’s someone new to discover, a new story. Certainly, there are the files of all Victoria Cross recipients, these people committed heroic acts, and they received… but all those who enlisted and went to fight were heroic in some way, and if you consult the file of your grandfather, or the file of your grandmother who may have been a nurse, that file is special for you as well. It’s more special than any other, so they are all special to someone, somewhere.
And obviously there are particular stories, but it’s a bit unfair to choose one and not another, and why. Certainly, for me personally, I really enjoy looking at the nurses’ files because I find that these women who left with the soldiers, with the men, to care for them, it took such courage. They left and they knew that the work they were going to do would not be pleasant: caring for the wounded, performing amputations, tending to men who were dying… So the nurses’ files, for me, are very moving.
JO: Right. Sara, are there any interesting or unusual stories related to the files that you could share with us?
SC: I have one that I just finished working on. A researcher’s mother bought a World War I medal in a bin of costume jewelry at a church bazaar in the 50s and she bought it because she didn’t want it to be discarded and she knew it was of value to someone. Then her son found it a couple of years ago when he was cleaning out her house after she died, so I worked with him quite extensively, he was a really good researcher, and it was an easy one because it had a full name and regimental number, which a lot of them don’t. We ordered the file and we found out where he lived and his next of kin through the file, the attestation paper had all that information. We found his death card, which was in the veterans death cards collection, which is online on our website. We went through the Ontario birth, marriage and death records and we really could trace his timeline and it was a little sad. He married and then a year later a baby was born. Then his wife died in childbirth and the baby died I think a week later. Then four days after the baby died he enlisted, I guess he had nothing left…
SC: …so he went to war. We really wanted to go the extra mile for this soldier and we ended up not finding any living family members. It was just too far back and nobody seemed to have any kids in his family. The client made a really elaborate package and presented it to the local archives from his hometown. He framed the medal and he had copies of the birth, marriage and death records and everything. A little package that will be really useful for school groups when they go to the archives.
JO: That’s sweet. Thanks so much for coming to talk to us today about how our clients use these files.
SC: Thank you, it was my pleasure.
JO: To learn more about Canadian Expeditionary Force service files and our First World War resources, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our home page, select Discover the Collection and then click on Military Heritage. On this page, select First World War: 1914-1918 from the menu on the left side where you will find links to all of our First World War resources. Also, don’t forget to check our blog at thediscoverblog.com for more First World War content. You can find the content quickly by selecting the Military Heritage.
Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada-where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Marcelle Cinq-Mars and Sara Chatfield.
For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. From this page you can also view the Underwater Canada: Shipwrecks Flickr album found under related links.