by Diane Sagers, with Angelyn Hutchinson and Christine Armstrong
The year 2018 marks the centennial of the end of World War I. Millions of young American men registered for the draft, and nearly five million of them answered the call of duty. More than 116,000 American military died during that war—nearly half of them before they reached France. Today, volunteers are helping make World War I records searchable so you can find information about your ancestors who were involved in the war.
Living through the Great War
At home, Americans held divided opinions about United States involvement in the war, but all shared the uncertainties it created. Harry Nelson, a 20-year-old first-generation American, married his sweetheart, Eudora Eschler, on March 6, 1918; then, just six days later, he boarded a Union Pacific train in Salt Lake City, Utah, for San Antonio, Texas, and army life. Army food has never been hailed as fine cuisine, and the canned corned beef, canned tomatoes, and bread that made up the “doughboy” diets en route proved the point.
His bride suffered the uncertainties of war brides everywhere. Once her soldier was overseas, Eudora heard nothing from him for months—never knowing if he was dead or alive. Finally, she received a stack of letters that the Army had held back to prevent enemy interception.
Nelson’s unit trained in France and was finally headed to active duty when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. The Spanish Flu pandemic had raged among the soldiers, and although Henry helped care for the sick and dying, he was spared from becoming infected.
Unlike Nelson who trained for months in France, William Potts, of Juab County, Utah, trained in Camp Lewis, Washington, and then was shipped to Europe for active duty. His machine gun unit stood on overcrowded trains to make their way through France. The unit then marched through Europe at night, hiding in the woods during the day, and facing enemy gunfire, battlefields, and bombs along the way. As they marched back through Europe at the war’s end, awaiting their return to the United States, they saw thousands of displaced Europeans making their way on foot across the country to the wreckage of their homes to reclaim their lives.
Separation was difficult for soldiers and their families. Potts recalled that as he boarded the train to leave, “Mother was brave about it and kept her control high, as long as I was present at least. Her grave was five months old when I returned home. As I experienced the war then and as I reflect back on it now, it seems that the hardships and the experience of the battlefield were too much for any man to endure. Then I remember the mothers, wives, sweethearts, children, and dads who could but wait and pray and wonder. Surely no soldier went through a greater hell than those we loved and left behind.”
Despite differing views on the war, the country rejoiced universally when the Armistice was signed. Zola Christensen remembered the day her uncle dashed across the street in Richfield, Utah, excitedly calling to her parents that the war was over. The entire city was jubilant. Bells rang and the entire community took to the streets to celebrate. She said she didn’t really understand what was going on, but as a typical six-year-old, she was excited to be excited and joined the celebration. The war hadn’t meant much in her young life—only that they had to put molasses on their cereal rather than sugar and that she, with other young children, had clipped old rags into small pieces to fill pillows for the soldiers overseas. Older girls had knitted stockings for the soldiers in France. Nevertheless, their lives at home were affected by the war.
Centennial Commemoration of World War I
Today, 100 years later, none remain who served in the Great War—or the War to End All Wars, as it was known. But their service was a part of their life stories and the heritage they left to their children, grandchildren, and country.
Military records can provide important insights into ancestors’ lives and clues about the lives of those around them. As men marched off to war, having children was put on hold, and parents, spouses, and children worked to support themselves. Sadly for the families of those who did not come home, the family dynamic changed permanently.
Finding the heritage of military families is important. The search seems challenging, but records relating to the war still exist, and many are readily available on FamilySearch.org. The Family History Research Wiki provides background and directs users to related documents.
Searchable United States World War I Records
Through the diligent efforts of volunteer indexers, FamilySearch.org offers searchable collections relating to soldiers of World War I.
- The United States World War I Draft Registration Cards has nearly 25 million records of men who registered for the draft, including those who were drafted and those who helped the war effort at home.
- Service records from Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas hold millions more records and may provide further details.
- The California, San Francisco, Enemy Alien Registration Cards are affidavits of people who lived in the United States who were from countries at war with the United States. These documents contain names, nationalities, birthdates, information about parents and spouses, and more.
- The collection United States Index to Naturalizations of World War I Soldiers, 1918 gives records of more than 18,000 naturalizations in the United States of soldiers who served during World War I.
- The United States YMCA World War I Service Cards seem an unlikely place to search for war records, but the volunteer organization supported the troops during the war. The collection of 27,000 images includes names, addresses, work, religious affiliations, and army service information.
- The Mississippi and Georgia World War I service cards give information about soldiers who served in the war, including their rank, engagements participated in, wounds received, and much more.
- The United States, American Expeditionary Forces collection is a good place to learn about soldiers who lost their lives while serving in Europe during World War I.
- The World War I Grave Cards from the Maine State Archives contain burial and service information for many soldiers who served in World War I.
The United States World War One Centennial Commission is hosting a project, “Family Ties,” to document the stories of service and family relationships of those who served in World War I. They encourage families to help tell the stories of their forbears and relatives.