Wednesday, December 4, 2013

They Served Canada But I Want to Know More

You've found your ancestor's Canadian World War I "Attestation Paper" or "Particulars of Recruit" document so now what?

In my talk I gave in October at the "Canada in the First World War" event hosted by the Ottawa Public Library, the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, and the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa I touched upon a number of the resources I used to explore what happened to Victor Sornberger. I have previously listed the resources I used in my post 'Resources for "A Soldier of the Great War: A Research Case Study' but I never went into detail as to how I approached my research.

The first step in my research was to request Victor Sornberger's World War I service file from Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Since I live in Ottawa I was in the position of requesting the file to be viewed at their facility at 395 Wellington Street. I had my LAC User Card but if I didn't already have it I could have requested one via this form. Next I completed the Request for Retrieval of Document online form so I could look at the file when I next came to Library and Archives Canada (about once every two weeks). Now if I didn't live in Ottawa I could request via the Order Form for Reproductions the service file and the staff at LAC would digitize the file for me and send me an e-mail with the instructions to access the images. This isn't a free service but it also isn't very expensive as can be seen at their price list page.

Once I had reviewed the file, and since I was actually at LAC I also photographed the contents, I had some key documents I could use to find out more about Victor. The first was actually the file folder. On the front of the folder is was written "Deceased 28-3-52" so now I knew he died on 28 Mar 1952. A useful bit of information if I didn't already have that recorded.

Next was his Discharge Certificate. That document gave me the date and where he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and also when he was discharged . Plus it listed the places overseas where he served. Then there is his Casualty Form - Active Service paperwork. This document has details such as when he left Canada, when he arrived in England, and which ship. It lists when and where he was Taken On Strength (T.O.S.) and Struck Off Strength (S.O.S.) as he joined and left the various battalions and depots. Dates of disciplinary actions are listed (well ... not in Victor's case) and also when he was wounded plus the hospital stays.

Within Victor's file were a number of other forms that documented his wound and his care. These included details such as why his leg had to be amputated. Sometimes you will also come across dental charts, clinical charts with the patient's temperature fluctuations recorded, and maybe even wills.

I now knew when he was shot and with what battalion he was serving with at that time. The next step was finding out where the battalion was located. Fortunately the War Diaries of the First World War have been digitized. These are not personal diaries but the often dry and boring operational details of the brigades and battalions. Most of the time those mentioned are officers but occasionally a name of an enlisted man is recorded ... most often for heroism. Reading through the diary I was able to determine where in France his battalion was fighting on the day Victor was shot. Even better, included with that month's diary were the trench maps and the then secret orders for that specific operation.

Finally with all that information at hand I could use Google Maps to plot, within a few hundred meters, the location where Victor Sornberger was probably fighting when shot.

Overall it was about 8 hours of work from the reviewing and digitizing of the file to finally using Google Maps to figure out where he was when he was shot. During that time I learned more about what was happening at that time during the war and a bit more about a soldier's experience.

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