Step-by-Step: Looking Up an Ancestor’s First World War Record

This is part of a new series, ‘Step-by-Step,’ which aims to guide users through on-line research tools. If you want to suggest further guides, please contact us or put it in the comments section.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised that an off-the-cuff reference to looking up an ancestor’s military record spurred such a gaggle after my undergraduate tutorial last week. I’d repeated an observation that I’d read on H-Canada a few years ago about being prepared to learn about an ancestor’s sexual misadventures (our class was on sex education). The reaction was astounding – they wanted to learn about their family history, or that of a partner, or friend, or expressed general genealogical interest.

Simply pointing them to Library and Archives Canada website might not be enough, however. A few students had already been to the website, actually, but didn’t find it terribly intuitive or straight forward. This year, I’ve been captivated with helping students navigate the technological options available to them (Zotero, DeeperWeb, WorldCat, Google Scholar/Books, etc.), and have realized that we need to think more about how we teach this. In one of my classes, I adapted Bill Turkel’s work in quickly going digital into a screen-by-screen discussion. This post provides a screen-by-screen dissection of how you can find military records from the First World War at Library and Archives Canada.

And here’s a call for action: If you’re regularly in Ottawa and want to help people access their records, let me know at or in the comments below. Similarly, if you might want some on-site help, let us know as well. Maybe we can link a few people up!

STEP ONE: Background research. Before you can fruitfully find an ancestor on the web, you’ll need to know the surname and given name.

STEP TWO: Navigate to, and click on ‘Search.’ You’ll see the screen below. Type in the information that you know. If you’re unsure about spelling, you can always add a ‘wild-card’ character – *. This can stand in for anything else.

In this example, I’m going to look up ‘Milligan.’ Here comes the tricky part. In my case, let’s say that I can’t recall if the name is either ‘Arthur,’ ‘Albert,’ or ‘Alfred.’ [Disclosure: this is actually true – it’s been a while since I chatted about family history, and I’m confident it’s one of the three.] I also know that my family came from Montreal, Quebec, and would have recently immigrated from the United Kingdom.

So let’s search for ‘Milligan’ in surname, and then in Given Names type in: ‘Arthur OR Albert OR Alfred.’
So here we have one Albert, one Alfred, and four Arthurs! From this list, we can learn regimental number, rank, date of birth. So if you know approximate ages, this might help. But for our case, it doesn’t help.

Attestation paper of 'Albert Milligan': Could this be my ancestor?

Library and Archives Canada has not digitized all military records. But they have, for the most part, digitized attestation papers. So let’s click on the first hit in this list, ALBERT MILLIGAN. Click on his name.
You’ll see the information available before, as well as two links: ‘Front of Form,’ and ‘Back of Form.’ This is the treasure trove now at your fingertips. Click on ‘front of form’ and a PDF will load.

The front of the form - look at all this personal information!

So what can we learn from these documents?
Quite a bit: name, in which town/township/parish/country born, name/address of next-of-kin, date of birth, trade or calling, maritial status, willingness to vaccination, whether they begin to the militia, if they’ve served in the Military Force, and if they’re willing to go overseas.
For the sentimental, you can also see their signature. If you click back in your browser, you can also check out the back of the attestation form which has another trove of information:

The back of the form - look at all this personal information!

Here we can learn about his height, chest expansion, complexion, eyes, hair, religious denomination, and any ‘distinctive marks’ on the person’s body. So here we see that this Milligan was certified healthy in 1914 and went off to join the Expeditionary Forces.

In this case, this was not my ancestor. I know that he wasn’t born in Montreal, but emigrated there. So back to the searches I go, through the list, before realizing that ‘Alfred Milligan’ meets my criteria. Perfect.

STEP FOUR: I FOUND HIM!!!! Now what?

So here we are. We have our person. In this case, we know that it’s Milligan, Alfred. Regimental number 418531, and we have his date of birth and this rather cryptic reference. But what if we want more than the attestation paper?

Sitting in Ottawa is a complete service record, most between 25 and 75 pages in length, that will describe his military career. What unit did he join? Where did he train? Did he go to France? Where did he see any possible fighting? Were there any disciplinary infractions? Health problems? Did he die? How? Was he wounded? What happened?

So how do we get that document? First, write down that reference!!! In this case, write everything down. So for this case:


Regimental Number: 418531

Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6204-62

You now have three options:

  1. Go to Ottawa in person – we’ll discuss that in Step Five.
  2. Find somebody to research on your behalf. You have several options here. You can comment at this post and maybe we’ll be able to make a match for you. Alternatively, LAC provides a list of ‘freelance researchers‘ that will research on your behalf.
  3. Contact LAC and get them to reproduce the documents for you. Consult this webpage here. For seniors (65+) and students (with valid identification), the cost is 30 cents a page. For adults it is 40 cents a page. So the pre-tax/pre-mail cost would be between $10 – $30 on average.
STEP FIVE: This would be a great stop in my next trip to Ottawa! But I’m unsure of how these archives things work…

Great! Next time you’re in Ottawa, whether for business, sight-seeing, canoeing, or whatever, you can drop in for an hour or two and check out your ancestor’s service record. So here are the steps to ensure a speedy and trouble-free trip:
  1. Register for a USER CARD. Navigate here. That way, when you show up at the lobby of LAC on the day of your trip, you can show a Photo ID and pick up your card hassle free! This also gives you a user number within two days.
  2. ORDER YOUR MATERIAL IN ADVANCE (FIVE WORKING DAYS), once you have your user number. Navigate to here and fill out the form. Put that reference number into the line under ‘Archival or Bibliographical References.’ In this case, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6204-62.
  3. GO TO LAC at 395 Wellington Street. Short-term parking is available onsite, or there are many lots surrounding it. You’ll go into the lobby, pick up your card, go up to the third floor… a beautiful room overlooking the river. Line up at the service desk and they’ll bring your file out. Double check the hours and other information here.
  4. TAKE PHOTOS? You can take digital photographs for free of LAC collections now. Then you can bring it to show other people, or keep as a memento of your visit.

So I hope that’s been a help. Again, I’d love to hear your comments about your experiences!

Addendum on Military Records in the States: I’ve been told that the National Archives in the United States has streamlined their process for a flat fee of $25 for pre-First World War records. As Tom Peace tells me, he was able to look up a main historical actor during the American Revolution. Check out their approach here.

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