Military ancestors seem to be found in just about every family history, and their research has become increasingly popular in recent years. Whether it's the great-grandfather rumoured to have served in Africa during the Boer War, or the mysterious great-uncle that no one seems to know the whereabouts after his return from the Great War. There's also the mother, father, aunt or uncle that can be seen on an old photograph wearing some kind of wartime military uniform, but left this world without ever whispering a word to their children about that period of their life.
While in some families the stories of military ancestors and relatives are well documented and preserved, in others they remain much of a mystery. If you happen to be in the latter group, here's some good news. It is now easier than ever to track down information about your military heritage, thanks to modern tools such as the Internet and digital imaging technology.
"On the Internet there are lots of new resources that are now available, many free of charge ," says Sergeant Bob Thompson, an Imagery Technician at 16 Wing Headquarters who spends a lot of time researching his family history. "On the Library and Archives Canada site you can now find attestation papers for all Canadian soldiers of the First World War - these are forms that soldiers filled at the time of enrolment. And for Canadians who were killed in service over the years, there's Veterans Affairs' Virtual Memorial, searchable by name or date ."
Indeed, whether it relates to military personnel or civilians, the Internet has opened the door for amateur genealogists to access digitised copies of documents that were traditionally handled by professional researchers, including census and birth, death, and marriage certificates. More specific to military history, unit's War Diaries of the First World War are now on line, and the new Canadian Military History Gateway site offers links to several other resources.
But while technology has rendered the amateur's job much easier, it has also created a new problem of its own. "As for anything else that's on the Web, you have to be careful of the information you find ," warns Sgt Thompson. "Some people build their family history without researching official sources, so you should verify and document any information you find on personal blogs or Web sites. "
For Sgt Thompson, genealogy has, over the years, become more of a passion than a hobby. "It all started when our son was asked to do his family tree as a school project ," he says. "That was 14 years ago, and I'm still at it! " Today, he spends on average 20 hours a week researching his family history. So far, he has accumulated more than 5,500 names of relatives, among which are soldiers of the American Civil War, the War of 1812, and First and Second World War.
A word of advice from Sgt Thompson: "Be careful, genealogy can be addictive! "