Finding Hidden Stories In Military Records

Collage of images depicting world war one. Military records, marching men and troop ships
Finding The Hidden Stories In Military Records

Anyone engaged in writing family histories will understand the challenges in uncovering supporting documents. But, the bigger challenge we face, as amateur family historians, is finding the hidden stories behind those “facts”. I can now declare that finding hidden stories in military records is a whole new ball game! During WW1 my Great Uncle Arthur Ilson, moved around, a lot! Different battalions, different countries & various hospitals. I know all this because somehow, in all the chaos and mayhem that surrounded him, someone kept hand written records that have been saved for me to read 100 years later and the birth of my “Great Uncle’s Military Slideshow” 

8 Steps From Military Records To Your Hidden Story

For the sake of clarity (and because I like writing lists) I have presented the process of finding the hidden story in military records, in numerical order. However, the process is never linear. You may start with an idea, move onto research, have another idea and then realise you have a lot of material to organize! As Topsy said in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.” Its a perfect description of how my research takes shape anyway!

Step One: Capture Your Thoughts

Gravestone of World War 1 soldier and his sister
A Hidden Story

Other than “one day” finding out what my father was doing on the Ivory Coast in WW2, researching military records would never have featured on my “to do” list! My journey began when I found an image of my Great Aunt Harriet Ilson’s grave……in Canada. Having her roots in London’s East End I was rather irritated with the Ancestry hints for her in Canada which I routinely dismissed them due to the location. (There is no logic behind this as my own family emigrated from London to New Zealand!) Fortunately, I gave in to my own dictates and discovered that Harriet was buried with her brother, Private Arthur Ilson. Here is where Step 1 “capture your thought” comes in to play as an English soldier should not be buried in a Canadian cemetery! Although my reasoning may be flawed it led me to a path of research that moved from continents to French villages and the “patriotic” duty felt by one young Englishman who had made his home in the “New World” that was Canada in 1915. The final step is to capture your thoughts on paper/screen. I use the free “Notepad” or my PC. Chatting with your friends over coffee will let you gauge what is interesting to others and perhaps a new thread of research may present itself (Just remember to jot it down!)

Step Two: Give Your Thoughts Air Time

Poster used in World War 1 to encourage enlistment to the Canadian Expediotnary Force

My social network is rather small and homogeneous and I doubted any of my boaty friends wanted to talk about WW1. Once again my logic was flawed as my tentative inquiries led to many stories of fathers coming home wounded, shell shocked or not at all. It will be difficult to explain but my next research tool was triggered by my interest in buying a fat free air fryer! When I found a group of air fryer enthusiasts it was a small step to finding groups whose interests covered all aspects of WW1 Eventually this led me to a Facebook page that was dedicated to the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. There guidance and support were invaluable. I also made contact with the best thing any family historian can ever have a fellow researcher who passes on the results of his own independent research on your behalf ( I am indebted to Howard Fitz-Gerald for sharing his knowledge and showing me the way)

Step Three: Stay Curious & Think Like A Journalist

Handwritten military record of a soldiers physical characteristics highlighting his grey eyes
Military Records: Grey Eyes

It’s been a long time since I was at school but I doubt the basics of Who, What,Why, When have lost their effectiveness. If it is applied to your research successfully you should finish up with the bones of your hidden story. Through research I found out why my Great Uncle was buried in Canada. What he looked like is still unknown although I do know he had grey eyes, as does my daughter and grand-daughter.

Step Four: Organizing Your Research

Collection of scanned military records
Military Records: Hard Copy

Researching and the stories that follow have always reminded me of the analogy of the swan. The serenity of writing and posting compared to the frantic unseen movement of research that keeps it all moving, My problem is enjoying the research for it’s own sake to such an extent that I become overwhelmed with records. The paper work on the left is only a few pages of one 54 page set of military records. The scrawled hand written notes took many readings before I could decipher them. The locations in France all had to be “discovered” by linking them to battles and battalion movements. Even writing it now I find it hard to believe that I actually did it!

Collection of small post it notes stuck on a refrigerator door
Military Records: Post It Timeline

As the amount of paper grew it was obvious that I was not retaining all the information which meant I was missing important links. I decided to make a time line so that these links would become obvious. My first attempt was to use post it notes on the fridge which I then tried to arrange by dates. It failed! All I achieved was adding even more pieces of paper. Plus, they kept falling off!

An Excel spreadsheet showing military records listed in a date timeline
Timeline of Military Records

My third attempt was more successful. I bit the bullet (oops unintentional war time analogy) and made a simple Excel spreadsheet (which is really just another list!). This is where the magic happened and the links between changing locations, battalions and trips back to England began to make sense. In other words, where the hidden story started to reveal itself. For example, by sorting the dates from early to late, I found Arthur moved to a tunneling battalion. The next entry was multiple gun shot wounds, followed by admission to a hospital and finally ten days leave in England.

Step Five: Know Your Audience

Head and shoulders image of a young child with grey eyes
The Hidden Story of Military Records

Whether you are writing for your family or for military enthusiasts the basic premise is the same……..your post has to be readable. What you write may well have a different focus but a boring story that no one reads is a waste of all the countless hours you have invested so far. A timeline of events is unlikely to capture the attention of either your family or the most enthusiast military buff. The record that fired my imagination was the small card that stated that Arthur had grey eyes. Militarily this was of no importance what so ever but you can see by my grand-daughters picture why it meant so much to me. A young Canadian today my wonder why a young Englishman would travel half way around the world only to return to fight in a war so far from his new home. I came across many articles that wrote of how World War 1 caused profound changes in Canadian society. For the first time large numbers of young men fought in a war not of their making and not to protect their own homes. Now your story has moved away from a list of activities and locations of one man to the life that the reader can understand and feel connected to. These are the cornerstones for all stories and the goal of every writer.

Step Six: Stay Humble

No matter how much you check and re-check your research the chances are you will make a mistake and, when your military post is out there someone will tell you about it! Once you have finished beating your self up, check again and, if you have made a mistake, always thank your reader. Use it as an opportunity to add to your knowledge. If you are lucky you may also pick up a contact who will help you find another hidden story in your military records. And, if you ever secretly held a dream to “write a book one day” remember even an ancestry slideshow may turn out to be that first, very small step, to realising your dream!

Step Seven: Techy Stuff

Writing and blogging do not necessarily have the same purpose. For my first blog I was consumed with the technicalities of trying to encourage readers/Google to read my posts. They didn’t! Monetizing was a goal never reached but I did learn a lot. This time round I am mainly writing for my family and guess what………in the first day of going to air I had more readers than a whole year on the “other one” I still use some of the technical side of attracting Google but I don’t angst over it. There are many, many bloggers out there who are successful bloggers who share their success by writing about how they become successful. This post is about how to find hidden stories in military records and for that reason the finer points of blogging per se are not part of my story. The list below are the ones I found the easiest and cheapest to use. I hasten to add that even the best tools will not increase your success if your CONTENT is rubbish or not what the readers are searching for!

Step 8: Motivation

Never under estimate the power of motivation. It is the reason why mountains are climbed and oceans are sailed. When it comes to writing there will always be days when are inner motivation to write isn’t enough. On these days you need to find at least one person who gives you a reason and the motivation to keep going. The hidden story of my Great Uncle Arthur Ilson is almost ready to be posted. It would never had seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the support from others who had the knowledge and the desire to share that knowledge with me.

Quote: Write what should not be forgotten by Isobel Allende
Finding The Hidden Stories In Military Records

If you have discovered your own “hidden story in military records” I would love to read it. Perhaps we could make a special post and share them around?

10 thoughts on “Finding Hidden Stories In Military Records

Add yours

  1. very much enjoyed the read. I am in the process of ‘beginning’ to gather & write about my great Uncle who served in WWI NFLD Regiment. His timeline in the war was short 1915-1916 as he died in France Oct 13 1916. I noticed above that you mentioned “many articles that wrote of how World War 1 caused profound changes in Canadian society” I would certainly be interested in looking at some of these sources as well. Wondering if you could point me in a direction to start. Thank you.


    1. Many thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. As a writer your self you will understand the doubts that come with any words we put “out there!” My interest in military history is based solely on my personal connection through my Great Uncle but my research threw up many questions about his sister & sister -in-law who surely left England for reasons other than being part of the Commonwealth war effort! I was curious as to how the war impacted on them and these are a few of the sites I found that provided some surprising answers.


  2. I am fascinated by family history and piecing together stories from the past so this post was thrilling! My grandfather passed away before I was born but served in the Korean War and I’ve always wanted to learn more about his service and what his role was. This post was extremely helpful! Thanks so much for sharing!


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