Tracing the war record of a soldier in the CEF
This is an activity that can be very satisfactory, but can also become very encompassing. It involves considerable research, a little money, and a lot of luck.
The first part of the exercise is to find out his regimental number and file reference in the Libraries and Archives Canada database. You can start by searching through the Canadian Great War Project database, but we have only a fraction of the soldiers identified so far. If he is recorded, you will be able to get his regimental number, and in many cases his LAC reference number. In any case you should cross check this with the LAC database. You can find the entry to their search engine here.
Once you have the appropriate LAC reference number you can request the service file. Instructions on how to do that can be found here. It will typically take a month or so to get the information, and it will cost around $25.
With the Service Record
The service record will not be complete. The Government destroyed most of the files sometime in the 1930 ’s in order to save space, but they will typically contain any record of hospitalization and the pay record. From these you can get a wealth of information, the names of the ships they served on, the units they served with, the dates they transferred to France or Belgium, and much more. You will not get the Circumstances of Death report for anyone that died. LAC stores these separately, and they have to be ordered separately.
Once you know the units that he served in, you can check the on-line War Diaries in the LAC database. A significant contributor to the Canadian Great War Project, Michael Thierens, has created an on-line index to the war diaries, which you can find here. From the war diaries, you can find the actual places that the soldier was at on specific days. Like everything else, the detail varies from day-to-day, unit to unit, but you will find the basics, and sometimes details of the day’s activities.
There are a growing number of books on the Great War that are available, and you should be able to get many from your local library. You can browse through the book section of this site, but I would highly recommend the books by Des Morton (particularly “When you Number’s Up”), Tim Cook, and Dan Dancocks. A number of Regimental Histories were written, and you may be able to find one for the Battalion you are looking for. Also, G. W. L. Nicholson’s “Official History of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919”
Probably the best resource is the CEF Study Group, which is a great place to ask questions about your research. This group focuses on the Canadian aspect of the war. Another great resource is The Great War Forum, although this group is more knowledgeable about the British participation.
Many books, regimental histories and nominal rolls are available on the Internet Archive site. Many out of print books are also available from Archive CD Books Canada. While some of these books are also available free from other internet sources, the search capabilities for the books from Archive CD Books is unsurpassed.
There are many other sources on the internet. Check out the links section of this site.
Good luck with your research. If you’d care to see the result I obtained after doing my research, you can find the Thomas O’Connor story, “For $1.10 a day” here.