Whether your American World War I ancestor shipped out or stayed state-side, here are some tips from David Allen Lambert to help you research him.
The Misconception About World War I Draft Cards
A World War I draft card can give valuable genealogical information. However, it doesn't prove that he served in the war. It only proves that he registered for the draft.
In June 1914, the U.S. had approximately 127,000 active servicemen. By the end of the war, more than 24 million men had registered for the draft. The U.S. Army at that time had half a million men who joined via the draft and another 233,000 who volunteered. So what about the other nearly 23 million men? What happened to them? Nothing. They registered for the draft, but were never called up.
There were 3 different drafts in the US:
- 5 June 1917 for men aged 21-31 (born approx. 1886-1896)
- 5 June 1918 added men who turned 21 after 5 June 1917 (with an addition in August adding men who turned 21 after 5 June 1918)
- 12 September 1918 for men aged 18-45 (born approx. 1873-1900)
Clues for World War I Service
Be sure to look at the 1930 census. Scroll all the way over to columns 30 and 31. If he answered "yes," look for "WW" (World War) or "GW" (Great War).
(Note: You will also see abbreviations like Sp.Am. for Spanish-American War; Civ for Civil War; and Phil for Philippine Insurrection.)
Newspapers of the time period are valuable, as they often reported the service of the hometown boys. Obituaries can also mention service.
Look at gravestones for mention of military service. If there's a VFW or American Legion symbol, consider if the age is consistent with a WWI serviceman.
Next Steps After Confirming Service
Contact the State Adjutant General's office in the state from which your ancestor served. They often have detailed service records. (These records might still be in the AG's office or transferred to the state archives.) These records could include the DD214 (the discharge papers). DD214s are also sometimes filed in the county courthouse in the county where the soldier was living when he returned home.
Once you know the regiment(s) that your ancestor served in, research the regiment. You can often find at least rudimentary regiment histories online. If you can determine the base for that regiment, contact the National Archives in Washington for the base records. Also contact the library at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
What Was Lost (and Saved) at the National Archives
The fire at the National Archives in 1973 destroyed much of the U.S. Army records for World War I (and World War II). However, the records of the Marines and the Navy survived. (Fun fact: the U.S. Navy spent much of WWI anchored off the coast of Scotland in case Germany invaded England.)
The logbooks for the U.S. Navy are at the National Archives; they have not yet been digitized. However, if you know your ancestor's ship, you can look it up in Special List 44 to see what is available and contact NARA about copies.
Review the finding aid for Record Group 120 "Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I)." While the records themselves are not online, you can narrow down your request for NARA (or for when you go there yourself!)
For Those Who Didn't Come Home
Check with the local VFW and American Legion posts where your ancestor lived. They might have membership records.
Local/county veterans agencies might also have records, as could local historical societies. (It isn't uncommon to find files about the men memorialized on the monument in the town square.)
Online WWI Records
- Historical Record Collections with World War in the title (Note: also do a search in the card catalog for specific locations. You might find some digitized record collections that aren't included in the Historical Collections.)
- United States World War I Draft Registration Cards
- 4 U.S. record sets for World War I (numerous others for the UK)