How to Find Your World War I Ancestor

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.

Returning Marines World War I


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 9

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 17 minutes.

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.

1930 census showing World War service

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

The American Battle Monuments Commission is in charge of American military cemeteries outside of the United States. Their online database includes more than 30,000 Americans who died in World War I. 

FindAGrave and can also be useful. 

Other Records

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

About David Allen Lambert

David Allen Lambert is the Chief Genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and co-host of the Extreme Genes radio show and podcast. You can find him on Twitter (@DLGenealogist) and his blog The Past Finder

How to Find Your World War I Ancestor
Posted: November 9, 2018.

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  • I found my great-uncle in the “U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939” database on Ancestry. Both for going to Europe and when he returned. It gives hometown and next of kin information which helped me determine I had the right guy. It also listed the unit he was in.

  • My grandfather Russell H Macklem was Canadian living in Windsor, Ont, but signed up as an American. (I never met him or my grandmother and this was many years before my dad was born.) The only proof I eventually found was a copy of the application for a granite marker submitted by my grandmother that someone posted on Ancestry. He served from 1917-1919 with the Engineering Corps (Company B, 25th Engineers). I am guessing that my grandfather was an oddball crossing to the US to sign up but he was born in Sep 1897 and was told he was too young to sign up for Canada, or at least that is what I was told.

    • Usually it’s the other way around — Americans going to Canada (or even over to France or England) to serve since the US got into the war so late. It would be interesting to find out what the age requirements were for Canada to see if there’s any truth to the family story about his reason.

  • The Library and Archives Canada has an excellent searchable data base for those who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Attestation papers and some military records are included.

  • Amy, the NA has now made available the burial cards of WWI soldiers! I have never seen the one for my uncle before today! It shows the exact cemetery in France, when his body was exumed, when he was shipped home and from what port, when he arrived in Hoboken, and when he arrived home for burial. The data filled some holes for us. The announcement is in the Text Message called “Now Available Online: Burial Cards of World War I Soldiers.”

  • I’ll have to go back and check the 1930 census -as far as I know some of my ancestors were in the Civil War but none were in WWI – I have many WWI certificates but mostly for the “too old” – none showing active duty.

  • My grandfather, George Plichta was in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI. That was the opposing army to the United States. Any suggestions?? I know that George Plichta was in the A-H Infantry Regiment 34 and was hospitalized in two different military hospitals in Austria.

  • I left a reply a couple of days ago but I don’t see it yet. How long does it take for the reply to show up?

  • What a wonderful program to learn from! I have just the one WWI veteran in my family: my paternal grandfather. The family story is that he was getting ready to get on a ship to go to Europe when Armistice was declared. I have a picture of him, his brother, and his brother’s wife by a ship with great big grins on their faces, so I do wonder if the family lore has some validity. If he were about to go off to war, I doubt they would be so jubilant.