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Getting started with WWI genealogical research

By Constance Potter

"Retreat? Hell, we just got here!" -- U.S. Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams at Lucy-le-Bocage on June 1, 1918.

WWI diaryResearching the military service of your family members in World War I can appear to be a daunting challenge at first.  In 1973 a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO, destroyed most of the Army service records for the years that included service in World War I. Despite the destruction of those records, there are alternative records that can provide information about service during the Great War. Many of these records are held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

This is the first of a series of articles that will describe many of those records and help you find the information you want on your World War I service member.

But just as soldiers go to training before they go to fight, your search for records will be more skillful and efficient if you do some basic things before marching off to start your search.

• Collect as much information as you can from your family or family papers. Ask for the dates and places where people lived, were born, married, and died. Make copies of family records before you return the originals.

• Be skeptical--family stories may not always be accurate, but they can provide clues. Not everyone will want to talk. Veterans sometimes do not want to talk about their war experiences—respect that.

• Cite your sources whether online, from the library, or family papers. Include the title, author, and publication information. Both you and someone following up on your research need to be able to find your source.

Library 200• Narrow your research to one person, one family, or one event at a time. If you try to do too much, you will only confuse yourself and the person who may be helping you. Be aware that records may contain information that may be upsetting. Not all family history is pleasant.

New England Genealogy SocietyGo to your local library and check out its genealogy section. Most libraries have both published and online sources. When you go to a library or an archives, check the website for hours and what they have in their holdings. The first time you visit to a library or archives it can take a day to learn what the rules are and how the system works.

• Join a local genealogical or historical society in the county or state both where you live and where you ancestor lived. These societies produce valuable publications and know a great deal about local resources. Local and national genealogical societies also have conferences. The National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies have annual conferences.

• Be patient. Research takes time, lots of time.

Next article: The great St. Louis fire of 1973

Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.