Pension Records of soldiers killed in the First World War

Posted by Kristen Hyde on November 13, 2019 in Collections, Research, United Kingdom

The WWI Pension Ledgers and Index Cards (1914-1923) are the WWI records you never knew you needed. David Tattersfield of The Western Front Association explains how this collection came to be and the game-changing value of these records. 

A few years ago, the UK’s Ministry of Defence invited a number of institutions to take on a large set of obsolete pension records they no longer needed. These records were several sets of cards and ledgers relating to soldiers – or next of kin of soldiers – who had been awarded a pension for their service in the First World War.

A number of these institutions were not interested in these dusty old records, but fortunately, The Western Front Association, a UK-based international charity realised the value of these cards and ledgers to historians and genealogists and saved these records from destruction.

The saved records were mounted onto 82 pallets. These pallets contained 546 wooden ‘units’ of drawers – with six different sets of cards within these units. The total number of drawers of cards within these units is 2,534 which are estimated to contain between 6 and 8 million records. In addition, 840 cardboard boxes of ledgers were saved. Each box containing approximately 19 books of ledgers. The total number of pages of ledgers here is in the order of 1.5 million. These books of ledgers were then re-assembled into sequence and then subsequently indexed according to type and region. All of this before the scanning could commence!

After carefully cataloguing, transporting, scanning and tagging the records, this valuable collection is now available on Fold3.

The latest set of records to be made available (with others due to be released next year) includes approximately 1 million cards relating to pensions claimed by next of kin of soldiers who were killed in the First World War.

The value of these records to those undertaking research into family names or local war memorials in the UK cannot be underestimated. For the first time it is easy to link ‘military information’ (such as units or regimental numbers) to ‘family information’ (such as wives and children of soldiers) and to particular addresses.

For example, if we have a relative called Frederick Jones, and we know he was killed in the First World War, there are 370 men of this name listed on the web site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and 866 men who could have served in the war (using the Medal Index Cards)

However the new Pension records saved by The Western Front Association enable us to dig out particular men much more easily. For instance we can narrow down the mythical Fred Jones by ‘place’ (114 images are available on the pension records for men called Jones from Swansea, one of whom having ‘Frederick’ as a forename).

Alternatively we can look at men called Jones in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (69 images).

The ability to search for men called Jones from Cardiff who served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers or the Welch Regiment is also possible using different searches – over 60 hits come up.

What is most spectacular about these records is the rich detail available on the cards.

For instance we have a card for Arthur George Jeffries from Belfast who was in the Royal Irish Rifles. We can see he died of Bronchitis contracted whilst on Active Service, and his widow (Maggie) was awarded various levels of pension (reaching 26s and 8d a week) in April 1917. Their two children were Albert (born 1903) and Dinah (born 1906). The level of detail on the reverse of this card is also breathtaking.

Some cards relate to men who were awarded the Victoria Cross. One of the most famous instances was that awarded to John (Jack) Cornwell who was aged just 16 when he was killed at the Battle of Jutland. His card also details the fact his brother served in the RDC (Royal Defence Corps) – thus enabling genealogists to potentially pick up on other family members who served in the war.

Other men were less brave than Jack Cornwell and indeed were executed for cowardice or desertion – or even murder. Many of these records are also preserved in the records the WFA preserved.

For instance one of the last men to be executed in the First World War was Private Joseph Chandler. Although a grant was paid to his widow, a pension claim was refused. As can be seen on his card, this was because Joseph had been executed on 11 August 1919 for murdering another soldier.

Some of the soldiers who were killed in the war had large families, as can be seen with the card for James (Jas) Adair, one of the thousands of men who were killed on 1 July 1916 – the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

The WFA’s Pension Records are a real game-changer for those looking to research relatives who served in the First World War. Such research is a fitting way to remember the sacrifice of those men who didn’t come home at the end of this conflict.

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