The Western Front Association’s Pension Record Archive includes approximately 1.5 million ledgers of claims made to the UK Government’s Ministry of Pensions. These ledgers provide a wealth of information that is unlikely to be available from other sources.
The largest section within the ledgers is approximately 1.2 million pages of records for Soldiers, Royal Naval Ratings (i.e. sailors) and Airmen who survived the war but with some form of infirmity that resulted in the Ministry of Pensions paying a weekly allowance to the surviving combatant. The PRC Ledgers – which relate to British servicemen (they do not extend to Empire/Commonwealth soldiers who would have been paid pensions by their own governments) provide an insight into the range of wounds and injuries that men who served in the Great War could incur, and can reveal hidden details you may not have known about your ancestors who served.
Injuries and wounds
The vast majority of the ledgers relate to soldiers (and sailors and airmen) who survived the war. This is not surprising as – despite the perception – more men came home from the First World War than those who were killed in action. Many of these survivors came home with wounds: these could be physical but were also often mental scars. From these records we can see that the damaging effects of what we now call PTSD, did (at least in some cases) cause a pension to be awarded, perhaps contradicting, in part, the assumption that men with ‘shell shock’ were the unacknowledged casualties of the war. Many of these ledgers provide information on wounds that are not unexpected for men serving in front line trenches during the First World War, but other ledgers provide details of probably hitherto unknown medical issues. Here is just one example of a pension ledger that shows that the pension claimant (Alexander Meville of the 6th Dragoons) had disabilities listed as (1) GSW) and (2) DAH.
GSW is an abbreviation for “Gun Shot Wound” but this does not necessarily mean Alexander suffered a bullet wound as the phrase covers a range of wounds, such as shrapnel from an exploding shell. DAH is probably less well known, but somewhat easier to understand. Disorderly Action of the Heart and “VDH” (valvular disease of the heart) are often seen in these records. DAH is the less serious complaint, it was often called “effort syndrome” or “soldier’s heart”. It could be the result of stress or fatigue, and does not necessarily mean there was any organic disease. VDH is the more serious of the two and implies some organic disease or heart malfunction. (Further information on these and other matters can be found in “Medical Diseases of the War” by Sir Arthur F. Hurst (London: Edward Arnold, 1918)
As mentioned above, non-physical or psychological injuries can be found in these records. For example, Private George Beard of the Glosters was discharged from the army in May 1918 and subsequently was awarded a pension due to being diagnosed with ‘Melancholia’ (nowadays ‘Depression’ or ‘Major Depressive Disorder’).
Private James Wallace of the RAMC was invalided with “neurasthenia” – commonly known as shell shock. Private Wallace’s ledger is also an example of an ‘Alternative Pension’. These are relatively rare and can be identified with the letters ‘APD’ in the reference number in the top right of the form.
A large number of the pensions claimed by returning soldiers relate to infirmities rather than wounds. Whilst these infirmities may have been as a result of active service, there would have been a substantial ‘grey area’ of claims (some of which were rejected) for illnesses which may or may not have been attributable to the soldier’s war service.
The ‘Hammer Toes’ from which Michael Gallagher of the Royal Munster Fusiliers suffered was deemed to be ‘attributable’ to his war service (the other options here were ‘aggravated’ by his service or ‘non-attributable’)
We can speculate that Private Edward Keogh (or Keough) of the Royal Defence Corps was not fit for frontline action when he enlisted (the RDC were utilised at home for mundane guarding duties, including Prisoners of War). As his Pyorrhoea (a dental problem) may have prevented him from serving in a combat role. His condition was seemingly ‘aggravated’ by his war service and it may be that this was what caused him to be assigned to the RDC.
Rejected cases can be found, as with Thomas Martin Larson who had defective vision, but this was non-attributable to his war service. His pension claim was rejected as detailed on the second page of his ledger.
Of the records here, a percentage of the records detail men who were killed in the war.
Perhaps the worst day in the history of the British Army was 1 July 1916 – the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Sergeant William Dodd of the “RDF” (Royal Dublin Fusiliers) was one of the nearly 20,000 men killed on this day. His regimental number is shown which can be easily cross-checked to other sources and this tells us he was in the regiment’s second battalion and that he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
William is – on this the pension ledger – noted as “missing”. His mother is detailed, which is somewhat surprising as the CWGC record indicates he was married. Why his mother would be awarded a pension instead of his widow is a mystery, but again this adds to the background that we can obtain from these ledgers.
Whilst the vast majority of soldiers were killed in France and Belgium, not all men who died served in this theatre. Nor were they necessarily killed as a result of enemy action. Anthony Hill died after the war in February 1919 in India, his pension ledger records simply “disease” as a cause of his death. The records also point to those who were executed while serving. Just one example worth highlighting among the over 300 men who were ‘shot at dawn’ is William Baker of the Royal Fusiliers. William had been under arrest when he absented himself from his unit in April 1918, being detained near the mail boat in Boulogne. Escaping from custody, he was again detained and – after a court-martial – eventually executed at Poperinghe near Ypres on 14 August 1918. The ledger details his mother’s name and address and details his cause of death as “shot” but without giving the particulars we know.
Widows and Next of Kin
‘Alternative pensions’ have been mentioned above. A version of these was also available on application, to widows of soldiers who were killed.
Rebecca Roberts was the widow of William Clewes (an alias of William Henry Roberts) who was in the Grenadier Guard, number 8151. William died on 10 March 1915 (although this ‘Alternative’ pension ledger record does not require the clerk to detail the date of death). It is interesting to see that the CWGC record him as “William Clewes” and makes no reference to the “Roberts” surname or full “William Henry” Christian names detailed on the ledger. The ledger records six (unnamed) children under the age of 16. As can be seen, the ‘Alternative’ Pension was agreed on 2 September 1920. The remarriage of widows is also sometimes detailed, as with Lilian Thompson who was the widow of Frederick John Oborne of the MGC (Cavalry). The CWGC do not record his wife, so without this ledger, it would have been difficult to trace Lillian’s re-marriage to Mr Thompson, or her address of 318 Camberwell New Road.
Pension Awards Process
Although the principles of pension awards have survived, the administrative process of awarding pensions is – unfortunately – lost in the mists of time. Tantalising clues can be found. For example, it is possible that the man’s location may well have affected the payment of a pension such as this for Ernest Vaughan which notes “Man in Australia”. The reverse of his ledger does, however, indicate his presence for post-war medical boards. It is unclear from this if he moved to Australia after the medical board examinations – this seems the most likely scenario, but without this ledger, any Australian connection may well be unknown.
The men and women, who diligently administered these records would have had no idea that the ledgers they worked with would now be so interesting for modern-day historians and those trying to find what their ancestors went through in the First World War.
Explore the WWI Pension Ledgers and Index Cards (1914-1923), including Naval Ledgers, Merchant Marine Cards, and PRC Ledgers on Ancestry.
This blog post was written by David Tattersfield, trustee from The Western Front Association.