One of the most useful records for finding out about a Canadian person’s experience of World War I is their service file. These records are looked after by Library and Archives Canada, who have been busy converting 640,000 of these paper files into digital form over the past few years. In this post, we take a look at what types of information these files contain, using the file of Gerald Cecil Burton as an example.

Attestation paper p.1 Gerald BurtonAttestation papers are the form that people signed when they enlisted. (Click on the image for a closer look.) On the front page, information about the individual’s date and place of birth, address, next of kin, occupation, and military experience were recorded. This page was also signed in two places by the enlistee. In the Deseronto First World War project we have been using these signatures to illustrate the blog posts about each Deseronto veteran, as very often we don’t have photographs of the people, but there is nearly always a signature. Towards the top right of the form, the soldier’s regimental number was noted. This is a unique identifier which is helpful in distinguishing between two men of the same name. In our group of records, for example, there were two Jacob Greens (644773 and 636686) and two Wilbert Brants (785039 and 636958). The military unit that the individual initially joined is usually noted at the top of the form, although often this is not the unit that the person ended up serving with in Europe.

Attestation paper p.2 Gerald BurtonOn the back of the form, details of the recruit’s physical appearance were recorded, including apparent age, height, colouring, chest measurement and any distinguishing marks, such as tattoos or scars.

Attestation papers were the first World War I records to be digitized by Library and Archives Canada. They were not taken from the service files, but from a separate series of Attestation Registers (RG 9, II B8). Some people (about 50,000) are missing from that series, and for those individuals the newly-digitized service files provide the first glimpse of their attestation paper information.

Record of Service forms like the one below are very useful for determining the course of an individual’s wartime career. These forms are copies of army orders relating to the person. They record transfers between military units, arrivals and departures,  injuries, and penalties. Extract from service record for Gerald Burton

For example, the card above shows that Gerald Cecil Burton arrived in England on the SS Mauritania on November 30th, 1916. It also notes that he was sentenced to a year of hard labour for stealing a revolver and holster.

Service files often contain detailed medical records: some even have x-ray photographs of injured limbs.

Medical report on Gerald Burton

In this example from Gerald Burton’s file, details of a diagnosis of bronchitis are noted. The files also usually have information on the dental health of recruits, with details of fillings and extractions.

The service files are a wonderful resource for First World War research, and digitizing them has been an enormous project for Library and Archives Canada. Thank you very much to everyone involved in the effort!

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