The war wills of WW1: a unique archive available to search online

By: In: Information Value On: Aug 29, 2013
The war wills of WW1: a unique archive available to search online

Information is valuable. Sometimes the value placed on information is so high that the document or other medium containing it becomes a historic artefact. What value would you place on being given the chance to read the last words ever written by a long-dead relative? Thanks to a unique project that Iron Mountain has done with Tribal on behalf of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), many will now be able to do just that.

A rare archive of the wills of soldiers who fought and died in the First World War has been digitised and made available to search, view and order online. The historic significance of this project is so high that we called on the expertise of the Western Front Association to help guide the project to completion.

In Europe, the end of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th were defined by increasing strain and conflict between the great European powers. A complex interplay of alliances, imperialism, nationalism and militarism formed the geo-political powder keg that exploded when diplomacy failed to ease the tensions that resulted from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

Diplomacy broke down and war inevitably came. When Great Britain entered the Great War, its Government asked for 100,000 volunteers to enlist. A staggering 750,000 applicants stepped forward, including a significant number of boys who hid their true age so that they too could go to the front. As war broke out, the people of Europe were oblivious to the scale and nature of what was to come. The First World War (WW1) was to prove one of the most sacrificial conflicts in modern history, with the number of dead on all sides exceeding 8,500,000. British military deaths from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918 would add up to more than 900,000.

The outlook for the soldiers heading for the front lines was bleak: more than half of all soldiers would be wounded and one in four heading for the trench warfare of the Western Front would not return home.

Before departing for the frontline, each soldier drafted a handwritten will to keep in his Army Pay Book (AB64). This was then tucked into his uniform, to be kept on him at all times with few exceptions (soldiers taking part in trench raids, for example, had all identification removed first). The precious document was key to ensuring that the soldier’s estate would be administered according to his wishes, should the unthinkable happen.

For obvious and very tragic reasons, not every soldier’s will survived the war to make it into the archive. However, the surviving 229,481 wills of English and Welsh soldiers who fought and died in the Great War represents a significant, perhaps remarkable number of the total that were originally written. Getting the WW1 wills available online in time for the 2014 centenary, is the first step in a larger project to digitise all the English and Welsh war wills dating from the Boer War to the Falklands.

The archive securely stored by Iron Mountain on behalf of HMCTS contains the war wills of rank and file Welsh and English soldiers only. Those of servicemen fighting in the navy, of officers, and of Scottish and Irish soldiers are all stored elsewhere.

We have scanned everything contained in the pocket books so that people will be able to see the soldiers’ wills along with any personal messages that the wills may contain. Having seen some of these documents, I can tell you that the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you read these poignant records. Knowing that these soldiers never returned makes even the briefest of wills an invaluable historic resource. By making the wills available online, HMCTS and Iron Mountain a have enabled many the chance to unlock vital aspects of their ancestors’ past. The archive is not only a valuable source of information for historians and genealogists, it also gives the general public the chance to get closer to their lost ancestors.

The digitisation of the World War One wills is a great example of the innovation going on throughout Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service to provide a modern and efficient service to the public. HMCTS offers a the service at a small £6.00 fee to cover the location, handling and postage of digital copies.

Scanned copies of the First World War wills can be ordered online from:
The war wills are UK government documents owned by Her Majesty’s Court and Tribynal Service. HMCTS have a legal obligation to publish grants of probate and wills for public inspection. The fee of £6 is a statutory fee. The objective is to make the wills accessible and to preserve them in a secure environment. The government is not making a profit. Watch the video above for additional information.

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About the author

John Apthorpe

John Apthorpe, Commercial Director, Iron Mountain John Apthorpe heads up Iron Mountain’s business services sector in the UK. His primary objective is to lead and drive commercial strategy and business development activities across a range of large corporate organisations and ensure Iron Mountain is the market leader in records and information management. Prior to joining Iron Mountain in 2005, John was with IT content delivery firm Akamai, where he was responsible for the sale and implementation of cloud based SaaS solutions for customers. With over 20 years experience, John has also held a number of senior roles with IT companies. His experience of working with large corporate clients extends to organisations from all industry sectors, although he has specialised in working with commercial organisations including Iron Mountain’s largest energy clients over the past three years. John holds an MBA from Henley Management College and a BA (Hons) in business studies.