In honour of Vimy Day, this week’s post will highlight an important initiative on the part of our national archival institution, Library & Archives Canada (LAC). As a major component of the First World War centennial commemorations, LAC will be digitizing all of their Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) personnel files. The aim of the project is to make the approximately 650,000 service files of Canadian soldiers of the First World War available for free download by the end of 2015.
These personnel files are an invaluable source of information for anyone doing research on a particular soldier. The documents contained within the file include medical records, pay charts, enlistment papers, military wills, and many other pieces of information which can provide an incredibly in-depth view of the wartime experiences and personal background of a Canadian soldier. In Canada, we are extremely fortunate to still have these records. Indeed, the majority of the equivalent files in the United Kingdom were destroyed during the bombing of London (1940), when the building holding the records took a direct hit from a German bomb. In that case, it is estimated that only 30% of their records still exist. While conducting research on my great-grandfather, a Scottish Sergeant fatally wounded 97 years ago today at the Battle of Arras, I was supremely disappointed to find that his service file was amongst the many which were forever lost. This unfortunate circumstance highlights the importance of preserving and making available all of the CEF personnel files as soon as possible.
Most of the records held at LAC are in remarkably good condition for their age. A growing number of them are already available for download, and can be found in the current database on their website. For those unfamiliar with the LAC database, we have provided a link to the digitized service file of Private Wilfred Ernest Goodwin, a Canadian soldier who lost his right leg to amputation after being wounded at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
This project on the part of LAC is a very positive step forward in the process of bringing back to life the stories of the brave men who fought and died in the First World War, such as Major Ivan Ralston, who was killed in action during the Battle of Amiens (1918). Major Ralston was featured (amongst other soldiers) on a student battlefield tour run by LCMSDS in 2013. Using the documents in his service file, a student delivered a detailed presentation about him at his grave. This is just one example of the many meaningful ways in which these invaluable records on the social and military history of Canada’s soldiers can be used to establish a connection between past and present.
Photograph of Major Ivan Ralston courtesy of Library & Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 4276639.