Cenotaph, London

National Archives publishes thousands of wills written by serving World War One soldiers online

Just days after Remembrance Sunday in the UK and Veterans’ Day in the US the National Archives of Ireland has published thousands of wills from serving World War One soldiers online.

Some 35,000 soldiers from Ireland fought in the trenches of the Great War; most of these servicemen came from the province of Ulster but all four Irish provinces are represented.  As part of the United Kingdom during the war the documents were originally processed in The War Office in London before being transported to Dublin to be stored in the National Archives there, where they remained.

Until today the wills were inaccessible to the public but now, thanks to the Archive’s digitisation process, they are available to view online for free. But not all of the 35,000 soldiers’ wills have been published – only the 9,000 which made it from the fields of Europe to London and on to Dublin have gone online.

The publication of the records follows the archives years’ long effort to publish online much of its documents.  The country’s 1901 and 1911 census records have already been made available.

Many of the soldiers’ will contain the same wording, “I leave all my belongings to my [mother/wife]” but the records do contain some other interesting details, such as the soldiers’ next of kins’ address and personal notes.

Along with the soldiers’ wills the archives has documented the War Office’s record of their rank, regiment, date of death.  Although described as “informal wills” each record comes with the following explanation from the War Office regarding its legality, “The enclosed document [...] appears to have been written or executed by the person named in the margin while he was ‘in actual military service’ within the meaning of the Wills Act, 1837, and have been recognised by the War Department as constituting a valid will.”

The Wills Act of 1837 allows soldiers and mariners with the option to make their wills while on dugy; “Provided always, that any soldier being in actual military service, or any mariner or seaman being at sea, may dispose of his personal estate as he might have done before the making of this Act.”

Currently the National Archives’ site only allows users to search for soldiers by their name, War Office Number/or date, Service Number, or date of death.  Without the latter details the easiest way to research family members’ wills is to input their name and process each document yourself.

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