Library and Archives Canada to Digitize 640,000 First World War Service Files

As part of the commemoration of the centennial of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) announced in its News section that it is undertaking the digitization of 640,000 personnel service files of the First World War’s Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) members with a view to ensuring the long-term preservation of these frail paper documents.

Transferred to LAC about 20 years ago, CEF service files represent LAC’s most heavily consulted collection. A victim of its own success, the high number of transactions to which the collection has been subjected is putting strains on the mostly paper-based documents and is hastening their deterioration.

Many readers who have had the opportunity to hold these precious historical documents in their hands in recent years will certainly remember how some of the sheets are beginning to crumble. If LAC does not undertake action to preserve these files now, they are at risk. Once lost, they are lost forever.

To be able to perform this important undertaking, LAC will temporarily close portions of the service files. The first quarter, beginning with the letter A through D, will be closed as of March 2014 and will be available on-line as of Summer 2014.

While 75% of the collections will always be open, LAC will not be able to accept requests to consult documents in person, nor take orders for copies for a period of up to 4 months on the portion of the collection being digitized.

The files to be digitized will complement the approximately 13,500 service files and the more than 620,000 attestation papers already available on LAC’s website. At the end of the project, expected in 2015, Canadians will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the 640,000 newly digitized service files from the comfort of their own home and will no longer have to pay reprography fees.

LAC is pleased to contribute to the Commemorative Initiatives of the Government of Canada to honour the contributions and sacrifices made by Canadian men and women during the First World War. We wish to recognize Public Works and Government Services Canada’s support in this endeavour.

LAC appreciates your understanding and patience during the course of this extensive project.

For more information on this initiative, please consult the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples in the First World War (1914–1918)

Aboriginal peoples have a long tradition of military service in Canada dating back several centuries. Although not legally required to participate in the war, an estimated 4,000 Status Indians, and an unrecorded number of Métis and Inuit enlisted voluntarily and served with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

Almost all of the young men on many reserves enlisted for service. For example, approximately half of the eligible Mi’kmaq and Maliseet from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia volunteered for overseas duty. In other provinces, the number was even higher. In the small Saskatchewan community of File Hills, nearly all of the eligible men signed up to fight.

Postcard image of Aboriginal men from File Hills, Saskatchewan, who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force

A number of Aboriginal men who served in the CEF became snipers or scouts. Private Henry Norwest, a Métis from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, was one of the most famous snipers. Another proficient sniper was Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from Parry Island Band, near Parry Sound, Ontario. Three-time recipient of the British Military Medal and two bars, Corporal Pegahmagabow was the most highly decorated Aboriginal soldier of the First World War. Lieutenant Cameron D. Brant, from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, enlisted only three days after the Germans declared war on August 4, 1914. He died from poisonous gas during the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915. Another Aboriginal man who served in the war was Olympic runner Tom Longboat, also from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve.

Aboriginal women also made great sacrifices and played significant roles working behind the battle scenes. Nurse Edith Anderson, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, joined the Army Nurse Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces, and worked at an American hospital base in Vittel, France. Most of her work involved caring for patients who had been shot or gassed.

The exact number of Aboriginal soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War is not known. It is estimated that at least 300 men were killed during battles or died from illness, such as tuberculosis.

Five Heritage Films on Canada at War now on YouTube

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has released the last set of heritage films on its YouTube channel. Easy to access, you can now enjoy the following short films:

You can see our previous announcements on Snapshots of Canadian Life, Scenic Canada, and Agriculture and Industry.

You can also find archived versions of the films on the Virtual Silver Screen page.

Hidden Treasures – Winnie the bear

Discovering hidden treasures in our institution’s vast collection of archival material is one of the exciting benefits of researching at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Recently, two previously undescribed photographs of the bear mascot Winnie, the famous Canadian inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, were found and made available online.

A reference technician from LAC was searching for First World War photographs taken in March 1915 of the 15th Canadian Battalion in the trenches of Neuve-Chapelle, France. The technician consulted the usual sources (online database, onsite Finding Aids, and contact cards from the Department of National Defence photographic collection) and found a description of a possible and unexpected item in the personal collection of Horace Brown.

The photographs from this collection were retrieved from storage; some of them were very small and difficult to view. One seemed to be of a soldier wearing a very odd hat. Further investigation with the aid of a lighted magnifying glass revealed the “soldier” was actually a bear cub and the curious headgear was its ears! A second image of the bear cub was also identified in the collection. A bit of sleuth work revealed that Horace Brown, a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, had been stationed at Salisbury Plain, England during October and November 1914, at the same time as Lieutenant Harry Colebourn with his mascot, Winnie.

Although many photographs exist of the famous bear in the Manitoba Archives and private collections, these were the first ones to be identified in LAC’s holdings. The images may now be viewed by all Winnie the bear (and Winnie-the-Pooh) fans here and here on our website.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear - Salisbury Plain.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear – Salisbury Plain. (Source)

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear - Salisbury Plain.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear – Salisbury Plain. (Source)

Battle of Vimy Ridge – April 9 to 12, 1917

For Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge brings to mind the joint effort of all of the Canadian units that fought together for the first time to achieve victory. In a way, it was our very first national military victory, and, as such, a tremendous source of pride.

In spring 1917, Allied Command tasked Canadians with the difficult mission of taking Vimy Ridge and driving back the Germans, who had controlled it almost continuously since the beginning of the First World War.

Barrage map [cartographic material]: [Vimy Ridge region, France]

Barrage map [cartographic material]: [Vimy Ridge region, France] (source)

The Canadian officers spent weeks developing their tactical attack down to the last detail. The soldiers rehearsed their attack behind the lines using a model to represent the battlefield so they would be familiar with the terrain where they would be fighting. The role of the artillery was also meticulously planned in preparation for its famous “creeping barrage,” an artillery bombardment that pressed forward against the enemy at a timed pace as a curtain of fire ahead of the advancing troops.

29th Infantry Battalion advancing into “No Man’s Land” through German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

29th Infantry Battalion advancing into “No Man’s Land” through German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (source)

The attack that ignited the Battle of Vimy Ridge was launched on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, at 5:30 a.m. Four Canadian divisions overran the German positions, with three achieving their primary objectives in less than an hour. The highly-trained men were able to advance rapidly, thanks to the formidably effective heavy artillery fire. Nevertheless, the Germans offered fierce resistance: it took four days of heavy combat for the Canadians to finally seize full control of the famed Vimy Ridge.

The battle claimed the lives of 3,598 Canadian soldiers, with over 7,000 more wounded.

(W.W. I – 1914-1918) As the Canadians advanced, parties of Huns left their dug-outs, only too glad to surrender – Vimy Ridge. April 1917.

(W.W. I – 1914-1918) As the Canadians advanced, parties of Huns left their dug-outs, only too glad to surrender – Vimy Ridge. April 1917. (source)

Visit our Flickr album for more photographs.

The Home Children (part three) — Harold Mornington

The second article in this series of three explains how to find information about one of the British home children, Edward Brignall, who served in the Canadian Armed Forces during the First World War. This third article looks at another home child, Harold Mornington, who served in the British Army in the Second World War.

As with Edward Brignall, the process begins with a search of our main online resource on Home Children. Entering the family name Mornington and the given name Harold into the database yields a single reference; it indicates that Harold was 14 years old when he left Liverpool on March 11, 1932 aboard the SS Montclare, and arrived in Halifax on March 19, 1932. He was part of the last group of 36 children sent to Canada by the Barnardo agency.

The passenger lists from 1925 to 1935 have been digitized and can be consulted online. The digital image of the list of passengers aboard the SS Montclare can be examined as well, which confirms the information found in the home children database. It also contains other information, such as the name and address of Harold’s mother, Mrs. Mornington, who lived at 16 Orlando Street, in Caldmore, Walsall, England. More information about Harold Mornington’s family history can be found by contacting the Barnardo’s Family History Service.

Beginning in the 1920s, immigration inspectors drafted Juvenile Inspection Reports when conducting periodic evaluations of children brought to Canada by different agencies. These files are available only on microfilm. A search on reel T-15424 shows that between 1932 and 1936, Harold Mornington worked for five different employers in the Ontario districts of Durham, Brant, Oxford and Hastings.

A reference found on the site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals that sometime between 1936 and the beginning of the Second World War, Harold Mornington returned to England. He joined the British Army and died on May 23, 1941, while still a member of the Royal Artillery. He was the son of William Joseph and Elizabeth Mornington.

Lastly, Harold Mornington’s military service record is kept at The National Archives in the United Kingdom.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

Home Children (Part II)—Edward Brignall

Today’s article is on Edward Brignall, born in England on January 11, 1898; you will learn how to obtain information on him.

The first step is to search by entering the surname Brignall in our main online resource on home children. You will notice that no results are displayed; this could be explained by the fact that in those days many surnames were transcribed phonetically.

The next step is to use the wildcard character *. We suggest that you enter Brign* in the surname field.

This search opens an item display for Edward Brignell, 10 years of age, who arrived in Canada on the SS Dominion on May 31, 1908, in the care of the Barnardo
charitable organization. Edward was part of a group of 109 girls and 219 boys. This information agrees with what we know.

The passenger lists from 1865 to 1922 have been digitized and you may consult them using our database Passenger Lists, 1865–1922. You may even examine a digitized image of the SS Dominion passenger list. Further information on Edward’s family background may be obtained by contacting the organization Barnardo’s Family History Service.

Several young English immigrants who settled in Canada served in the Canadian and British forces during both world wars; such is the case of Edward Brignall. To trace him, first search in our database Soldiers of the First World War. Just enter Brignall in
the surname field. This search generates five results, only one with the given name Edward:

Regimental number(s): 922715
Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1068 – 36
Date of Birth: 11/01/1898

You may consult his attestation paper online to confirm his date of birth, find out
where he lived (i.e., 75 Bennerman Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba), and learn that his next of kin, his sister, Alice Brignall, resided in Leeds, England. By consulting his record, we learn that Edward died before leaving for Europe. Also available online are the death cards of First World War veterans; Edward’s shows that he died of pneumonia on January 23, 1917, at the Winnipeg General Hospital just a few months after he enlisted.

It is also possible to search the database of the Canadian Virtual War Memorial. There
we learn that Edward was the son of Edward and Dorothy Lever Brignall, of Leeds, England, and that he was buried at the Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Finally, remember to consult the first part of this series, entitled Home Children—Introduction.

Happy hunting!

Questions or comments?
We would love to hear from you!

Animals in War (1914–1918)

Colour poster depicting countryside combat, with a horse-drawn tank and soldiers fleeing from the cannonade.

During the First World War, the terrain on the front lines was often muddy and without paved roads, which made it difficult to use motor vehicles. This is why armies relied on a wide array of beasts of burden, including horses. These animals were used primarily by cavalry troops, but they also served to haul cannons, ammunition and food, as well as to pull non-motorized ambulances. Horses were ever-present in the theatre of operations.In September 1914, the first contingent of troops to leave Canada for England loaded up 7,636 horses! Although they belonged to the cavalry units, most of the horses were purchased by the Canadian government from private owners to meet army needs. Hundreds of thousands of additional horses were subsequently sent to the front lines. By the end of the war, the army had lost eight million horses in combat.

Other animals were also used by the army during the First World War. Mules, donkeys and cattle primarily transported materials, ammunition and food. In eastern regions, such as Egypt, camels were also used.

The terrain—continually bombarded in some areas or very mountainous in others—made it difficult to communicate, so winged or furry messengers were called
in. There were even special units responsible for maintaining a flock of carrier pigeons, ready to be sent with messages tied to their legs. Dogs were also used as messengers.

Colour sketch of a brown dog sitting.

Colour sketch of a brown dog sitting. Source

The Canadian Army had a Veterinary Corps at the time, with blacksmith and farrier units who all saw to the care of work animals. During the conflict, veterinary hospitals and mobile veterinary units were created behind the front lines to treat animals and make sure they were well fed.
At all times, animals were alongside soldiers on the front as companions in misfortune. From the very beginning, military mascots have served to represent the group who adopted them. Even members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had mascots during the First World War, as shown in the following image.

Group of soldiers around a goat wearing a cape with insignia.

Mascot of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion, August 1916. Source

Visit our Flickr album for more photographs.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

From Enlistment to Burial Records: The Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War

Each year, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) receives countless questions on how to locate military services files, such as:

  • How do I find out more about a soldier (or a nursing sister) in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF)?
  • When and where did he enlist?
  • How old did the soldier say he was? (Many underage soldiers gave an earlier year of birth when they enlisted)

A great place to begin your research is on our Genealogy and Family History’s Military pages.

To help guide you through the process, our experts have put together the following explanations.

Attestation papers

Also known as “enlistment” documents, these records indicate the date and place of birth, the marital status and the name and address of the next of kin.

The Soldiers of the First World War database contains references to more than 600,000 people who served during that conflict. Most of the corresponding attestation (enlistment) papers can be viewed online, including those of the Nursing Sisters.

To learn more, consult our article “Canadians and the First World War: Discover our Collection”.

Service files

These records contain key documents such as record of service, casualty form, discharge certificate and medal card. It also provides the name or number of
the unit in which the individual served overseas.

Find more information in our articles “What You Will Find in a Canadian Military Service File” and “Understand the Abbreviations Commonly Found in Military Service Files”.

War diaries

The War Diaries are a daily account and historical record of a unit’s administration, operations and activities.

Consult the War Graves page for information on the burial location of a
soldier who was killed in action.

If the soldier survived the war, the Veterans Death Cards give information such as the next of kin, burial location and date of death. The digitized images, which are in alphabetical order, can be navigated in sequential order.

For the soldier who was decorated, a nominal index to medal registers, citation cards and records of various military awards provides further information on many soldiers’ achievements.

Our article “ War Diaries: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war” can also guide you with your research.

Published histories

For an easy-to-read overview of the unit’s activities, we recommend starting with “published histories.” These books are often called “regimental histories” and our article 
Published Histories: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war
” will give you more information.

Thematic guides

The Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
lists references to records and files that complement the research in First World War records. This thematic guide further describes the contribution of most units in the CEF.

Other past articles of interest this Remembrance Day:

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

Anniversary of the participation of military tanks in combat

Tanks first appeared for military use in September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelettein France. The First World War was at a pivotal point, since the Battle of the Somme had begun a few months earlier.

Developed in great secrecy over a number of years, the tanks did not, in general, inspire confidence from military authorities of the time. However, their trial in combat conditions in 1916 revealed their true potential. Well-known officers, such as American George S. Patton, were firm believers in the role of the tank; Patton was one of the first officers to command an armoured unit.

Tanks were heavy, slow, loud and could be easily located by the cloud of black smoke they spewed behind them. The first models were made of wood with metal frames; a full metal structure was quickly adopted, since it was fire resistant and shellproof.

The period between the two World Wars saw some major improvements to the tanks. When the Second World War began in 1939, the usefulness of tanks was no longer in doubt. Tanks became a common feature of any army. In 1941, Canada produced its first tank, the Cruiser, and its production continued during the entire conflict.

Canadian armoured units used numerous tank models during the Second World War, such as the Sherman, an American model.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

Summary of comments received in French up to September 30th, 2013

  • A user asked when and where the Canadian tanks were used. LAC answered that the Canadian tank « Cruise » also called « Ram » was used for the training of Allied Forces in England from 1941 until mid-1944. This tank was not used for combat during the Second World War.