Mining archives and databases for information on an ancestor requires focus, a methodical approach and an eye for detail. However shaping this raw data into a meaningful story, one that you can pass down to future generations, can benefit from some lateral thinking.
First-hand accounts are an excellent resource even if they weren’t attributed to your ancestor. Letters, memoirs, poems and even sketches referring to a battle, location or unit can provide helpful insights into your ancestor’s experience. Oral histories, recordings of soldiers telling their own stories, are one of the most powerful and often poignant resources to tap into.
One such collection is the Canadian Military Oral History Collection at the University of Victoria. The collection contains nearly 700 interviews* with veterans of WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the War in Afghanistan. The interviews were obtained from a variety of sources, the largest comprising more than 370 interviews conducted by Dr. Reginald H. Roy and his students between 1968 and 1988. Since 2005 the UVIC History Department has offered a Military Oral History Seminar course in conjunction with the Royal United Services Institute of Vancouver Island (RUSI VI), an association of retired military personnel who help to identify veterans to be interviewed.
The UVIC collection includes 39 interviews with veterans of the First World War including individuals who served on the ground, in the air and on the sea.
The topics covered in these interviews are wide-ranging and include stories from infantrymen in the trenches around Ypres, on the Somme and at Vimy Ridge, including some who would become Prisoners of War. Nine were airmen in the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Navel Air Service and two were sailors who served on ships that sailed out of Scapa Flow. There is even one veteran who patrolled the western desert as a member of the Imperial Camel Corps. The interviewees were all Canadian or British-born and the majority began their military careers in Canadian units, although many ended up in Imperial units later in the war. The length of the interviews varies widely, from as little as 20 minutes to an epic interview with Major-General G.R. Pearkes, V.C., C.C., C.B., D.S.O., M.C., C.D. that spans 147 recordings!
Below you’ll find direct links to all the First World War interviews in the University’s Canadian Military Oral History Collection. The UVIC landing page includes an abstract summarizing the topics covered in each interview.
- Atkinson, Glen (16th Battalion)
- Barnes, George Barkley (Royal Canadian Navy)
- Baxter, Thomas (5th Regiment, 10th Battery Canadian Field Artillery)
- Bousfield, William (49th Battalion, 66th Battalion)
- Bradbrooke, Gerard Renvoize (32nd Battalion, 28th Battalion, Canadian Machine Gun Corps, Lord Strathcona Horse)
- Browning, Egbert (British Army)
- Burns, E.L.M. (Royal Canadian Engineers, 3rd Canadian Division Signal Company)
- Cleeton, Alfred Joseph (12th Battalion, 7th Battalion, Prisoner of War)
- Corker, Arthur Donovan (5th Regiment CGA, 88th Victoria Fusiliers, 7th Battalion)
- Dickens, Clennel H (196th Western University Battalion, 21st Battalion, Royal Flying Corps)
- Duke, Lancelot de Saumarez (88th Victoria Fusiliers, Royal Flying Corps)
- Elkington, Eric Henry William (6th Canadian Field Ambulance, Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force)
- Falconer, William Lynn (18th CMR, 6th Battalion, Royal Canadian Dragoons)
- Fall, Joseph Stewart Temple (Royal Naval Air Service)
- Gerrard, Alex (1st Canadian Mounted Rifles)
- Gilbert, William (28th Battalion)
- Goode, Clarence Shirley (Royal Engineers, Royal Flying Corps)
- Hampton, Eli (88th Battalion)
- Henley, Roy E (13th Battalion)
- Hewitt, T.H. (46th Battalion)
- Huth, Merlin (Lord Strathcona’s Horse, Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars, Imperial Camel Corps)
- Jacobs, Alfred George (Lord Strathcona’s Horse)
- James, Cecil (Field Ambulance, 6th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, King Own Royal Lancashire Regiment)
- Jones, Anthony Lidden St. John (4th Battalion, 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment)
- Laurie, William L (Canadian Engineers)
- Lawrence, Edward G (85th Battalion)
- Lynn, Hugh L (Canadian Army Service Corps)
- McGill, William W (Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force)
- McKenzie, James (Canadian Army Medical Corps)
- McMurray, William Hamilton (Canadian Signal Corps)
- Molyneux, R (117th Battalion, 5th Battalion, Major-General Pearkes’ batman)
- Musgrave, Alured P (Royal Navy)
- Pearkes, George Randolph Major-General (147 sound recordings)
- Potts, John T (2/5th South Staffordshire Regiment, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force)
- Reid, Albert W (228th Battalion, 6th Battalion Canadian Railway Troops, Canadian Intelligence Corps)
- Sehl, Thomas (Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force)
- Thomas, Gordon C (67th Western Scots)
- Twidale, Percy (113th Battalion, 16th Battalion)
- Uhlman, J.C. (85th Battalion, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force)
I’d like to extend a special thank you to Major (Rt’d) Gary Del Villano for providing background on both RUSI VI and the Canadian Military Oral History Collection.
* Please note that narrowing your search by “Subject” on the UVIC site does not result in a complete list of First World War veterans. My list was compiled by going through every interview conducted prior to 1990. Should you find a First World War interview not listed here please leave a comment below so that I can update the list. Thank you.
Need help with your research? I provide guidance and customized research assistance to individuals, community groups and institutions!
If you would like to be notified when future Military and Family History articles are published please: