In Their Own Words: Oral Histories as a Research Tool

Major George R Pearkes. Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/

Major George R Pearkes.
Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/

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.

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.

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