Soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918

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Introduction

Over 600,000 men and women enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War (1914-1918) as soldiers, nurses and chaplains. The CEF database is an index to those service files, which are held by Library and Archives Canada.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has undertaken the digitization of all service files of CEF members. To be able to perform this major undertaking, LAC will temporarily close portions of the CEF service files, with 75% of the collection remaining open at all times during the project.  You will be able to access the added digitized service files as they become available. At the end of the project, expected in 2015, Canadians will have unprecedented access to this rich resource and will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the more than 650,000 service files for free. For more information on this initiative, please consult the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

The Records

Records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force - First World War

The First World War, fought between 1914 and 1918, was the first of the great world-wide conflicts of the twentieth century, pitting the 'Central Powers' of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and smaller allies against the 'Entente', notably the British Empire, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, the United States, and their allies.

Shortly after the British declaration of war in August 1914, Canada offered an initial contingent of 25,000 for service overseas. A second contingent was offered in the autumn of 1914. The 1st Canadian Division was formed from units of the first contingent in January 1915, and was fighting in France the following month. In September 1915, the Canadian Corps was formed, incorporating the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions, and the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Further contingents and reinforcement drafts continued to be sent overseas. At the time of the Armistice in November 1918, the Canadian Corps had expanded to include four infantry divisions and corps units. Other Canadian units, including some artillery batteries, engineering companies, and railway and forestry troops, served directly under British command in France and Belgium. Still other units, responsible for administrative support, training, forestry and medical care, served in England. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), as the army raised during the First World War was designated, grew in the course of the conflict to 619,636, of whom 424,589 served in Europe.

The Ministry of Militia and Defence (whose records are described by Library and Archives Canada as Record Group [RG] 9), the predecessor of the Department of National Defence today, was responsible for the recruitment, preliminary training and dispatch overseas of recruits for the CEF.

The Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada (whose records are described by Library and Archives Canada as RG 150) was created by an Order-in-Council dated 28 October 1916 (P.C. 2651) to oversee the administration of the CEF. The Ministry functioned as the liaison between the Canadian government and the British government, the War Office and British General Headquarters. It had broad responsibility for all matters connected with the administration of the CEF. Whereas the CEF was placed under the control of the British military authorities for operational purposes, responsibility for all other matters (including finance, logistics, training and reinforcement) fell to the Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada.

With the end of conflict in Europe, the repatriation of the CEF, and the final settlement of financial arrangements with the British, the Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada ceased to exist on 8 June 1920 (P.C. 1705, 26 July 1920).

Attestation Papers and Enlistment Forms

Volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force were questioned at the place of enlistment to complete the two-sided Attestation papers which included the recruit's name and address, next-of-kin, date and place of birth, occupation, previous military service, and distinguishing physical characteristics. Recruits were asked to sign their Attestation papers, indicating their willingness to serve overseas. By contrast, men who were drafted into the CEF under the provisions of the Military Service Act (1917) completed a far simpler one-sided form which included their name, date of recruitment, and compliance with requirements for registration. Officers completed a one-sided form called the Officers' Declaration Paper.

This series consists of approximately 620,000 individual Attestation papers and Military Service Act Enlistment forms. They were completed in triplicate at the time of enrolment in the CEF. At least one copy of the Attestation papers or Enlistment form accompanied the CEF member overseas, where it was placed on the individual service file at the Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada in London.

Paper originals of the Attestation papers and Enlistment forms are described by Library and Archives Canada as RG 9, II B8, Vols. 1-654.

Service Files

The service files of CEF members can consist of up to two or three dozen forms, dealing with enlistment, training, medical and dental history, hospitalization, discipline, pay, medal entitlements and discharge or notification of death. A copy of the Attestation paper or Military Service Act Enlistment form is invariably present on the file, unless the soldier was a deserter or defaulter (failed to report for duty).

Service files indicate the locations of postings in England, but do not provide similar information for theatres of war, such as the Western Front. They indicate only the unit to which the individual was posted. From the start of the First World War, Canadian Expeditionary Force units were required to maintain a daily account of their 'Actions in the Field'. These logs were called War Diaries and they are a historical record of a unit's administration, operations and activities during the First World War. The records have been scanned and can be viewed online in our War Diaries of the First World database (Archived). Records not yet digitized are available on microfilm.

For information about military operations, we suggest that you consult the official history of the Canadian Army in the First World War, entitled Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, by G.W.L. Nicholson (Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1962). This book should be available through your local library.

Paper originals of the service files are described by Library and Archives Canada as RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Boxes 1-10,684. Files for individuals with the names Neils Aabel to Stanley Adair were moved from that accession to permanent volumes. Those references are RG 150, without an accession number, and with volume numbers instead of box numbers.

Some sample documents from a CEF file can be found in our on-line exhibition Canada and the First World War (Archived).

The Database

The database is an index to the service files held by Library and Archives Canada for the soldiers, nurses and chaplains who served with the CEF. Each box of service files holds approximately 50 files, and each service file is contained in an envelope. The individual’s name and service number or rank, if an officer, is written on each envelope. The database was produced by entering the name and number found on the outside of each of the file envelopes.

When the attestation papers and enlistment forms were digitized from the Attestation Registers (RG 9, II B8, volumes 1 to 654), the images were linked to the database entries. There are often variations in how a name was recorded on the attestation paper and on the file envelope, as well as on other documents in the file.

Please note: Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has undertaken the digitization of all service files of CEF members. To be able to perform this major undertaking, LAC will temporarily close portions of the CEF service files, with 75% of the collection remaining open at all times during the project.   You will be able to access the added digitized service files as they become available. At the end of the project, expected in 2015, Canadians will have unprecedented access to this rich resource and will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the more than 650,000 service files for free. For more information on this initiative, please consult the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

Problems identifying the correct file?

If there is more than one entry for the name you are searching in the database and the attestation papers have not yet been scanned, you may not be able to determine the correct file reference. If there are only a few possibilities, we can try to identify the correct reference for you. Please use the Genealogy Inquiry Form to request assistance. Include as many identifying details as possible about the person you are researching.

This database only includes references for those who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. For information about service records for members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Royal Canadian Navy, the British Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Flying Corps and Royal Navy, please consult our First World War page.

Other sources for finding the regimental number:

How to consult a file on-site

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has undertaken the digitization of all service files of CEF members. To be able to perform this major undertaking, LAC will temporarily close portions of the CEF service files, with 75% of the collection remaining open at all times during the project. You will be able to access the added digitized service files as they become available. At the end of the project, expected in 2015, Canadians will have unprecedented access to this rich resource and will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the more than 650,000 service files for free. For more information on this initiative, please consult the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

If the paper document is available, its retrieval will usually take between 24 and 48 hours. Please read our Consultation Rooms page for more information.

If you are doing extensive research in many files, you may wish to hire a freelance researcher to consult the records on your behalf.

How to order a copy of a complete service file

As part of the 100th anniversary commemoration of the First World War, LAC is digitizing the remaining 640,000 Canadian Expeditionary Force members’ personnel service files. To be able to perform this major undertaking, LAC will temporarily close portions of the CEF service files, with 75% of the collection remaining open at all times during the project. At the end of the digitization project, expected in 2015, Canadians will have unprecedented online access to this rich resource and will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the more than 650,000 service files for free. For more information on this initiative, please consult the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files. You will be able to access the added digitized service files as they become available.

Before placing your copy order, please refer to the Fact Sheet for updates to know which portion of the collection is being worked on. Note that 75% of the collection will remain available at all times.

Most Canadian Expeditionary Force service files contain an average of 25 to 75 pages, with those for personnel who were drafted or enlisted later in the war typically having smaller files.

How to Order Copies

Price List and Service Standards

Order Form for Photocopies and Reproductions

Please cite the full archival reference as it appears in the database.

Example:
COOPER, ADAM PORTER
Regimental number: 328870 (or rank if the individual was an officer)
Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1965-1

Please consult the following section, if you are having problems identifying the correct file

Other Resources

Related links to Library and Archives Canada resources: