Behind the fading picture of a soldier

Ninety years ago the men marched off to a war which many expected to be over by Christmas. It wasn’t, and some were at war for four years before they came home — others never did come home and, after all these years, the very large majority are now just a fading picture of a man in a uniform.


Norfolk County Records Office

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Imperial War Museum

National Archives

Norfolk Regimental Museum


The September issue of Norfolk Roots magazine has features on the vanished battalion of Sandringham, and the words of a survivor of two wartime fiascos. Over the next few issues we will be looking at various aspects of the First World War.

But inside every uniform is a story — whether it is that of a grandfather, or an uncle or great-uncle, or a cousin.

Norfolk made an immense contribution, and paid a heavy sacrifice, during the First World War, 1914-1918. By the end of the war nearly 12,000 Norfolk men had died which, based on the 1911 census, was one man killed or missing for every nine men aged 18 to41.

St Barnabas parish in Norwich had the highest number of deaths at 171 — one in 42 of the population compared to a national average of one in 57.

So how do you go about finding out who they are and what story they had to tell?

In many ways it is not much different to tracking down any other relative and you need to start with what you know.

Details which will aid the search:

  • Army unit (regiment or corps)
  • Date signed up and date of discharge or death
  • Where served (Western Front, Gallipoli etc)
  • It would help if you also had his regimental number; details of any injuries and details of any medals.

One of the best ways to start (other than documentation) can be with a photograph. A cap badge or belt buckle can identify a regiment. The first thing to do is to check if it is the Norfolk Regiment. A visit to the regimental museum at Shire Hall in Norwich could help (you can access it through the Castle Museum).

The picture can also give clues as to medals (ribbons or the medals themselves worn over the heart), and even rank (stripes for NCOs and even badges such as axes for a pioneer.

Your local record office (Norwich County Records office) will also have material on the First World War and may have something on your forebear.

This will not be a straightforward task as the material may not be directly classified under the name of your subject.

But sifting through material on the First World War in a local county office can give you a greater feel for the situation in the first place.

Direct service details will be held at the National Archives in London and also at the Imperial War Museum.

Before you really start on the trail it could be worthwhile checking some of the background to the war and the main theatres of war.

There are plenty of books available at local libraries and in bookshops.

A search on the web will also bring up a great deal of information and you will need to sift it carefully.

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