Military Ancestors: Courts Martial Records of the First World War at LAC

When we find a military ancestor, it\’s natural to imagine them doing heroic deeds and ending up with a chest full of medals. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Our ancestors were regular people just like we are, and didn\’t always distinguish themselves in good ways.

Library and Archives Canada has an interesting online database called Courts Marshal of the First World War. These are court records from disciplinary hearings. Not all those charged were found guilty. So even if your ancestor wasn\’t found guilty of the charges you will still see them in here. The paper files themselves no longer exist, so this microfilm collection is the only record left. The database itself does not have digital images. But don\’t get disappointed just yet. By using the information it does have, you can still get to see the file.

First, you want to bring up the main database screen here.

Then, you\’re going to open up a new window, and bring up the search screen here.

As you can see, you can search by Name, Regimental Number, Unit, and/or Offense. Take note that if you are using a name only search, a surname that could also be a given name will show results for both. I used \”Douglas\” a surname from my tree, and got results for soldiers with both their first name or middle name as Douglas as well the Douglas surname.

On your search results, click on the Item Number next to the name. This will take you to a summary screen. Using the results for Douglas, I clicked on J. Douglas, and this is the information it gave me:

Now, it doesn\’t seem like you get much information, but what you are going to do is take a few key pieces of information from here. What you want to look at is first the Offense. It\’s going to be a section number. We\’re lucky here because in the Remarks it tells us that he\’s being charged with desertion. Not all the results have an explanation though. If yours doesn\’t then you\’re going to switch back to that main page window we first opened, and scroll down the page. Here you will find what each number in the offense section means.

The second piece of information you\’re going to look at especially is the Reference section. It gives you all the information you need to go to Library and Archives Canada and see the microfilm. But if you can\’t make the trip to the LAC or hire someone to do it for you, you can still access the microfilm. What you want to do is take note of the military file number and the microfilm number. In the case of J. Douglas, the file number is 649-D-19654, and it\’s on microfilm T-8657.

Now go back to the main page window and scroll all the way down to How to Access the Records. Then click where I\’ve highlighted.

This is going to take you the digitized microfilms on the Heritage website. using LAC\’s link will take you right to the microfilm collection.

Click on the reel you want. For J. Douglas, we want T-8657. This is where the fiddling begins. These microfilms are not searchable by keyword, so you\’re going to have to jump around a bit to find the file number you want. We\’re looking for file 649-D-19654. Go through the first couple images of the reel to find a page that looks like this:

In the top left will be the case number. Looking at the first one in the reel will give you an idea of how much you have to jump ahead in the reel to find what you\’re looking for. Each case starts with this image, so you\’ll want to find this image to get to the start of the file you\’re looking for. As you can see, I had quite a bit of jumping ahead and around to find 19654.

Depending on the seriousness of the charge, you may be looking at a very large file. In the images are handwritten statements, and typed transcripts of the trial. You\’ll have the decision of the court, and the sentence if found guilty. There are also images of the exhibits entered into evidence, names of the witnesses and the court personnel. If your ancestor appealed his decision, documentation for the appeal may be there as well. It\’s fascinating reading.

You can save the image for each page by right clicking over the image, and selecting \”save image as..\”. This will allow you to save it to your computer. For very large case files, it will be tedious. But it will still be quicker than trying to transcribe. There is so much information, you\’ll never be able to absorb it all in one sitting. As well, the microfilming done at the time didn\’t always result in nice clear images. It may take some adjusting on your part to make out everything clearly.

And what happened to J. Douglas? Well according to his case file, he was supposed to have returned from leave in London, England on 19 October, 1917. He did not return, and it wasn\’t until 5 February 1918 that he was apprehended. He was declared Not Guilty of Desertion, but Guilty of being Absent Without Leave. He was scheduled to 1 Year Jail Hard Labour.

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