Reference Question Form | Military History Research Centre | Research and Collections | Learn (2024)

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Reference Question Form

The Military History Research Centre (MHRC) can assist you with questions about Canadian military history. We often answer questions about the military service of a family member; assist in identifying a medal, uniform or equipment; or provide information about a military event or location.

Please note that we cannot do extensive research. Our service is intended to assist individuals with their own research. We aim to direct people to the information they are seeking and to answer short, factual questions.

The Museum receives hundreds of research requests each year. We aim to respond within four weeks. However, response times will vary depending on the nature of the question.

Please submit your questions online. This allows us to gather relevant information from you, do more thorough research, and provide answers that may include links, images and attachments.

Before submitting a question, please consult the Military History FAQs below, which has answers to our most frequently asked questions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Service person-related questions

I am researching a service person, where do I start?

We recommend starting with our research guides, which explain the process of researching service personnel in the First and Second World Wars. A good place to start is to access an individual’s service file, also known as a personnel file. These are usually held by Library and Archives Canada. This is the official file created to record a service person’s military career (see related questions below). The file can provide significant information, including the unit(s) in which they served, medical information, and other forms of official correspondence.

When we refer to a person’s “unit,” we are referring generally to what may be their regiment, battalion, ship, squadron or hospital. Knowing the unit(s) in which someone served can help trace their movements and postings during the war. With this information, there are several research avenues you can take. For example, a researcher wanting to learn more about an individual’s experiences in a specific unit may use this information to seek published or unpublished letters from other members of that unit in libraries and archives. Somebody planning to visit Europe to trace a family member’s movements should first check for a unit history. We suggest looking for books on the unit, battle, or theatre of war as a good start and to provide context. Our research guides provide a number of entry points that often lead to new sources and research questions.

I am looking for a service or personnel file, can you help?

Service files — sometimes also called personnel files — may be in different places depending on the time period and military branch (for example, land, sea, air, or home front). Because official records were created by the government, most — but not all — Canadian service files are held by Library and Archives Canada. However, there are exceptions. Veterans Affairs Canada keeps some information on those that served with the Merchant Navy. Service records of First World War airmen are held by the National Archives in the United Kingdom, while First World War service files of those who served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the Newfoundland Forestry Companies are held by The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Please see our research guides for more information.

How do I find out what unit someone served in?

*We use the term “unit” as a general term for a regiment, battalion, ship, squadron, hospital, etc.

Is there somebody in your family who may know the unit in which an individual served? Do you have any documents or objects related to that person’s service (for example, a pay book, discharge certificate, flight log, cap badge, or uniform? If not, the next best place to look is often the person’s service file (see related question above). The documents in this file will list an individual’s unit and their transfer between units. Without a service file, finding a unit is more difficult but still possible with research.

There are different places where you might find this information, but most start with knowing the individual’s branch of service (for example, the Army, Navy, or Air Force) and possibly the closest regional military unit or base where your family member may have enlisted. With that information, we suggest checking the nominal rolls of those units or bases. Nominal rolls can be found as official government nominal rolls through Library and Archives Canada, and are sometimes also in published regimental histories, local regimental museums, local archives, or on regimental websites. Aside from the official First World War nominal rolls with Library and Archives Canada, nominal rolls from other eras and conflicts may be harder to find. Newspaper articles sometimes featured stories or letters from service personnel, and they can also include unit names.

How do I find out the circ*mstances of an individual’s injury or death?

This level of detail can be difficult to achieve when researching an individual. Quite often, the details were not preserved, or they are scant and administrative. In other cases, they were never known because of the circ*mstances of death, especially if an individual was missing in action. Some details can be learned from a service file, but it is more likely that the file may only note the nature of the injury or cause of death, such as a gunshot wound but not the detailed circ*mstances surrounding the incident.

Similar information on deaths can be found in Death Registers. Library and Archives Canada holds some First World War Death Registers, as well as Second World War graves registers, which may also hold some information. Sometimes, details might also be found in other places, including in published regimental histories, newspapers, letters and diaries of comrades in arms, and, in rare cases, an official unit war diary (Army) or operations record book (Air Force). These were the official records maintained by units, and they can include details such as personnel movements, casualties, and reports on actions. Library and Archives Canada holds these records for Canadian units.

How do I research the circ*mstances of a “Mentioned in Dispatches,” medal, or commendation?

Medals were usually awarded in recognition of acts of gallantry or for length of service. In the world wars, many of the gallantry awards were accompanied by short descriptions. These were often published in The Gazette (London) and/or the Canada Gazette, and they can sometimes be found in Library and Archives Canada records, including the database of Military medals, honours and awards, 1812–1969. The Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage maintains a database of Canadian Army Overseas Honours and Awards (1939–45), while the Royal Canadian Air Force Association has a searchable list of honours and awards. Local newspapers might also have published stories about the reasons for an individual’s award.

There are also specialist books devoted to Canadians who received awards such as the Victoria Cross, Military Cross, Military Medal, and the Meritorious Service Medal. Veterans Affairs Canada has lists and descriptions of Canadian Medals and Decorations, including the criteria for awarding them.

For “Mentioned in Dispatches,” other than the relevant names and dates, it is unlikely that the circ*mstances that warranted the award were preserved in records. However, there are some sources that are still worth checking. We suggest looking at the official war diaries (Library and Archives Canada), regimental histories, newspapers (especially local ones, if they exist), and archived memoirs, letters and diaries of fellow service personnel.

I have a service file, but I don’t understand the writing and abbreviations. How can I decipher this information?

Service files, war diaries, letters, and other historical records can contain many acronyms and terms that are difficult to understand. There are sources that can be used to help decode military acronyms and terminology. Library and Archives Canada has a page on acronyms and abbreviations used in service files. Additionally, some books will have appendices with military terminology and acronyms. These can be especially helpful for understanding the different branches, military trades, and historical conflicts. Furthermore, for example, if your grandfather participated in North Atlantic convoys during the Second World War, consult a book on the Battle of the Atlantic. There are also dedicated online military history and genealogy websites that can provide guidance.

I have a service file, but it doesn’t say much. How do I learn more about an individual’s experience?

Service files are typically administrative and provide only basic information about a person’s service, posting, wounds and benefits. They can be frustrating, but they are the place to start for deeper research. For example, a service file will not highlight that your great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge; however, it will list the Canadian Expeditionary Force battalion in which he served, and you can then determine whether that battalion fought at Vimy. Research is usually about moving from one clue to the next. Here’s another example: Service files contain medical records, which may note that your great-grandfather was wounded on April 9, 1917 — the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge — which is further evidence that he likely served there.

Use the service file in conjunction with regimental histories, war diaries, official histories, regimental museums and websites, regimental magazines, and even online personal interest sites to help complete the picture.

Object-related questions

I have an object and/or archival material (documents, photographs and film) that I would like to donate. Who should I contact?

Please refer to our page on donating objects and/or archival material for all information related to the donation process.

How do I identify an object?

We recommend beginning with our Search the Collection online artifact and archives catalogue. Start your search using a term such as “bayonet,” then use the “Available Online” toggle under “Refine Results” to access all available images of bayonets.

If you do not find what you are looking for, try a broader online search. There are two ways to do this: either search using descriptive terms or start with the suspected country of origin and/or event. For example, if you have a bayonet, you could try searching by describing it, such as “double edge bayonet, brass and wood handle” or by the country/event, such as “Canadian bayonets Second World War.” Keep in mind that events may have different names, as in the case of the First World War, which may also be referred to as the Great War, World War One, or WWI. Most web browsers allow you to browse by image (for example, Google Images or Bing Images).

Published works are another excellent resource for specialized research into military objects and artifacts. The Canadian War Museum’s Military History Research Centre (MHRC) has many published resources that can be searched using our online library catalogue, some of which may also be found in a library close to you. You can also visit the MHRC in person to consult library resources by making an appointment. If you cannot visit in person, some material may also be available for interlibrary loan by requesting a book through your local library.

What is the value of my object?

The Canadian War Museum does not appraise objects, nor can we provide names of appraisers. If you are seeking the monetary value of your object, we suggest looking for militaria appraisers in your area and/or contacting auction houses and antique sellers for comparable objects and prices. For archival materials, the National Archival Appraisal Board, the Canadian Personal Property Appraisers Group, or the International Society for Appraisers could help you find an appraiser.

I have an object (such as a bayonet, rifle or helmet) that has makers’ marks or other markings. How do I find out what these marks mean?

Official-issue military objects often have marks on them that identify a period of use or date of issue. Online resources or specialized publications can provide more detail about the marks and their meanings.

Please see our question on identifying an object.

The Military History Research Centre (MHRC) has many object-related resources that can be searched using our online library catalogue, some of which may also be held at a library close to you. You can visit the MHRC in person to consult library resources by making an appointment. If you cannot visit in person, some material may also be available for interlibrary loan by requesting a book through your local library.

I have a medal set (or object) and would like to identify the descendants of its original owner so that I can return it to the family. Is there a way to do this?

The Canadian War Museum cannot help you identify living descendants, nor can it give out contact information. This type of inquiry is challenging. For example, it may be easy to identify who a medal set belonged to if a name and service number are engraved on it, but finding descendants may be difficult depending on how much information is publicly available. In other cases, identifying the original owner may be more challenging. For example, you may have a helmet with a battalion number and initials, only to find out that several people with the same initials, in the same battalion, participated in that battle. Each artifact is unique.

Please see our question on identifying an object to first determine what object you have. We then suggest looking at our questions on researching service personnel to identify the person. Lastly, you can search for descendants using resources such as genealogical websites, obituaries, city directories, and social media.

Can you tell me where my object came from? For example, “Why did my grandfather have a German medal?”

We cannot determine details of why somebody may have an object because this is too difficult to determine without eyewitness testimony or a personal account of why someone had an object and how it came to be in their possession. The object may have been acquired during military operations, given to them by a friend, or simply purchased.

Can you tell me how to preserve my object?

Preservation is dependent on the object in question, its current condition, and where it will be stored or displayed. We cannot provide specific advice on your particular object. However, online resources are available. We recommend the Canadian Conservation Institute’s resources on Care of objects and collections. You may also wish to hire a professional. The Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property and the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators are good resources.

In what order should medals be mounted?

Please see Veterans Affairs Canada’s web page, The Mounting and Wearing of Decorations, Campaign Stars and Medals, for more information.

Where can I get medals mounted?

The Canadian War Museum cannot give references for medal mounting. We recommend searching for local medal-mounting services.

Where can I get new ribbons or a new mounting bar for medals?

Veterans Affairs Canada can provide new ribbons or a new mounting bar at no cost.

Submit Your Research Question

Copyright and Reproduction

We thank you for your interest in the Canadian War Museum and Canadian Museum of History collections. If you wish to obtain a reproduction and / or permission to use material from the collections, please complete and submit this form.

Copyright and Reproduction Form

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