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Documenting Doughboys

American Expeditionary Forces Casualty [Death] Lists

By Constance Potter

"From the above figures the daily average to be reported was as follows: Killed in action, 69; died of wounds, 69; died of disease, 122; severely wounded, 752."
-- The Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1918, on the accounting of U.S. casualties to the War Department by General John Pershing

The Adjutant General’s Office in the War Department created casualty lists of those who died in the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) in World War I. The lists, dated November 6, 1920, do not include the names of men who were wounded and did not die of their wounds. The lists also do not include those who served in the Navy or the Marines although men assigned to the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments in the 2nd A.E.F. Division are listed.U.S. soldier in barbed wireDead U.S. soldier in WWI barbed wire

The causes of death are:

  • KIA—Killed in Action
  • DOW—Died of Wounds
  • D or O.C.—Disease or other causes. The list does not specify the disease or other cause, which can included suicide, accidents, drowning, and air accidents.
  • U—Unknown

There are three lists: by state, by division, and by organization for those units not attached to a division (non-divisional units).

Read more: American Expeditionary Forces Casualty [Death] Lists

Graves Registration Card Registers, 1917-22

By Constance Potter

"A careful record was kept of the location of each grave."-- General John J. Pershing

JudsonCapt. Judson, Infantry, has just located [the] grave of his brother through records of G.R.S., Sergy, Aisne, France. (RG 111, SC 36174)During the Civil War, the War Department first developed procedures to identify and bury the dead, both Confederate and Union. Before that men were buried by their comrades where they died, and the War Department kept few records of the burials. In the Spanish-American War in 1898, the first foreign war following the Civil War, the War Department expanded these procedures to include the return of the bodies of the men who died overseas to be buried in either a U.S. or private cemetery.

The need to identify, and rebury, the bodies increased with U.S. entry into WWI on April 6, 1917. On August 7, War Department Order 104 authorized the organization of a Graves Registration Service (GRS). The first GRS units reached France in October.

The individual combat units, not the GRS, had the responsibility of burying the dead as soon as possible, sometimes in nearby shell holes. Most of the men killed in battle were buried within 24 hours although it sometimes could take a week or longer. Battlefield conditions made immediate and proper burial difficult after troops advanced, but the burial parties took great care to mark the graves properly.

Read more: Graves Registration Card Registers, 1917-22

Army Officer Commission Records

By Constance Potter

"Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way."-- George S. Patton, Jr.

The Records of the Adjutant General, 1917 to ____ (Record Group 407) hold several series of records about individual participation in the Army during World War I. Among them are the records of Commission of Officers in the Regular Army, National Guard, and Officer Reserve Corps, 1917 to 1940 (Entry 415A). This piece focuses on Harry S. Truman, who served with a Missouri National Guard unit, and Col. Harold E. Potter, who was appointed from the Officers’ Reserve Corps.

The forms vary slightly over time, but generally include:

  • The officer’s full name
  • Rank
  • Date of rank and commission
  • Home address, which may just be the town and state
  • Contact person

The records also include a remarks section and discharge information that gives the officer’s rank, corps, date of discharge, and place of discharge. Because these are records of officers, there are no serial or service numbers for World War I service.

Read more: Army Officer Commission Records

World War I Army Service Numbers

By Constance Potter

"There is a price which is too great to pay for peace, and that price can be put in one word. One cannot pay the price of self-respect."-- President Woodrow Wilson, 1917

Before 1918, members of the United States Army did not have service numbers. Beginning in February 1918 enlisted men only had service numbers; officers did not. When the United States entered WWI there were only about 30,000 men in the Regular Army. Before February 1918, men were tracked by rosters and muster rolls. 

Beginning with the enlistment of the National Army in 1918, the only way to track the four million service members was through a system of service numbers.

Next article: Army Officer Commission records


Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.

Coast Guard Enlistments April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918

USCG WW1 Recruiting Poster

By Constance Potter

"It is well to consider the advantages of a coast guard from a strictly military standpoint."-- Representative William C. Adamson of Georgia, 1915

Among the records of the Coast Guard (Records of the United States Coast Guard [USCG], Record Group 26) are two files that list men were in the Coast Guard from April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918. Both lists are in entry 82A, General Correspondence, 1910-41, Correspondence, 1910-35, 701. Compliments. One list is by state and the other alphabetically by the first letter of the last name.

The State-by-State Lists

The state list, the more complete of the two, lists the men by name only. It lists the men by the state of their home address (which may be found on the alphabetical list), not the state from which they enlisted. The names are in general alphabetical order by the first letter of the last name. There appear to be no enlistments from Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, or the territories of Alaska or Hawaii.USCG records state by state list

Read more: Coast Guard Enlistments April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918

Marine Corps Muster Rolls tell stories of service

By Constance Potter

"The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle."-- General John Pershing, U.S. Army

Private Kelly receives Medal of HonorPrivate John J Kelly, USMC, receiving the Medal of Honor from General Pershing, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces. Although the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO, did not destroy Marine Corps records, knowing the date of enlistment can help when requesting copies of the records from the National Archives at St. Louis. Marine Corps muster rolls for World War I, part of the Records of the United States Marine Corps (Record Group 127) held by the National Archives and Records Administration, give the date of enlistment. Copies of the muster rolls are available at Ancestry.com (1). Scanned from microfilm, not the original records, some pages may be fuzzy.

A muster roll, taken every month or two, lists who is present or absent on the date of the muster. The records are organized by year, month, and then by duty station. The muster is then organized by rank and name of the Marine in alphabetical order. For each Marine, the muster roll also gives the date of enlistment or reenlistment and there may also be notes in the comments column. This column may show why the Marine is absent including whether sick or in the hospital, date of transfer to or from another duty station including detached service, and when and where the person mustered out of the Marine Corps. The comments column also lists promotions and demotions.

Read more: Marine Corps Muster Rolls

Researching at the National Archives

By Constance Potter

"There is properly no history, only biography." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

NARA researchers 500Researchers at NARA in Washington, DC.One of the best places to start your research into records relating to service in World War I is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which holds the permanently valuable records of the Federal government. Many people rely solely on subscription-based websites such as Ancestry.com and Fold3, and free websites such as Family Search. While these websites provide access to useful records such as Federal census records, passenger arrival records, and many records relating to wars from the American Revolution to World War I, not all Federal, state, and local records have been digitized.

NARA seattle mNARA facility in Seattle, WA.Conducting research at a large national institution such as NARA can seem daunting. The National Archives, with headquarters in the Washington D.C. area, has facilities across the country.NARA DCNARA in Washington, DC

The National Archives in Washington, DC, holds census, immigration, public land, and Bureau of Indian Affairs records plus Army records from the American Revolution and up to approximately 1912, and Navy records up to December 1941.

Read more: Researching at the National Archives

The 1973 Fire at NPRC St. Louis and WWI Service Records

By Constance Potter

"In terms of size and impact--the number of records destroyed and the number of persons affected--none of the earlier fires equaled the disaster of July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center." -- Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker, writing in The American Archivist, Volume 37, Number 4

220px NARAfireOn July 12, 1973, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, suffered a massive fire that destroyed approximately 16-18 million official military personnel records, one-third of the records. Among the records destroyed were 80% of U.S. Army personnel discharged November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960, which includes those for World War I.

Read more: A Fire in St. Louis in 1973

Getting started with WWI genealogical research

By Constance Potter

"Retreat? Hell, we just got here!" -- U.S. Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams at Lucy-le-Bocage on June 1, 1918.

WWI diaryResearching the military service of your family members in World War I can appear to be a daunting challenge at first.  In 1973 a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO, destroyed most of the Army service records for the years that included service in World War I. Despite the destruction of those records, there are alternative records that can provide information about service during the Great War. Many of these records are held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

This is the first of a series of articles that will describe many of those records and help you find the information you want on your World War I service member.

But just as soldiers go to training before they go to fight, your search for records will be more skillful and efficient if you do some basic things before marching off to start your search.

Read more: Genealogy Column: Getting Started Documenting Your Doughboy

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