WW1 soldiers' wills go online

The last wishes of thousands of soldiers who died during the First World War and were unseen for a century are being made available online. The wills of 230,000 British Empire soldiers have been placed on a new website for the first time.

Thousands of WWI soldiers' wills available online

The last wishes of thousands of soldiers who died during the First World War and were unseen for a century are being made available online.

Boxes of personal letters and wills, written by 230,000 British Empire soldiers before many went over the top, have been opened after years hidden away.

Europe Correspondent Emma Murphy reports from the battlefields on that direct link from the past with some of the men who never came home:

How to search for a WW1 soldier's will

A new digital archive allows users to search the wills of 230,000 British Empire soldiers who died between 1850 and 1986. To do so, you will need:

  • The soldier’s last name and year of death to search for a will
  • To register for the service with an email address
  • To pay £6 to access a will

Searches takes around five minutes and can be accessed here.

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Wills give glimpses into soldiers' minds on brink of war

The digital cache of WW1 wills and letters give genealogists and historians a fleeting glimpse into the minds of soldiers on the brink of warfare.

The will of George Peachment, who died during World War I
The will of George Peachment, who died during World War I Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Most of the documents are brief and businesslike, written on purpose-printed cards that were handed out to soldiers in the days before they were deployed.

One such will, by George Peachment, reads simply: "In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects to my mother".

Some of the soldiers included personal letters, one of which reads: "I dare say this will be the last letter you will receive from me until the war is over, as I am prepared to move to the front at any moment."

An anonymous government official later recorded that the writer,Pte Joseph Witchburn of 2nd Battalion The Durham Light Infantry, died of his wounds on 14 September 1914.

Read: Wills of soldiers killed in First World War go online

Will reveals wishes of Mick Fleetwood's grandfather

One of the wills that has been launched online today belongs to Mick Fleetwood - one of the founders of rock band Fleetwood Mac.

The document describes the last wishes of his grandfather John Fleetwood, who served in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign to capture Istanbul during the Second World War.

The will of Private John Fleetwood, grandfather of Mick Fleetwood
The will of Private John Fleetwood, grandfather of Mick Fleetwood Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

John Fleetwood died of dysentery in a hospital in Malta five days after Christmas 1915.

His will was discovered by leading British historian Jon Cooksey who was given access to the new database before today's website launch.

More: Wills of soldiers killed in First World War go online

'Interesting' emotions revealed in WW1 soldiers' wills

The firm responsible for archiving the First World War soldiers' wills that are going online said they reveal some "quite interesting" emotions.

Iron Mountain commercial director John Apthorpe said:

With 230,000 individuals who died in the war, the emotions [that come through] are quite interesting when you read some of the notes they left.

A lot have straightforward statements, but some of them do have personal letters and touches, and a bit more detail about what's happening.

The wills, classed as official records, were only previously accessible through direct requests.

Archivists painstakingly scanned WWI soldiers' wills

Archivists at specialist record management company Iron Mountain spent five months first indexing and then painstakingly scanning by hand First World War soldiers' wills so they could be put onto a computer and then online.

The work was undertaken under contract from Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which is responsible for the records.

John Apthorpe, commercial director of Iron Mountain, holds the will of George Peachment.
John Apthorpe, commercial director of Iron Mountain, holds the will of George Peachment. Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The wills are held in a secure facility run by the company on the outskirts of Birmingham, while the digital copies are stored in a data centre in Milton Keynes.

In total, the facility houses 41 million wills and probate records dating from 1858.

Read: WW1 soldiers' wills go online

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Wills of soldiers killed in First World War go online

The last wishes of thousands of soldiers who died during the First World War and were unseen for a century are being made available online.

The handwritten wills of 230,000 British Empire soldiers have been placed on a new website allowing families and historians to view them for the first time.

The wills of soldiers who died during the First World War are being made available online.
The wills of soldiers who died during the First World War are being made available online. Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

About 5% of the wills contain a treasure trove of personal letters penned by the soldiers and intended for loved ones back home but which were never posted.

Instead, those letters have lain alongside the writers' wills in row upon row of sealed archive boxes for 100 years, until now.

You can search the archive for wills and letters here