Canadian Historic Sources for the First World War

Marcelle Cinq-Mars

When Canada entered the war in 1914, an entire administrative system was set up to manage the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), as the Canadian soldiers sent to fight in Europe were known. An army’s effectiveness relies to a great extent on the management of its troops and equipment, and their availability must be known at all times.

To maintain this vital control over troop movements, a number of administrative measures were implemented. Battalions were given movement orders, and they noted their activities in a war diary. As for the troops—both officers and regular soldiers—everything that concerned them individually was recorded in a personal military file.

Official Sources for Battalions

The establishment of battalions and the appointment, assignment and promotion of officers were announced in the General Orders. These official government documents also contained the army regulations and any amendments.

At the individual battalion level, various types of administrative documents were kept. Everything mentioned in the General Orders regarding a battalion’s officers (promotions, decorations and transfers) was reported in the Daily Orders, Part II, by the staff of each battalion. The arrivals and departures of soldiers to and from the battalion were recorded, as well, along with information on leave, discipline and promotions.

Another administrative record kept by the staff of the battalion was the war diary. Each battalion had to note its daily activities, such as movements, training and, of course, military operations in which it took part, in the war diary. Battalions also sometimes recorded the number of dead and wounded for the day and any leave granted to officers. The war diaries are an invaluable source of information on the activities of the battalions. They can be read online on the Library and Archives Canada site (


At the start of the Great War, in 1914, the Canadian army was still considered part of the colonial forces of the British Empire. This meant that the names of Canadian army officers were included in the yearly compilation of officers established by the British War Office. These voluminous documents, called the Army Lists, constituted the official reference for army officers. They contained such information as rank, assignment to a regiment or battalion, and commission date (i.e., date rank obtained) on all the officers in the forces of the British Empire. Some archival centres, including Library and Archives Canada, have copies of the Army Lists.


When a soldier enrolled in the CEF, he had to sign an enrolment record, which was a type of contract. On this record the officer in charge of enrolment wrote the soldier’s surname, given names, place of birth and occupation. Details about his physical appearance, such as height, eye colour, hair colour and any distinguishing marks (scars or tattoos), were also noted.

The soldier was then assigned a service number. This unique number served to identify the soldier throughout his army career. The enrolment records of the members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force can be accessed online on the Library and Archives Canada site (

The service numbers assigned to soldiers were used by the authorities to draw up embarkation lists. Since the troops of the CEF were to be sent to Europe to fight, the name of each soldier had to appear on the embarkation list of the ship that was to transport him across the Atlantic. These lists, drawn up for each battalion, noted the service number, surname, given name and rank of each soldier.

Service numbers were also used by the military authorities to establish their pay lists, on which they recorded the pay history of each soldier throughout his service.

Records of Members of Canadian Expeditionary Force

Active Militia Discharge CertificateA soldier’s enrolment record and pay record were kept in his military file, which also contained his medical records, tracking the care the soldier received, whether for illness or wounds. This military file would also include his demobilization certificate if he had left the army. It mentioned his service record as a soldier and the reason for his demobilization (injury or simply because the war was over).

These military records are some of the most important sources of information on the soldiers who made up the Canadian Expeditionary Force. A copy of a record can be obtained by submitting a request to Library and Archives Canada (

Other Sources

First World War Book of Remembrance - Cover Page Library and Archives Canada also has hundreds of photographs taken during the Great War (1914–18), many of which can be viewed online on its Web site, in the section.

Another source of information is the London Gazette, the English daily that used to publish the official announcements of the British government. During the First World War, it was the chief source of information on military promotions and decorations. Still a going concern, the London Gazette has now made available online the issues it published during the war. An online search engine can be used to find information on CEF members. The site can be accessed on the Internet at

The Canadian Veterans’ Web site also offers a wealth of information and useful links. For instance, from the site you can consult the Canadian Virtual War Memorial, which contains information about the graves and memorials of more than 116,000 Canadians who died in combat. The Books of Remembrance, containing the names of all Canadian war dead, can also be searched on the Veterans Affairs Canada site at

As the Canadian army was still considered to be part of the British colonial forces during the First World War, a common register of military cemeteries is kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The list can be viewed on the Commission’s Web site at

Personal Documents

Many soldiers who fought in the Great War brought back with them personal diaries they had kept during the war, letters and even photographs. Many of these documents are now conserved in Canadian archival centres, such as Library and Archives Canada, various provincial archives and numerous private archives. These personal documents are invaluable sources of information on the daily life of soldiers during the war.

Marcelle Cinq-Mars

Since earning a master’s degree in history at Université Laval in 1990, Marcelle Cinq-Mars has been involved in many history research projects on subjects such as the Seven Years’ War and the Loyalists as well as a teacher’s kit on New France. In 2002 she completed a certificate in archival studies at Université Laval and became an archivist at the Royal 22nd Regiment Museum at the Citadel in Quebec City.