Once the armistice was announced and the men began to return home the gaping holes left in so many communities were never more visible. A generation of young men had been lost and damaged, life would never be the same again. The grief found in this realisation needed an expression and among the most moving displays of this communal emotion were the many Rolls of Honour published in those post war years.

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These published records are separate from the War Memorials most people would be familiar with. Instead of a simple list of names of the dead, these volumes contain biographical details, war records and even photographs. It's not unusual to find photographs of groups of brothers or school friends and the books were not simply concerned with the fallen - they were committed to honouring veterans as well.

What makes the rolls of honour so unique as an information source is that they do not tend to be an official roll call. For the most part, they came about through public subscription and the descriptions they contain were provided by colleagues or family members.

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  • De Ruvignys Roll of Honour started publishing at the beginning of the war with the aim of producing biographies of all Britain's military dead, something that would prove impossible as the war continued and the death toll grew.
  • The largest roll of honour in England is the National Roll of the Great War. Published by the National Publishing Company in 1919. 14 volumes were printed, and while they aren't comprehensive, do cover more than 100,000 names.
  • In Australia, the All Australia Memorial attempted to record the names and regiments of as many ANZACS as possible as well as providing an account of the War from an Australian perspective.
  • Similarly, the South Africa Roll of Honour records the names and ranks of the 11,000 men of South African descent who died during the war.
  • In Ireland, the eight volume Ireland's Memorial Record was published by the Committee of the Irish National War Memorial in 1923, with page borders by renowned illustrator Harry Clarke. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought in the War, many believing that fighting for the British Crown would be rewarded by Home Rule and the Memorial Record records almost 50,000 men of Irish birth or descent who died.
  • Not all rolls of honour aspired to national coverage though. Some of the most poignant records are those published by local newspapers, employers or other interested groups. A record set like the Oldham Pals Roll of Honour or the Birmingham Employers' Roll of Honour, for example, contains the names of War dead from a specific area. Other examples, like the Bank of New South Wales roll of honour, are more specific.
  • Some rolls of honour took a broader approach. The British Jewry Book of Honour recorded the names of 50,000 men and women from the Jewish community who had served in the war in both military and civilian capacities.
  • Meanwhile, while not published as a presentation volume, trade unions also honoured their dead in their regular reports.

The Great War was considered the war to end all wars. In the years that followed 1918 people tried to comprehend the loss of life. From a genealogical perspective rolls of honour can be a unique insight into this period in your ancestor's life, not just those who served but those who stayed at home and mourned.

Read a letter from Ernest Malcolm Smith, who died in action just a few days after writing home