“Victory” in World War I

With the absence of U.S. Army service records from the World War I-era, family history researchers are faced with scrambling for other extant records to recreate their ancestor’s military career during the First World War.

One such record that can serve as an effective substitute is the Victory Medal application. Designed as a symbol of the Allies’ unity and common cause, the medal was to be awarded to those who saw active duty in the war. In the United States, this included all officers, men, surgeons, clerks, and nurses who served in the Army, Navy, or Marines from 6 April 1917 until 11 November 1918. Here is an image of the medal’s front:

World War I Victory Medal. Courtesy of "World War I Victory Medal (United States) at Wikipedia.com.

World War I Victory Medal. Courtesy of “World War I Victory Medal (United States)” at Wikipedia.org.

Men who later served in revolutionary Russia, including the “Polar Bears,” were also eligible; battle clasps were worn to indicate participation in the major battles of the war, such as Cambrai, Meuse-Argonne, and Ypres.

According to Christina Schaefer’s outstanding book The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All the World’s Fighting Men and Volunteers, only a few states have available collections of these Victory Medal applications: Georgia, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Michigan.

Housed at the Archives of Michigan, the Michigan records are arranged alphabetically, part of a larger collection of material from the Adjutant General Division of the Michigan Department of Military Affairs. Here is one example:

Bowen, Fred C., Application for Victory Medal (RG 85-78, Box ??), Archives of Michigan.

Bowen, Fred C., Application for Victory Medal (RG 85-78, Series 5, Box 27), Archives of Michigan.

Of note, we can see Bowen’s unit, serial number, his signature, as well as his residence at the time of the application in 1920. More importantly, we can see what major operations he participated in (Aisne-Marne), as well as his exact time spent in the Alsace defensive sector. In short, we get a fantastic glimpse into Bowen’s military service in France, information not readily available in other sources from the era.

Michigan is rich with other World War I-era genealogical resources, including a statewide census of veterans and veterans’ bonus files. The Victory Medal application is just one important piece to the larger puzzle of recreating an ancestor’s World War I military service.

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