12 Resources for Researching WWI Overseas Marriages

by Kathleen Brandt | Feb 26, 2014

Kathleen Brandt

Documenting the foreign-natives who married soldiers overseas can be challenging, but these off-shore marriages were quite common during both WWI and WWII. With the demobilization of the American Expeditionary Forces, many brides said goodbye to their war-torn countries making America their new home. Whereas WWII war bride information is easily accessible, researching WWI overseas marriages requires a bit more sleuthing to answer "when and where the marriage took place? How were the foreign nationals transported? And, what did the bride endure during the transitional period?" 

War Brides, Bridal Camps and Bridal Ships

It was reported in the 25 Jun 1919 New York Times article "War Brides Taught American Ways" that at least 10,000 soldiers had married in Europe. US citizenship laws during the WWI era allowed foreign-born wives to become American citizens by marriage. So in addition to the demobilization of troops, AEF policies and procedures to transport "war brides" and their children to the USA were also implemented. New couples were required to complete the necessary paperwork to secure the bride's government sponsored transport to America, leaving the genealogists and descendants a researchable treasure chest of documents.

While awaiting transport on vessels nicknamed Honeymoon or Bridal Ship, war brides were tutored in English, and schooled in the "American Way" at "bridal camps." France held popular seaport bridal camps in abandoned French barracks in Brest, Bordeaux and St. Nazaire. Approximately 6,000 soldiers held Franco-American marriage licenses, to include 2,000 recorded marriages between black soldiers and French women. These European camps, supported by the U.S. Army, U.S. State Department, and even the French government, were staffed by the American Red Cross, YMCA, and YWCA.

Brides of all nationalities, some as young as 14 years old, were transported on ships to America. Icelandic and British women reached France for transport. Italian girls Czechoslovakians, Serbians, Portuguese, Spanish, Norwegian, and Russians wives also arrived at the various European camps to await transport. Even German brides, who soldiers were forbidden to marry without an officers' permission, occupied bridal ships, especially during the Germany occupation (1919) when there was an increase in German - American marriages.

Here are twelve resources for documenting these marriages:

1. Emergency Passport Applications

Each war bride was issued an Emergency Passport prior to U.S. transport. This process was often completed while waiting at the Bridal Camp. Emergency Passports were only valid for six months.

A plus to the Emergency Passport is the veteran's statement. A keen eye will uncover the veteran's overseas military service dates, as well as information as to how long he knew the bride. Researchers will find the following information on Emergency Passport Applications:

  • applicant's date and place of birth
  • permanent U.S. residence
  • place of residence abroad
  • purpose of the application
  • photo of bride

The Index to Emergency Passport Applications for the WWI era may be found on the NARA microfilm publication M1848. Ancestry.com has a collection titled U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, which includes digital images. (See also NARA's article, "Passport Applications.")

2. Veteran Service Records

Soldiers' discharge documents, found in their veteran service records held at National Personnel Record Center, St. Louis, provide the date of demobilization of the solider. This information will lead the researcher to hints to the vessel used to transport the soldier and his troop. When reviewing the 813th Pioneer Infantry it was revealed the troop was transported by the USS Imperator July 1919 which also carried a minimum of 88 war brides and children. For information on reconstructing destroyed discharge documents read "Military Records Were Destroyed? What to Do?"

3. Ship Manifests

Be sure to check the Ellis Island ship manifests. In many cases brides traveled with their husbands to the USA, landing in New York before going to their final destination. Children born overseas were also listed on the manifests. While tracing the SS Cap Finisterre from Brest France, arriving Aug 1919, it was uncovered that of the 557 women passengers, 167 war brides were aboard. Four of the war brides were Russian wives of 339th infantry soldiers. The remaining women on SS Cap Finisterre were nurses and Red Cross and YWCA workers.

In tracing the ship manifest of the SS Chicago, from Bordeaux, on 6 Oct 1919 to New York arriving 18 Oct., a large group of Slovak women and children were aboard alongside the "discharged soldiers." The women were noted as meeting husbands and fathers in the USA. As immigrant soldiers may have become naturalized U.S. citizens while serving in WWI, wives and children residing overseas and holding an Emergency Passport were eligible for post-war transport to the U.S. Visit "Ancestor Citizenship and the Law, Part I" for more information on military naturalization.

4. Permanent Passport

Many of the war brides returned to their home country to visit family. As their Emergency Passports were only valid for six months, researchers may find a permanent passport that provides updated information on the family.

5. Foreign Marriage License

Prior to transporting brides to the USA, the American Consular required an official marriage license to be submitted. A copy of this license may be attached to the bride's passport or naturalization record. The veterans' service record may also hold a copy of his marriage license.

6. NARA - Department of State Records

Many soldiers reported their marriages to local American diplomatic/consular offices. The official forms were forwarded to the Department of State and now housed at the National Archives. Consular Reports of births overseas were also reported. Ancestry.com has a collection U.S., Consular Reports of Marriages, 1910-1949, with digital images. Reviewing this collection is also useful when seeking documentations of non-military personnel married overseas. For more information visit General Records of the Department of State, NARA, Record Group 59.

7. Petition for Naturalization

Many brides came to the USA and quickly divorced their husbands. Researchers should keep a watchful eye for Petition of Naturalizations that may carry the bride's maiden name. Know that naturalization documents most often include information on the overseas marriages even if annulled. Researchers can cross-reference these short marriages using the U.S. Department of Labor Certificate of Arrival dating the original USA passage. This certificate is usually attached to the Petition of Naturalization and mentions the original married name to the WWI soldier.

To begin, research the naturalization collections at the NARA regional facilities. There are also several naturalization collections on Ancestry.com.

8. Federal and Local Court Records

Be sure to review local and federal court records. Over 100 "Vampire Brides" who married up to 12 different soldiers were prosecuted for forgery and bigamy in 1918.

9. Newspapers

Some marriages were long lasting, others annulled. Notices of brides being sent back to Europe may also be found in local newspapers. In a Jul 1919 Madison Capital Time article, three women from St. Nazaire bridal camp were being escorted, by the YWCA worker, back to Europe.

10. NARA Red Cross Central File

The NARA collection titled War Brides - General (file class 618.4) for 1917-1934 located at the NARA in College Park, Maryland is chock-full of useful data and correspondence. This collection is not indexed. 

11. YWCA

A comprehensive set of YWCA microfilmed records covering war work and defense services, from 1870-2002 are held in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, Record Group (RG) 6. The collection includes information on the Hostess Houses sponsored by the U.S. YWCA. These Hostess Houses provided a temporary home in the USA for the brides until they were able to travel to their final destination or meet their spouses.

12. YMCA

A great place to begin research on YMCA war bride support is to review The US in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (page 808) by Cipriano Venzon and Paul L. Miles. 

Additional Resources

Female Ancestor Citizenship Confusion? Part II (information on citizenship)

Entangling Alliances: Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century by Susan Zeiger

War Time Canada: Canadian WWI brides

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