The following notes are offered to help those who are seeking details of an ancestor who served in the British armed services. The approach depends on the period; that for those who served after 1913 (e.g. those who survived and could still be alive) and that for those who served before 1913. The British armed services kept separate records for officers and enlisted men and women. The archives of those records can be held in different places requiring different approaches. You should note that there is some risk that the official archives of more recent service records are incomplete. The originals, particularly of British Army soldiers, were badly damaged by fire and water following a German bombing raid in 1940. Those which survived are often in a poor condition. The earlier records are of varying degrees of completeness and date from an era which was not overly concerned with individuals records and archives. It greatly assists the search for those records if you are able to provide the full names of the serviceman or woman, the date and place of birth, the dates of enlistment and if possible of service and again if possible, the regiment, branch or ship in which they served.
Service after 1913
The records of all who served in the Royal Navy (including Royal Marines), British Army and Royal Air Force are stored in the Ministry of Defence Record Office at Hayes, Middlesex. This includes territorial, volunteer, militia and home-defence forces and some colonial forces. It should be noted that until 1920 (the creation of the Irish Free State) there were several Irish Regiments in the British Army. Those Irish regiments provided many active service battalions in World War I. The Ulster Division which was decimated in the Battle of the Somme included battalions from throughout Ireland. The five Irish Regiments which were raised in what is now the Republic of Ireland were disbanded in 1920 and their colours laid up in the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. The Royal Air Force was not formed until 1918; its predecessors were the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, itself formed from Balloon Companies of the Royal Engineers.
There are several possible sources of information; some apply only to those who were killed in action or died during their service. If your ancestor served in the Royal Navy or British Army during the First World War then his records, if they survive, will still be in the custody of the Ministry of Defence Records Office at Hayes, Middlesex. Those World War 1 records (1914 to 1921) are currently held in The National Archives, Kew. It is reported that up to half of those pre World War 2 records were destroyed when a bomb fell on the Hayes Records Office during the Second World War, and those that survive have been damaged by fire and water. If your ancestor served in the Royal Navy, British Army or Royal Air Force during the Second World War, their records too are in the custody of the Ministry of Defence Records Office at Hayes, Middlesex. Information on the service records of the individual could be obtained by application to:
Ministry of Defence Records Office
Middlesex UB3 1RF
(tel) 44 181 573 3831
They will send you an application form which asks you to provide proof that you are either:
- the person whose records are sought;
- or, if they are deceased, the proof that you are the next of kin of the deceased serviceman or woman (or proof of the permission of the actual next of kin).
You will have to pay a search fee of £15 per person being enquired after. Payment of the search fee does not guarantee a successful result. If the serviceman or woman survived World War 1, then they should be found in the Medal Roll held at The National Archives, Kew. All servicemen were given the British War Medal and Victory Medal; those who served in France or other war zones during 1914 or 1915 also received the 1914 Star or 1914-15 Star. The medal roll gives the unit, service number, theatres of war in which he served, and medals awarded. If your ancestor was killed in the First World War, then his or her name should be found in the Roll of Honour held at The National Archives, Kew - "Soldiers Died in the Great War" - which is arranged by regiment, and by battalion within that regiment. If the individual died in action or in service during World Wars 1 and 2 and the many minor conflicts that the British armed services have been involved in since 1914 it may be possible to learn more of the individual's death and possible place of burial by writing to:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 Marlow Road
Berkshire SL6 7DX
(tel) 44 1628 771208
Provide the fullest details of their names, date and place of birth and if possible date of death. It helps if you can emphasise that you are close kin. They will reply and provide all the information they have, including outline details of his regiment and place of enlistment. Finally, the National Archives website has registers which record the deaths of all those who died while serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Direct Gov website also has registers for births and marriages of members of the armed forces when these occurred during service outside the UK. These registers are for public search. Postal enquiries can only be dealt with if you have the exact reference of the register entry and seek a replica birth, marriage or death certificate.
Royal Navy and Royal Marines
For officers, an initial search can be made in the series of printed Navy Lists which have been printed annually since the mid 18th century. These are available in specialist libraries and in The National Archives, Kew, Admiralty section. The Admiralty was responsible for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines until the Ministry of Defence was created in the 1970s. Admiralty personnel records are held at:
The National Archives
Surrey TW9 4DU
(tel) 44 208 876 3444
under the Group letters ADM. Again these are public search rooms, open between 09.30 and 16.50 Monday to Friday. A Reader's ticket is required for access to the search rooms provided on application on arrival, for which some form of identity (passport, driving licence etc.) is needed. The Admiralty section has different AM record sections for different types of officer's commission, for serving and half-pay (e.g. retired on pension) officers, for ships in commission and shore establishments, and for other ranks (enlisted men).
The War Office which was responsible for the British Army kept no central record of Army officers. Hence you will need to know the regiment in which your ancestor served. A starting point for that search should be the series of Army Lists which have been published almost annually since 1750. The lists are arranged by regiment; before 1867, they are not always indexed. Later lists include details of staff at the War Office and command headquarters. More detail can be obtained from the detailed records relating to officers which are held at The National Archives, Kew under the Group letters WO. There are two main classes of record dealing with officers:
- WO 25 lists of serving (and sometimes retired and half-pay officers);and
- WO76 the regimental records and returns relating to officers.
Details of the returns Records of retired officers are in the classes PMG3 and PMG4. (PMG=Paymaster General).
Soldiers serving before 1913
The main series of personnel records for soldiers are the attestation and discharge papers. These survive for most men who did not die in service and were discharged to pension. These records are held at The National Archives, Kew under the Group letters WO97 arranged by discharge date as follows:
- 1750 to 1872 by regiment;
- 1873 to 1882 alphabetically, by name within groups (e.g. cavalry, artillery, infantry and corps);
- 1883 to 1913 alphabetically by name for the whole army.
There are also pension records held under WO116 and WO117. If the soldier died in service, then the muster rolls and regimental pay lists under WO12 and WO16 may be searched. But these records were not kept until after the mid 1890s.
First World War service medal and honours award lists are kept in class WO 329, but these give little or no personal information. The main source is the "Soldiers' Documents" in class WO 97, which for 1883 to 1913 cover all discharged soldiers and are in alphabetical order. These also give information on wife and children, as well as the usual details of service.
There are also records of pensions awarded for disability, or for length of service, to men leaving the Army up to 1913. If the soldier died during his service, unless he was killed during a campaign (for which casualty records will exist), it can be difficult to trace a soldier since he was not discharged or entitled to a pension. Note: The Family Records Centre does not undertake any research for personal or postal enquirers.
- Army Records for Family Historians by Simon Fowler (PRO Readers' Guide No. 2 £4.75)
- My Ancestor was in the British Army - How can I find out more about him? by Michael J. & Christopher T. Watts published by the Society of Genealogists (London).
- World War I Army Ancestry and More Sources of World War I Army Ancestry by Norman Fowler, published by the Federation of Family History Societies, Birmingham at about £4.00 each.
- Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors by Phil Tomaselli (Pen and Sword, 2007)
- Air Force Records by William Spencer (The National Archives, 2008)
- Tracing Your First World War Ancestors by Simon Fowler (Countryside Books, 2003)
- World War I Army Ancestry by Norman Holding and Iain Swinnerton (Federation of Family History Societies, 4th Edition)
- Tracing Your Naval Ancestors by Bruno Pappalardo (The National Archives, 2003)
- A Guide to Military History on the Internet by Simon Fowler (Pen and Sword, 2007)
- Family History in the Wars by William Spencer (The National Archives, 2007)
- British Military Medals by Peter Duckers (Pen and Sword, 2009)
The Family Records Centre publishes a series of leaflets giving further advice on the search of records and registers. The leaflets are free of charge on application with a stamped addressed envelope (or appropriate International Reply Coupons). The following leaflets are relevant to the British armed services:
- No 3 Operational Records of the Royal Navy 1660 to 1914
- No 5 Records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen e.g. the Merchant Navy)
- No 6 Operational Records of the British Army in the 1914 to 1918 War
- No 7 Operational Records of the British Army during 1939 to 1945
- No 13 Air Records as Sources for Biography and Family History (RAF, the RFC and the RNAS)
- No 16 Operational Records of the Royal Air Force
- No 43 Operational Records of the Royal Navy in the Second World War
- No 49 Operational Records of the Royal Navy in the Great War 1914 to 1919
- No 50 Records of the Royal Air Force in the PRO
- No 59 Sources of Bibliographical Information on Officers and Soldiers in the British Army
The National Archives also provide a series of family Fact Sheets which indicate the location of particular records under specific search categories.
Copyright © David Ramsdale 1997 - 2019
All rights reserved