Prior to the Second Boer War in South Africa, October 1899 until May 1902, the names of individual servicemen were seldom reported Senior officers would be mentioned in the news media, but individual soldiers seldom were named. For Britain, this was the longest, the most expensive and the bloodiest conflict between 1815 and 1914. And, because many British soldiers and sailors were from Dominions and colonies all over the empire, it was hard to track individuals from a particular village or county.
Steve Morse provides the answers to some Common Questions regarding World War One:
For basic education in Military records, read Rootsweb Guide No.13 - Military Records (Worldwide).
To see what life was like in a military camp, visit the Eden Camp Museum of WWII at Malton, Yorkshire.
The Society Of Genealogists (SoG) has a publication for the beginner: "My Ancestor was in the British Army", by Michael J. Watts and Christopher T. Watts, ISBN 0 946789 47 9.
The Public Record Office (PRO) has a similar quide: "Army Records for Family Historians" by Simon Fowler and William Spencer, published by the PRO, price £7.99.
The National Archives has downloadable narratives on the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine.
Although the Royal Army and the Royal Navy go back many centuries, the Royal Air Force was not established until 1918, so many of its records are still protected under Privacy Acts.
All Army births and baptisms for the period 1761 to 1924 are covered by the nine black and red volumes of indexes in the public search rooms at St Catherine's House (Army Births and Baptisms, AB 91).
According to Iain Kerr, the British armed services personnel records for those serving in 1914 up to 1921 are currently being released from the Ministry of Defence to the Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, United Kingdom; (Telephone: General Enquiries, ++44 (020) 8876 3444; Records Information, ++44 (020) 8392 5200; Fax: ++44 (020) 8878 8905). There they are being microfilmed to occupy a number of new archives. This is a major project that is forecast to take a number of years to complete from the start of the work in 1997. The original documents cannot be viewed due to their fragile condition.
For records not released to the PRO, contact the Ministry of Defence, Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 1RF, United Kingdom.
The records are available in the PRO microfilm reading room as follows:
You should note that there is some risk that the official archives of more recent British Army personnel records are incomplete. It is reported that up to half of the original pre-World War II British Army soldier's personal records were badly damaged by fire and water following a 1940 German bombing raid on the Hayes Record Office during World War II. Those that survived are often incomplete and in a poor condition.
During World War One, the Volunteer Training Corps was also known as the Volunteer Force. The Imperial War Museum tells us that this Corps, was the equivalent of the Home Guard of World War Two. This unit was officially known as "The Royal Defence Corps", formed in 1917 and disbanded in 1936. At its height, it consisted of 18 battalions. No service records are known to exist and no campaign medal was given for home service. The museum has officer lists for 1917 and 1918.
The Home Guard of World War Two was offically the "Local Defence Volunteers." They were formed in 1940.
Theoretically, all Next of Kin received a brass commemorative disk in WW1, after their loss. These can sometimes be found in local museums.
Rank shouldn't be an issue in your search. Men sometimes inflated their rank to the folks back home, or parents would tell people their son was a higher rank than he had obtained, just to make the boy look better in the neighbor's eyes.
Men sometimes held "brevet" ranks, which were temporary assignments which might last for a battle or a campaign, then could be recinded. The "brevet" assignments were often a recognition of the man's leadership skills, but were less hassle for his officers than giving him a medal or a special promotion. Enlisted men were sometimes called "major" or "captain" because of their bearing and mannerisms, not because they actually had the rank.
It has been known for men to be commissioned in the field. A Bombardier being the equivalent of a Corporal. Otherwise he would have gone to OTU - Officer Training Unit. A large number joined as Private soldiers and then ended up as officers. Junior officers tended to get themselves killed before they had time to learn to keep their heads down. The London Gazette online should have his gazetting details and may mention that he was a Bomb before. As an officer his records should be at Kew.
The vast majority of British Military records are held at the Public Record Office in Kew, Surrey, and many are available on microfilm through the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or can be ordered at one of its 1,500+ branch libraries worldwide. Historically, an army's members are on two levels; officers and enlisted men. This division continues in the record keeping of biographical data, and much more detail is typically available for officers than for "the ranks". Most of the records for the British military are arranged on regimental lines, so the usual starting point is to determine in which regiment(s) did your ancestors serve. If you are unsure in which regiment your officer/ancester served, a good place to begin is with the Army Lists.
One of the simplist records to access are the Medal Index cards (WO 372). These are on micofilm and are in alphabetical order. This will provide full name, rank, and regimental number. Then, if he was a WW1 veteran, try the World War 1 Medal Rolls (WO 329). This should give you the unit he served in and service number, which wars were served in and also the medals received.
To access the online PRO Army Discharge records, go to the site: Public Record Office. From the search option - enter the surname you are interested in and in the third box type in WO using capital letters. This should bring up all the war records held for that surname. You can try narrowing the search by typing WO 97 or WO 121 in box 3. If fortune is smiling on you and you find a reference, there should be details of the regiment he served in, his age at discharge, where he was born and the range of years covering the volume in which his discharge was recorded. You do not get to see the actual records online - this is only an index at this point in time.
All service records for 1760-1854 are in Class WO97 at the PRO.
For anyone wanting a Military Researcher to help them and can't get to the PRO, check this site: Public Record Searches.
Army Lists: The first official Army List was published in 1740, and they were published annually from 1754 through 1878, then quarterly from 1879 through 1922. Since 1939 they have been classified and not available to the public. Earlier commisions can be traced using Charles Daltons' English Army Lists and Commision Registers, 1661-1714 and his George I's Army, 1714-1727. The Army Lists begin with a list of the officers by rank, generals through lieutenants, giving their name and the date they received their commision. Following this the officers and their assignments are shown by regiment, beginning with the cavalry and following in order through the regiments of foot. The regiment listings include the number and name (or names) of the regiment, the names and ranks of the officers, and the dates of their commisions in the Army and their assignment to that regiment. Beginning in 1766 these Army Lists are indexed, and begining in 1798 they include the location of the regiment at that time. These Army Lists are available at the Public Record Office (in War Office (W.O.) files 64, 65 and 66), or at the LDS Family History Library.
Regimental Records of Service: Once the regimental assignment has been established, the Records of Officers' Services (W.O. 76) can be searched for data on your ancestor. The earliest of these regimental records begins in 1771, the last ending in 1919. These files are arranged by regiment, alphabetically indexed in the front of each volume. After the index come lists of succession for the offices in the regiment, giving the name of the officer, the exact date of his appointment, his age in months and years at the time of his appointment, his country of origin, and the date of his first commision in the Army. Also available is the name of the officer he replaced and why, and remarks on the officer. This section is followed by the Statements of Sevice for each of the officers. This is the heart of the officers' service file. Although the contents of each file varies from regiment to regiment, they generally contain more information as time goes on. The Statement of Service from volume 61, for the Surrey (70th) Regiment of Foot, covers two pages and contains: his full name at the top, his birth date and place, regimental assignment, and his age at the time of his entrance to the Army. Information on the ranks he attained, pay, regimental assignments, instances of distinguished service, medals, wounds, and foreign service are all provided in some detail. One section of the Statement form is devoted to the details of his marriage, and the names and birth data of the officer's legitimate children. Certificates of birth, marriage and death for both officers and members of their families can also be found in War Office file number 42.
Enlisted Men's Service Records: The key to locating the record of an enlisted man is the name of his regiment. Occasionally the regiment is known from the outset, but often the only facts known about an ancestor's service are when and where he served. Still, it is possible to pin down the one regiment, or a handful of regiments that were in service in that particular place and time. There are several books devoted to the subject of the regiments and corps of the British Army, but the genealogist may find particularly useful these three books discussing the history and accoutrements of the British regiments: "The Regimental Records of the British Army", by John S. Farmer, contains information on the names and nicknames of the regiments, their uniforms and badges, dates of formation, honors attained by the troops, and lists of their principal campaigns and battles. "A Guide to the Regiments and Corps of the British Army", by J.M. Breton, includes much of the same information, although the information on battles and campaigns is less. Closer to Farmer's volume is Arthur Swinson's, "A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army", which is organized by precedence of the corps, beginning with the cavalry regiments and proceeding through the foot guards and regiments of foot. The regimental listings include both the formal titles and nicknames borne by the regiment, a chronological list of the major campaigns and battles fought, and a short history of the regiment.
To locate the proper regiment, you begin with what is known. This could be the fact that he took part in a certain battle, or wore a certain type of uniform, or belonged to a regiment with a certain nickname. For example, The Lincolnshire Regiment was known for a period as the "Yellow Bellies" because of their uniform of the period. Go through the regimental listings looking for one (or more) that conform to the the facts as you understand them. For example, if your ancestor was posted to Gibraltar in the early part of the eighteenth century, he may have served in the 30th (or Cambridge) Foot Regiment. This regiment was stationed on Gibraltar during 1704 and 1705, and at the time was known as Colonel Thomas Sanders Regiment of Marines. Nicknames included The Triple X's and The Three Tens, both of which were obviously based on the number of the regiment. Once you have determined the regiment in which your ancestor served, you will want to search two sets of records; the Muster Rolls and the Regimental Description Books.
Muster Rolls: The Muster Rolls are lists which were compiled quarterly, and arranged in volumes covering a single year. The first entry in these rolls for each soldier should indicate his age, while the last entry should show his birthplace, non-military occupation, and the date of his enlistment. There are several series of these Muster Rolls, bearing War Office (W.O.) numbers 10 through 16. The three most comprehensive are; W.O. 10, containing Muster Rolls for the artillery for 1708-1878, W.O. 11, Muster Rolls for engineers for 1816-1878, and W.O. 12, the general series, with Muster Rolls for the cavalry, foot guards and regiments of foot for 1732-1878. Regimental Description Books: The Regimental Description and Succession Books (W.O. 25) are available at the Public Record Office in Surrey, with microfilm copies being available at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or at one of Family History Centres.
Pension Records: Three of the main record types available at the PRO are the Chelsea Regimental Registers (War Office file 120), the records of Soldiers Discharged Through Chelsea Hospital (W.O.97), and the Applications for Pensions for Widows and Children [of officers], 1755-1908 (W.O. 42). Like the other records concerning British Army personnel in the earlypart of the nineteenth century, the pension records are organized along regimental lines.
Burial Records: All the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records are accesible on line. This site contains information on the burials of British Commonwealth war dead world-wide.
There is a CD-ROM available which has information on 99% of Army casualties during the Great War only. Its a good idea to search this before searching the CWGC. The CD-ROM costs about £250.00, so ask your local library if they have a copy or can get it on inter-library loan. Most big libraries in the UK have a copy.
Be sure to check GENUKI's Military Records list.
Rootsweb hosts several Military Mailing lists, in List or Digest mode.
Another mailing list, hosted by Yahoo Groups, focuses on British Military Regiments, including those of the Indian Army and Royal Marines. Questions about a unit's history, movements, heritage, practices and regalia are most welcome and encouraged. It is not a genealogical reference site.
There is a website that has photographs of WW1 sites in France and Belgium. Please feel free to copy (save) any of the photos on the site for your own use.
And there is the WW1 Ypres and Arras photographs website, maintained by Steve Morse.
If your ancestor was in a paratroop unit and died in France, E-mail Bern and Fay Robins who have photographs of most of the UK Parachute Regiment War Graves in France and are happy to send a copy of one to anyone having an interest.
Another resource, if you are researching relatives who served in the military since 1914, is the Imperial War Museum.
A database at Genuki provides a list of officers and men at British Ships at Trafalgar under Admiral Lord Nelson.
Another database worth searching for men who served in the Land Forces of Britain, The Empire and The Commonwealth. You can use it to look at uniforms to compare to the one your grandfather is wearing in an old photograph.
Many Brits fought and served in units involved in the American Civil War.
Individual regiments often have their own museums, although few have an online presence. Many of these have muster roles and other lists, photographs and history publications that might assist you. Check the list of Army Museums.
For example, if your ancestor was a military engineer, they might be able to help you at the Royal Engineers Museum.
And don't forget that wonderful resource Cyndi's List and select "Military".
The Family History Library has a copy of the 630 page book "A Guide to the Sources of British Military History", edited by Robin Higham, London, c1972, call no. 942 M2h.
Another useful reference is "The British Army: Its History, Tradition and Records," by Iain SWINNERTON (Pub: Federation of Family History Societies, 1996, Reprinted 1998). ISBN: 1 86006 031 5.
Another place to check is the Ministry of Defense site: Veterans Agency for services to war disablement pensioners, war widow(er)s, their dependants and carers and other veterans.
Don't overlook the Maritime Memorials site if your ancestors served at sea. The memorial database contains records of over 4000 church, cemetery and public memorials to seafarers and victims of maritime disasters.
You might want to check out "Our Children's Work for the Navy", from The Lady's World, c.1916.
Out Pensioner records are at Kew - WO 116/1-124, 186-251, covers 1715-1913 - Admission books.
Kew also has Regimental Registers and Pension Returns.
Patrick Geriepy in America is putting together a Biographical Index for the Gallipoli Campaign.
"My goal is to include as much information as I possibly can about each person. I am also trying to locate photographs of each man and first hand accounts of their deaths. I am trying to include the following details about each person: Name Date and place of birth Service number and Service Unit and or Regiment Date and placement of enlistment Names of parents (to include mothers maiden name, father's occupation and address in 1915) Name of spouse (to include maiden name, date and place of marriage and address in 1915) Names and birth dates of children Education Occupation Date and place of death: Circumstances of death: place of burial Location of photograph (even if I cannot reproduce it) Personal details and anecdotes (physical description, personality, interests, aspirations and interesting experiences)."
Last updated on 19-April-2015
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