Researching Your Military Ancestors
A number of posters on the ARRSE main site ask about biographical research; how to research family and trace service records for their ancestors in the British Army, Navy and Air Force. You might visit The UK National Archives (TNA) first, and the ARRSEpedia also has a large and informative Military Genealogy category. This reliable Wiki page will take you through the early stages of your research. Even if available records and information are scant: don't give up. There are still multiple avenues to explore.
In England and Wales you should be able (especially if there are unusual surnames in your family) to trace your family roots back to 1837 (when national birth, marriage and death registration began). Going back before 1837 usually requires the use of parish or religious registers in local archives, but with luck and other types of records, you might still trace your family back to the late 16th century.
Getting Records and More Information from Official Sources
- Because over half of all British soldiers' service records were destroyed in WW2, there is a roughly 40% chance of finding the service record of a soldier who was discharged from service or killed at some time between 1914 and 1920. Find out more at The Great War website.
- For lost WWI service records: The WWI Silver War Badge (SWB) may be the only remaining evidence of First World War service if a person's service records have been lost or destroyed.
- Civilians including women served alongside enlisted military service personnel in major conflicts; they (and their awards, medals and so forth, if claimed) can be searched in the same way. The UK National Archives (TNA) do not hold army service records for the Second World War or later – they are still with the Ministry of Defence.
- It should still be possible to trace and confirm that an individual served in the First World War because the medals and awards records were not damaged by enemy bombing in the Second World War (source).
- The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) honours the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars.
- If your ancestor was a (British or Commonwealth) WWI or WWII casualty in any of the Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy, you are encouraged to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website online, and search their databases. Also see the Arrsepedia CWGC page.
- Births, marriages and deaths (BMD) records are not held by The National Archives, but they tell you where to order certificates of British citizens (including the armed forces) in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
- Records of army officers were kept in Army Lists as early as 1702. These lists named the officer, their regiment, usually the date they received their current commission, and when they retired.
- The first official Army list was published in 1740 and since 1754 they have been published regularly as annual lists (1754-1879) and quarterly lists (1879-1922). Since 1939 they have been classified and not available to the public.
- There are over 217,000 British Army officers‘ service records for the First World War held by The National Archives; many other documents were destroyed or badly damaged (fortunately, most medals records survived). Some service records are still held by the Ministry of Defence.
- The Gazette is the UK’s official public record, and is comprised of three publications: The London Gazette (published every weekday), The Belfast Gazette (published on Fridays) and The Edinburgh Gazette (published on Tuesdays and Fridays).
- Gazette military and civilian notices from the Boer War to WWII can be searched online at thegazette.co.uk, whether they originated in Belfast, Edinburgh or London Gazettes.
- TNA online offer a brief guide to researching British army records for soldiers discharged after the beginning of the First World War.
- Digitised records, diaries, and records for all military and civilian services can be searched at the UK National Archives.
- There is a UK National Archives guide to records of deaths of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women in the First and Second World Wars. It will also be useful in researching civilian casualties.
Before You Start
Dates of birth and full names married with unique service numbers are primary aids in military genealogy. Original documents, medals and badges (inscribed and/or numbered), birth certificates, photographs, personal diaries and reliable evidence of service, are all valuable aids to military ancestor research. Collate as much evidence as possible, and also ask family members for reliable information.
Data Protection and European Directives
Carrying out thorough initial research will make your task much easier. Implications: also be aware that storing, processing, sharing or posting information publicly on Internet forums, on social media or otherwise, may compromise living relatives and/or sensitive information. In short, be careful not to breach European data protection directives and privacy laws which also cover family genealogy. Some genealogy websites have closed following recent regulations.
UK and Ireland National Archives and GENUK Military Records
The National Archives of England, Wales and the United Kingdom holds the most comprehensive and important collection of official documentary records, for all services, and much more. Relating to Britain's involvement in wars and within thematically arranged sections: the GENUK website has systematically listed and explained a wealth of records. Go to UK and Ireland: Military Records.
The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) at Kew is the place to start. Visit their website for information.The NA have some useful online guides to researching your ancestors, and a military section in their bookshop. There are some useful works on tracing your ancestors through military records.
NA Bookshop, Military; that link also has some other publications you might enjoy. The Battlefront series, containing a guide and facsimile historical documents are particularly good.
It may be worth looking at catalogues and indexes at The National Archives of Scotland (on-line); some years ago, the NAS merged with the General Register Office for Scotland to become the National Records of Scotland (NRS).The website lists First World War websites and information about army, navy and Royal Air Force records and museums as well as battles and battlefields, rolls of honour and memorials, prisoners of war and regiments. Go to Useful Websites - Military.
Before you ask ARRSE questions about finding a soldier's service record or medal index card: search the ARRSE forums to avoid repetitive queries, or visit "How to research a WWI soldier" at The Long, Long Trail website. The answers are probably there, so try to help yourself first.
Ultimately, a paid subscription will often be necessary with one or more of the major genealogy websites (£). Ask your local Library, or join one of the helpful (free) forums such as the Great War Forum or RootsChat for other periods.
The ARRSEpedia Family Research and Medal Rolls pages contain more in-depth and more specific information. The Arrsepedia genealogy (or family history) pages, constructed by subject matter experts, form one of the most comprehensive and useful military genealogy databases on the internet. The UK National Archives also provides a wide range of research guides including military, civilian, maritime, and miscellaneous archives.
It is possible to trace your ancestor from birth to enlistment, marriage and death, their service records and medal card. You may be able to identify an ancestor's service medal(s), decoration(s) or other award(s) by studying online medal encyclopedias, forums and Ministry of Defence Medal Office guides. Otherwise, you could consult an expert or an informed collector.
You can apply to government (£) for the military service records of someone who’s deceased (as well as your own records), but you must be eligible, for example if you’re ex-service or an immediate next of kin, or you’re a third party with permission. In this Wiki you will find information on searching records for all the armed forces, Territorials, auxiliaries and also civilians.
The official line: the MOD is the custodian of the records of service personnel and Home Guard records until they are opened to general public access at the National Archives. Access is restricted and full records are usually only released to proven next of kin. Only very basic information about deceased service personnel will be released to other enquirers (third parties). Enquire to the UK Government for more information on the records they hold.
Slightly more detail is made available 25 years after the date of death, but in any case: service records may not provide all the information which some researchers expect, therefore Regimental or Unit War Diaries held at the National Archives may be of more use. Records include WWI and WWII.
There is a Genealogy and Archives Websites A-Z with useful tips for beginners, on the Arrsepedia. You will inevitably come across rules and should endeavour to uphold ethical standards, as well as principles of good practice. Three very important principles are: confidentiality and privacy, use of original (primary) sources and records, and acknowledgement and attribution of research done by others.
- The comprehensive Guide to Family Research page includes the major online genealogy subscription sites (inter alia: Ancestry, FindMyPast, Forces War Records). These hold service records, medals data, and medal rolls, transferred from the UK National Archives (TNA).
- The GENUK website lists reading materials, leaflets and databases appertaining to military records.
- Over half of WWI soldiers' service records were destroyed by enemy bombing during 1940. If an ancestor's service records have been lost or destroyed, then the WWI Silver War Badge (SWB) may be the only evidence of First World War service. Sometimes, the individual has a separate SWB index card.
- If you get stuck with a WWI enquiry or you prefer that others do all the work at their expense, ask nicely on the Great War Forum and members may be able to assist you with salient information. For help with Great War soldiers go to https://www.greatwarforum.org/forum/1-soldiers/.
- For the British Army: other ranks who served after 1920, officers who served after 1922 including those who served during the Second World War, and members of the Home Guard: service records are held by the Army Historical Disclosures Team.
- You can request access to personal data and service records; fees are currently (in 2018) £30 and there may be a lengthy wait for this service.
Researching Medals and Awards to Armed Services and Civilians
- Armed Forces personnel have long been able to apply for medals, where eligible. See the Gov.UK page for more information. Guidance on the medals awarded to serving members of the armed forces, veterans and MOD employees, and who can receive them, can be found at Gov.UK.
- Campaign medals or war medals (before WW2) were awarded to members of the armed services and eligible civilians, for taking part in a campaign or for service in time of war. Find out more at the UK National Archives (UKNA) "British military campaign and service medals".
- "It is Ministry of Defence policy to not issue medal replacements for service before 1920, irrespective of entitlement" (UKNA). You may be able to obtain duplicate medals from a coin or medal dealer,
- For replacement of medals issued for service after 1920 contact the Ministry of Defence Medal Office. For all other research on WW2, start with the National Archives Second World War online resources.
The British Army medal index cards 1914-1920 are index cards compiled by the Army Medal Office, from some 5,000,000 hand-written cards, towards the end of the First World War. Put simply, they record the medals that men and women who served in the First World War were entitled to claim. Medal Index Cards are an important source of information. Your ancestor's card will give his or her name, rank(s), number(s) and regiment or corps. Many soldiers served in more than one unit during the war.
Deciphering British Army Medal Index Cards and Codes 1914-1920
The 1914-1920 medal index cards contain codes and abbreviations which can be utterly confusing. There is a guide to interpreting a medal index card's references, abbreviations and codes, at The Long, Long Trail website.
- Medal Index Cards were used to look up an individual's Medal Roll, and a lot of other useful information was recorded on a card.
- The Great War website deals with British WW1 Medal Records 1914-1920. The information recording every individual and their eligibility for a campaign medal and gallantry award are contained in the Medal Rolls.
- The National Archives website has a useful page of abbreviations for WWI medal cards and ranks, at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/british-army-medal-index-cards-1914-1920/.
- There are also tables of abbreviations for ranks and for units.
- Robert Clark's website could help with deciphering Medal Index Cards and Medal Rolls; go to What Are Medal Index Cards.
Service records for the Second World War
- Service records for the Second World War and 1920-present are held by the Ministry of Defence; visit the Gov UK website. Service records are transferred from the Ministry of Defence to The National Archives at the point that the majority of the subjects of the record have passed their 100th birthday.
- The UK National Archives has a page of information about Second World War records, British army unit war diaries (1939-1945), most armed forces, and general war records, at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/second-world-war/.
- There are useful guides to researching WW2 soldiers (officers and other ranks) at http://www.researchingww2.co.uk/guides-researching-ww2-soldiers/. British Army Casualty lists 1939-1945 can be found on FindMyPast.
Sources of Information By Historical Period
The National Archives have masses of material, some of which is searchable online through the Access To Archives search site. See also Ancestors in the Royal Navy for info about RN Certificates Of Service.
Ex-service personnel wishing to obtain their Service Records can apply to: Army Personnel Centre, Disclosure 2, Mail Point 515, Kentigern House, 65 Brown Street, Glasgow, G2 8EX Tel: 0845 600 9663. For relatives wishing to obtain Service Records of Deceased soldiers they must apply to the same centre using the prefix: Army Personnel Centre, Historical Disclosures, Mail Point 555. More information is available from the MOD Army Personnel Centre web page.
Ancestors in Commonwealth Units
There is a recommended guide to Finding the Commonwealth soldier in your family tree, at Forces War Records. When researching Commonwealth ancestors: never make assumptions about where their records will be.
- If you’re not sure whether your ancestor served as part of the forces of his or her home country, or as part of the British force: search Britain’s own records before looking further afield: records held in India, Canada, Australia or New Zealand for instance.
- The British Library at St Pancras London and Boston Spa in Yorkshire have Reading Rooms which can be visited. They are reference rooms only (not lending); details are on their website. Access is free, but you must first get a Reader Pass.
- The British Library collections guide online holds reference sources for family history; their website lists several sites offering free access to indexes and other genealogical information.
- For India during British rule, the vast majority of these records are currently held by the British Library. There are guides to India service records at FIBIS, The National Archives, and at the Family Search UK website.
- Most other countries maintain their own archives and, again, there are links on the National Archives website, listing key Empire and Commonwealth archives, and major collections.
Notes on accuracy: content, accuracy and website links were last checked and verified on December 13, 2018.