Tracing ancestors, a users guide


Folks whats needed on this board is a good stickie with advice and guidance for researching relatives records from the wars.
Can we get one set up please with step by steps so I can send enquirers to look and learn?
OK I'll make a start.
Researching WW1.
Probably the best place to start for advice is by registering with the Great War Forum. They are very knowedgeable and hepful, but they also do this voluntarily, so remember to say please and thank you and you won't go far wrong (occasionally people don't ask nicely and they get short shrift because they got off on the wrong foot).
Before even posing a question I would advise following the links to the Long Long Trail website where an awful lot of questions about the British Army, Navy and Air Forces can be answered for you. Please take the time to read through and it will help you to avoid asking bone questions where the answer is staring you in the face.
Good hunting!

Good online resources:
Ancestry - for WW1 military records, census and civil BMD type archives.
FindMyPast - Similar to Ancestry
National Archives

All these either cost for membership or you have to pay direct for records.
Occasionally Ancestry and FindMyPast (like during Remembrance week or over Christmas) allow free access for short, limited periods, but you have to drop lucky or keep your eyes peeled for offers. These are usually flagged up on the Great War Forum, so that's another good reason to register.

Edited to add:
Some libraries allow free access online to Ancestry 'Library version', which is limited and sometimes slow but you might be able to get the set of records you need for nothing.


There you are Ugly.

Guys, keep it relevant.

Anyone seeking information on a person or unit should still start a new thread and leave this for research hints only
Happy to contribute as a partwork, and happy to be corrected

This is really about WW1 soldiers; it also comes with a caution that I once traced lots of soldiers but these days I don’t, so some of this may be OBE.


Establish what it is you know as facts – name, rank, number, regiment – from medals, letters, photographs, etc. Be cautious about family legend or jumping to conclusions.

This does not mean you should ignore what the family say but e.g. someone having a military medal can become someone having ‘the Military Medal’. Don’t assume that because he was from Loamshire he served in the Loamshires, or that a picture of him on a horse means he was in the cavalry. Remember that many soldiers served in several different regiments. Most of all, remember that army records were intended to allow the army to conduct its business, not for future genealogists.

Personally, I would approach things slightly differently based on two questions –

Died or survived? Officer or other rank?


The obvious starting point is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. The ‘Debt of Honour’ register is primarily intended to record where/how casualties are commemorated. Some entries may include additional information about families, etc.

The second important source is ‘Soldiers Dies in the Great War’ (SDGW), compiled by the War Office. This is available on ‘Ancestry’ and many public libraries hold/can get a copy on CD. It generally contains slightly more detail than CWGC, in particular place of birth, residence and enlistment, but no details of commemoration. Be cautious – place of birth is what the soldier told the army on enlistment, place of residence ditto, and place of enlistment is, in some cases, probably more accurately place of approval.

The last is important for men in technical trades e.g. many ASC MT drivers have their place of enlistment given as ‘Grove Park’, which was the ASC MT depot, despite having ‘enlisted’ elsewhere – it’s where they approved for service as MT drivers. This becomes particularly important for men who transferred to technical trades from the infantry – in many cases they were discharged and immediately re-enlisted in their new corps. So a guy who enlisted into the Loamshires in Loamton in 1914, subsequently transferred to ASC as a MT driver, and was subsequently killed will appear as having enlisted in Grove Park. Clear?

SDGW also distinguishes between ‘killed in action’, ‘died of wounds’, and ‘died’ – together with more exotic ends. KIA generally means killed outright; DOW that the guy entered the casualty system (i.e. made it to the RAP); and ‘died’ covers organic disease, accidents, etc, etc. But don’t take it as gospel.

There are slight differences in the criteria for inclusion on CWGC and SDGW – not unusual to find a man on one and not the other.

Accuracy? Very high, in particular for CWGC, but given the number of casualties mistakes do happen. CWGC will change their registers if you have proof of the error.

More to follow
Gather as much info of the person to be researched, i.e name rank number, unit theatres etc.

Google units and see if they have a museum, which may hold records of the individual and/or theatres of ops and background info. (Where they trained before being deployed, order of battle, regimental histories etc. Some units were amalgamated)

You could as suggested above use the online resources, or could employ a researcher to check them at Kew. This often works out cheaper if you live some distance away, as they live locally and as they do it often will have a better idea where to look.
Some of the more friendly members of the Great War Forum have been known to do look ups at Kew as a favour. It depends whether they're already going and if the man concerned is from the regiment they're researching. There's also a list on the Great War Forum of people who hold copies of war diaries and are prepared to send extracts on request. You'll have to search on the forum for that thread.

Further to asking questions... If you can post everything you do already know with your question, it avoids about a dozen questions from the members going back and forth to winkle what information you have, out of you before they can research further. Make it easier for them and yourself by putting everything you know in the first post in the thread and save a lot of hassle.

Here's another good link. It's a chap called Geoff who very kindly set up a search engine to look for criteria outside the CWGC standard search boxes. You can search for unit or home town or specific dates. It's now only available for WW2 as the WW1 search engine went offline because of changes to CWGC records which meant it wouldn't work properly and Geoff took it down. Damn shame as it was very useful.
Here's Geoff's various search engines:

Geoff's Great War Pages

Here's a direct linky to Geoff's WW2 search engine of CWGC records

If you have time and access, do not overlook local sources.

Local newspapers - it is amazing how much information is available about men enlisting, home on leave, wounded, casualties, etc. You even find soldiers' letters home being printed. The problem is the sheer slog involved in looking through several years of papers for one man. It probably works best for small towns and rural areas - the newspaper is likely to be weekly and there's simply fewer names to plough through.

Some local papers are available online

British Newspaper Archive | Home

and many local libraries have access to The Times archive.

Many localities, firms, schools, etc produced rolls of honour - some of these simply list the dead, others list all those who served with short bios. Local libraries are a good start.

War memorials - hmmmm. Generally speaking war memorials were private ventures by a local council, parish, school, etc - there was no set criteria for who was included, simply what the group concerned decided. This means that a man may be missing from the 'obvious' memorial; on the other hand he may appear on two or more. I know of parish memorials which carry the names of men who emigrated pre-war and died serving in the Canadian or Australian units but lack the names of men who enlisted into the British army from that parish. So don't obsess about memorials. But the occasion of their dedication often prompted details of the men named to appear in the local paper.

More to follow


Ok can you get service records from the MoD if you have the death cert of the person you wish to trace but no service no?
Ministry of Defence, Making a Request for Information held on the Personnel Records of Deceased Service Personnel

This is for persons who served after 1920 for the Army and 1926 for the RN.

Records prior to that are available at Kew:
Looking for records of a British army soldier after 1913 | The National Archives

Or, as Barking Spider says, on one of the paid for sites who have transcribed the records. You should be aware though, 80% of Army records were destroyed in the Blitz and a high proportion of those that survive are water and/or fire damaged.

The largest single collection of records for WW1 soldiers are those recording the entitlement to campaign medals. These are in two parts – the actual rolls compiled by the various record offices and the ‘medal index cards’ (MIC) which, oddly enough, provide an index to the rolls. MICs are available on-line, the rolls are not.

If a man wasn’t entitled to campaign medals then he will not appear in these records. If he was entitled, then the records will show the regiments and corps he served in from the point he first earned a campaign medal; they will not show the regiments and corps he served in before going overseas. One further twist - ORs were issued campaign medals automatically, officers had to apply. Some didn’t, so will appear in the rolls but there will be no MIC (my understanding is that the rolls were prepared to show entitlement, MICs were produced when the medals were actually issued and were, among other things, used as the authority for the names and details stamped on the medals).

Their interpretation is not always easy – as others have said there are nice folk at GWF who will help, although one of the nicest and most knowledgeable gave up when he realised some of those tracing ‘Great Uncle Arthur’ were actually medal dealers after free research. And there always exceptions to the rules. What follows is general guidance for those who fancy giving it a go.

So how do you find a MIC online? There are two ways I use – The National Archives (TNA) website or ‘Ancestry’. On TNA the index is free, but it costs £2 to see an image of the card; on ‘Ancestry’ the index and the images are included in the basic subscription. The indexing on Ancestry is probably not so good as TNAs, and some of the corps and regiments given are quite bizarre. I’ll do a separate piece on the basics of reading MICs.

What’s on the rolls that’s not on the MICs, and vice versa?

As general rule, the most useful thing about the rolls is that they will tell you the battalion a man served in, while his MIC may only give the regiment. The amount of detail on the rolls varies between record offices – so the London Regiment rolls give the dates a man served in a particular battalion, the rolls for the Gordon Highlanders don’t. The rolls of the big corps (RE, RA, Lab Corps) generally won’t ever give a unit, except for men who earned the 1914 Star (‘Mons Star’ if you must); but in that case it’s probably going to be on the MIC anyway.

More to follow


Is this for WW1 service?
I would like a guide for all records but starting with pre WW1 and so on!
Keep it up lads I am impressed so far.
The Lonđon Gazette
The first paragraph is unashamedly lifted straight off Wikipedia, most of the rest is mine, but with input from Barking Spider and Charm City.

What is it?

The Lonđon Gazette is one of the official journals of record of the British government, and the most important among such official journals in the United Kingdom, in which certain statutory notices are required to be published. The Lonđon Gazette claims to be the oldest surviving English newspaper and the oldest continuously published newspaper in the UK, having been first published on 7 November 1665 as the Oxforđ Gazette. Other official newspapers of the UK government are the Eđinburgh and Bełfast Gazettes, which, apart from reproducing certain materials of nationwide interest published in the Lonđon Gazette, also contain publications specific to Scotlanđ and Northern Irelanđ, respectively.
In time of war, dispatches from the various conflicts are published in the Lonđon Gazette. People referred to are said to have been mentioned in despatches. When members of the armed forces are promoted, and these promotions are published here, the person is said to have been “gazetted”.

What is in it of interest to military researchers?

All promotions of comissioned officers.
Appointments of senior officers.
All the Honours Lists (New Years Honours, Queen's Birthday Honours etc). (Though see Charm City's comments below)
All gallantry awards, from VC down to MiD.
The award of some other medals, including quite recently LS&GC.
The award of campaign medals are not included.
Charm_City said:
Citations - you won't find citations for MMs (with very few exceptions), nor for many awards in new years/birthday lists. For other awards you may find an initial announcement of the award with the citations published some weeks or even months later - so search for a few extra months.
(I have not had too much difficulty looking for new years/birthday honours lists, but have only looked for a couple, in the New Years Honours lists for 1942 and 1943. The second one I did took some time.)

How do I use this as a research tool?

The 'Advanced Search' page is very useful, though it does have some shortfalls.

Date Search
One of the more useful features is the ability to select an historic event (such as WWI, or the Battle of Waterloo) as one of the search parameters, or you can put in your own chosen dates to search between. Top Tip - If you think you have the exact date, you are probably wrong, the actual date of publication often predates the official date of publication by a few days, so search a week or so either side.
Charm_City said:
Promotions, etc - often gazetted long after the event, don't just read the date of the gazette issue, look at the effective date contained in the announcement (and yes, I've screwed up this way)
(It's also worth mentioning that some gallantry awards do not appear in the Gazette until some considerable time later, years in some cases.)

The three different options here should be self-explanatory. If you are looking for details on Sir Peter de la Billiere and put the words "Peter de la Billiere" in the "With at least one of the words:" box, you will get nearly half a million documents to search through. If you put the same words in the "With all the words:" box, you get seventeen documents, and in the "With the exact phrase:" box, you get eight.
So, how many entries are there for him? Obviously not half a million, but it's not eight or seventeen either. A quick count tonight shows I've found thirty-two different documents, and I'm sure there's at least a couple missing.

Inconsistancy of entries
In some entries, his name is given as Peter Edgar de la Cour de la BILLIERE, in others it is Peter de la BILLIERE, or P. E. de la C. de la BILLIERE, Peter Edgar Delacour de LABILLIERE and P. E. D. de LABILLIERE, then there are the mis-spellings, P. H. de la C. De la Billiere is one such. When you do a search for your relatives, consider all the different spellings and combinations that may have been used, and also bear in mind that some people were known by a forename other than the one which appears on the birth certificate, either within the family, or on subsequent official records.

Optical Character Recognition
Two enties, in 1990 and 1993, for DLB shows his name being spelt "BILUERE". When you look at the document, however, it is spelt correctly. It is the software which analyses the picture of the printed page and turns it into text which is at fault. Other documents show his name translated as P EL de lai C de la BILLDERE and Peter Edgar de la C de la BrttiERE. Older editions seem more prone to error in this way. The only sensible way around this is to ensure that you don't use one particular piece of information in every search.

What do I search for then?

What you need to do is make several searches using different terms. Apart from searching using a name, the person's Regimental Number (aka Service or Official Number) is useful, and can give alternative spellings. Be aware though that numbers are just as prone to being misread by the OCR software, with 1 becoming, for example ! I i L l [ or ].
Charm_City said:
Just to add (for WW1):

I've never really had much success searching on regimental numbers - no reason not to try, but don't hold your breath.

Try searching with initials as well as forenames - i.e. try 'H. B. Smith' (with the periods and spaces) as well as Henry Bertram Smith.

In the case of DLB, a search of 424859 will give the vast majority of pertinant documents. A search using the two different spellings of his surname in the "With at least one of the words:" box will give around 60 documents, many of which are not relevant, but this number is small enough to trawl through manually.

If it had returned too many documents, repeating the search with the addition in the "With all the words:" box of, in turn the full first name, then just the initial will reduce the number to hopefully something more manageable (and as Charm_City suggests, using the initials with periods and spaces can also help narrow it right down).

The incorrectly translated spellings can also be used. The key here is making logical methodical searches, and patience, and don't forget you can set the date range. If you know that the person received a particular award or promotion at a particular time, but can't find it by searching their name, you can focus on those particular details and just trawl through the lists for all those awarded/promoted around that time. The lists are set out logically, and it won't take you long to work out how to quickly find the relevant section of the list

If the London Gazette comes up with a blank, an advanced search with either the Edinburgh Gazette or the Belfast Gazette, might just find what you're looking for, although this is probably a last resort.

There’s lots of information about reading MICs in GWF, Wikipedia, and elsewhere. I don’t claim to be any more expert than others but I’ve attached some examples with my interpretation – since I don’t want to run into questions of copyright I’ve drawn them rather than reproduced images. I’ve not included various hieroglyphics used to indicate issue, etc. This should give you an idea of what you might find.

Remember the purpose of these cards and the information recorded on them – to record medal entitlement and issue. To fully understand why they record what they record, you need to understand the criteria for the 14 Star (and clasp), 15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal and Territorial Forces War Medal. Screeds of stuff on GWF, etc. A very, very simplified explanation, as it applies to the army, is:

. First service in an operational theatre (effectively France) before 22 Nov 1914 and served within range of German guns:

14 Star with clasp, British War Medal, Victory Medal.

No service within range of German guns = no clasp.

. First service in any operational theatre between 22 Nov 1914 and 31 Dec 1915:

15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal.

. First service in any operational theatre after 1 Jan 1916:

British War Medal, Victory Medal.

. Service overseas but not in an operational theatre:

British War Medal

. Pre-war territorial, volunteered for overseas service at outbreak of war, but did not go overseas until after 1 Jan 1916:

Territorial Forces War Medal, British War Medal, and Victory Medal.

If anyone wants to produce a better list, please do.


Cards for the SWB are inclided with those for campaign medals. A SWB card will usually give you a man’s date of enlistment, date of discharge, and the paragraph of King’s Regulation he was discharged under. There’s a list of these on GWF.

One important thing to bear in mind. A man had to go overseas to earn campaign medals – he did not have to go overseas to be entitled to a SWB.



WW1 officers are a bit easier to research than ORs – they leave more traces in the London (and other) Gazette; they appear in the Army List; as a general rule their personal records have survived better than ORs; and they are more commonly mentioned in war diaries, regimental histories, etc.

London Gazette

I used two officers to illustrate the dit on medal index cards, William Blackadder and Hugh Cecil Nightingale. Poking about the online London Gazette, using as many search variables as I can think of, produces this:



Lowland (City of Edinburgh).
The undermentioned to be Second Lieutenants. Dated 15th December, 1915: —
William Blackadder
Lowland (City of Edinburgh).
The following officers are seconded for duty with the Regular R.G.A.: —
2nd Lt. W. Blackadder. 5th July 1916

2nd Lt. William Blackadder to be 2nd Lt. 26th May 1917.
The undermentioned 2nd Lts. to be Lts.: —
W. Blackadder, City of Edinburgh Fortress Engrs. 27th Nov. 1918.
So – Blackadder was commissioned into the RGA(TF) on 15 Dec 1915, as no rank is given he was probably commissioned direct from civilian life. On 5 Jul 1916 he was seconded to a regular RGA unit. On 26 May 17 he transferred to the RE (this is the odd seeming ‘2[SUP]nd[/SUP] Lt to be 2[SUP]nd[/SUP] Lt’ entry) and was promoted to Lt on 27 Nov 18 - since he was a TF officer he presumably had to be carried on the books of a RE TF unit, hence the Edinburgh Fortress Engineers bit.

What didn’t show up is any reference to his MiD, that’s the gazette for you.

(There’s no clue as why he transferred from RGA to RE, but a possibility is ‘survey’. As gunnery became more sophisticated there was requirement for ever more accurate survey support).


War Office, 1st February, 1917.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the undermentioned Honours and Rewards for valuable services rendered in connection with Military Operations in the Field, with effect from 1st January, 1917, inclusive:
Hon. Lt. Hugh Cecil Nightingale, Intell. Dept.

The undermentioned to be temp. Capts. : —
Temp. Lt. H. C. Nightingale, K. Afr. Rif., for Special Service in E. Africa. 9[SUP]th[/SUP] Aug. 1917

C. Gds.—Hugh Cecil Nightingale, from temp. Capt., Gen. List, to be Lt. 5th Oct. 1918, with seniority from 18th Sept. 1918

The undermentioned Lts. relinquish their commns. 1st Apr. 1920: —
C. Gds.— H. C. Nightingale, M.C., and is granted the rank of Capt. (Substituted for the notification in the Gazette of 1[SUP]st[/SUP] Sept. 1920.)
[This appeared on 18 Dec 1920]
It’s not much, but it does add some dates to what looks like a fairly exotic career.

His MC is gazetted on a list that appears to be the East/South Africa portion of the 1917 New Years Honours. There is no citation. This is normal for DSO and MCs announced in the new years and birthday lists; these were often for ‘distinguished service’ rather than acts of gallantry, more akin to OBE and MBE (which were introduced in 1917).

The ‘Honorary Lieutenant’ piece I read as being the officer status accorded to ‘Agents’.

Later in 1917 he was commissioned into the KAR ‘for Special Service’, which probably means he remained an intelligence officer. Then in late 1918, by which time he’s described as General List rather than KAR, he transfers to the Coldstream Guards, remaining with them until he relinquished his commission in 1920.

Army Lists

Nothing illustrates the huge expansion of the army in WW1 quite like the army list – a fairly slim volume in 1914, the 1918 editions are doorstops. It is possible to trace an officer from month to month, it is simply boring graft. As the war progressed the periodicity, format and amount of detail changed; and like the gazette it sometimes took a fair time for the list to catch up with reality. There is also the Indian Army List for (obviously) the Indian Army. I’ve never had the need to look for the colonial equivalents, if they exist.

TNA at Kew has a complete set, big public libraries (e.g. the Mitchell in Glasgow) have them, there’s probably sets sitting in regimental museums. Understanding them shouldn’t present many problems to somebody with a basic understanding of the army. They are probably most useful for infantry officers, but if you can get hold of them it’s worth checking them for any officer. There’s an index at the back. Use it – officers may appear in more than one place.

Personal files

There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that officers’ P-files did not get bombed by the Luftwaffe during the second unpleasantness. The bad news is that they are not available on-line – so to read them you either have to visit TNA at Kew, get Kew to make a copy for you, employ a researcher, or find someone to do you a favour.

There are a few other pitfalls:

Some categories were destroyed after the war – e.g. RAMC territorial officers.

If the guy served after 1922-ish (even in the Home Guard during WW2) his file is probably still with MOD.

Some files are very thin, they’ve been weeded over the years. I’ve been told that every few years (five?) details were extracted from these files onto what sounds awfully like something my generation would recognise as a Q&R card (and these the Luftwaffe did destroy) and many of the original papers weeded from the files.

So what might you find? It is unlikely that you are going to find a neatly tabulated and highly detailed chronology of the man’s service – you will find the stuff the army thought worth recording at the time and retaining afterwards. The common finds are enlistment papers for men commissioned from the ranks, the proceedings of medical boards, correspondence regarding the effects and financial affairs of those killed, draft gazette entries, etc. It’s not so bleak it sounds, there’s lots of files with more info than that. But you have to be realistic and you have to be prepared to spend some time assembling scraps of information into something coherent.

I’m not going to do a detailed explanation of how to use TNA’s catalogue and records, there’s lots of guides available, this is a noddy version to give folk a feel of what’s involved.

The actual files are in TNA classes WO 339 and 374. In very, very simple terms:

WO 339 = the records of officers holding regular (including temporary regular) and Special Reserve commissions

WO 374 = territorial and temporary officers.

These are not viewable online, but you can search TNA’s online catalogue to see if a file may exist. I say may because some catalogue entries are simply ‘Lt Smith J’ which isn’t much help – the cataloguing is gradually being improved to include forenames and regiments but it has a ways to go.

There is one set of TNA records you can see online (and for free) that may help focus the search. This is WO 338, which was the original alphabetical index to the records now in WO 339 and to some of the records now in WO 374. To illustrate what can be found in WO 338 I’ve transcribed and annotated a few lines and attached the result.



Book Reviewer

Similar threads

New Posts

Latest Threads