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Family Research

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 While many records are about dead people, some Record Subjects are living people, and thus regulated by GDPR. Very occasionally, a record focused on a dead person will contain information about living persons - for example, a burial record can state someone is the widow, or widower, of a named living person. See the GENERAL DATA PROTECTION REGULATION.

Oftentimes on ARRSE, users request assistance when researching an ancestor because the process can be daunting, and frustrating. This page may be useful if you are researching Army family historyor an ancestor who served in the British, Empire or Commonwealth armed forces, and to some extent any random deceased person, subject to certain rules, ethical standards, and good practice. Moreover, standards, practices, and ethics in Genealogy are constantly changing, inline with international Data Protection legislation.

DIY Research

The UK National Archives or TNA (£) with its free research guides is the place to begin searching government and military records for the First World War, for the Second World War, and earlier.

The best Do It Yourself advice is to start with the family, searching for extant primary sources, personal documents and possessions. Original documents do not rely on copying, rumour or other records, they are therefore the primary and most accurate pieces of evidence. Keep a central file of your materials and evaluate your evidence; this will be helpful e.g. a birth date from a birth record is probably more accurate than a birth date on a census record.

Personal documents and diaries may identify service details, unit(s) and postings. Military records are potentially of great genealogical value; when researching service personnel: their individual service number is always important. Armed forces and civilian service badges, medals and medals records, are all valuable components and clues for identifying units, and for tracing an ancestor's service.

Third Party Genealogy Researchers

Rules for data protection are tightening, therefore seek information and records from official or patently reliable sources, whenever possible. Incurring nominal fees may be inconvenient and costly, yet legitimate sources may be considerably more accurate - and more discreet - than anonymous hobbyists.

When engaging third party genealogists, caution and discretion are two main considerations. Recognised qualifications and lengthy experience plus references and a society membership - imposing terms and conditions on its members - usually indicate a genealogist's credentials and ethics.

Other than qualified genealogists, researchers may be amateurs and hobbyists, operating (and charging for) research services, but without formal qualifications and time-served experience. If they do not hold a recognised genealogy society membership, they may not be subject to the formal codes of practice and accountability generally designed to protect their customer(s).

Beginners Guide

  • Collate as much reliable information as possible to start your research. Among others the IWM lists guides to searching armed forces records. Moreover, evaluating your sources and records throughout your research, will help to determine how accurate and reliable they are.
  • When researching ancestors and official records: be prepared for charges, transcription errors and temporary brick walls. Some records may be either subject to statutory limitations or restricted for various reasons.
  • Branches of the armed forces often have museums and associations; regiments have regimental museums of some sort. Your ancestor(s) parent unit may have a brick museum or an association; many have an online presence.
  • It is easier to research service records before 1920, but in this Wiki you will find information on searching records for all the armed forces, Territorials and auxiliaries. This page also contains an alphabetised reference index including websites and tips.
  • It is possible to trace your ancestor from birth to enlistment, marriage and death, and their service records, if details have been released. You can apply to government for the service records of someone who’s deceased, but you must be eligible, for example you’re their immediate next of kin or you’re legitimately researching them.
  • If you get stuck 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/.

Multiple Sources and Archives

Armed forces records are held by multiple archives, listed at the National Archives. For Indian Army records and personnel who served in South Asia, the majority are held at the British Library and the FIBIS website can also help with Indian family research.

Unfortunately, three of the problems with researching military records, particularly in the United Kingdom, are the widespread physical locations of the material, confidentiality, and fees. For details of Armed forces Service Records held in other repositories, see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/armed-forces-records-held-by-other-archives/.

This is not strictly qualified advice and external websites and services are not endorsed. In addition, browse the Arrsepedia Military Genealogy category. There is a lot of reading and learning to do, but that is the nature of research. Stella Caldwell's book The National Archives: A Practical Guide for Family Historians (2006) is available on Amazon. Also: Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The Website and Beyond by Amanda Bevan. Others are available.

The UK National Archives at Kew

  • The National Archives in Richmond is the caretaker of most of the military records. It is important to understand the "fonds" or the way records are grouped. There is a Department code (ADM for Admiralty, WO for War Office, etc) and a series number (TNA).
  • The records are arranged by government department, including the War Office, which administered the British Army, the Admiralty, which administered the Royal Navy, and the Air Ministry, which administered the Royal Air Force. The records of these three departments are identified by their National Archives department codes, WO, ADM and AIR, respectively.
  • About 60% of WWI soldiers’ service records were destroyed by enemy bombing in 1940. Surviving burnt documents are held in WO series 363.
  • The official classification for "unburned documents" by the National Archives is WO 364. There is a roughly 40% chance of finding the service record of a soldier who was discharged at some time between 1914 and 1920.
  • British Isles and Ireland Census records from 1841 to 1911 can be accessed, but all later censuses remain in the custody of the Office for National Statistics. They will remain closed to the public for 100 years after the date they were conducted.

Free Information and Learning

  • Family Search Wiki is a free, online genealogy and family history guide that lists websites, provides research strategies, and suggests records and resources to help you find ancestors from all over the world.
  • Some public libraries offer their members free access to genealogy sites, most of which offer free tips and guidance. RootsChat and similar forums do not charge at all. The general rule of thumb is that bureaucracy and official records are usually reliable, but hearsay such as internet forums and secondary sources should be confirmed.
  • County Research and Local Family History Centres (hubs) hold a range of historical archives including microfiche, maps, newspapers and books. Most County Archives Libraries and Local Family History Centres have websites with full details including how to begin research. Personal visits can be made during set opening hours.
  • There are dozens of free genealogy websites with limited but potentially useful information. Free Genealogy Sites for Researching Ancestors in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are listed at Family History Daily.
  • For beginners and experienced researchers, there are also several instructional videos posted by genealogy professionals and enthusiasts on Youtube.

South African Conflicts to World War One

  • To look for records of a person involved in the Second Boer (South African) War there is a UK National Archives research guide on British Army Soldiers up to 1913.
  • The Anglo-Boer War website has a wealth of information on the Anglo Boer War 1899-1902 and other South African conflicts in the period 1779-1906. It also provides a forum for discussing the many aspects of these conflicts; go to https://www.angloboerwar.com.
  • Over seven million men and women served in the British army between 1914-1918. Unfortunately, more than half of their service records were destroyed in September 1940, during a bombing raid on the War Office repository at London's Arnside Street.
  • An estimated 2.8 million service records including burnt records survived the 1940 bombing, or they were reconstructed from the records of the Ministry of Pensions.
  • The majority of the personnel records for the First World War are missing, but TNA has a web page for British Army soldiers after 1913, listing which records you can see online.

Medals and Medal Rolls (Arrsepedia)

This is covered on the ARRSEpedia Medal Cards and Medal Rolls page. Medal index cards are not easy to interpret; there are some tips that will help you make sense of a WWI card at The Long, Long Trail website. Abbreviations used in the First World War medal index cards are listed online at the TNA.

  • You may be able to identify an ancestor's service medal(s), decoration(s) or other award(s) by studying online medal encyclopedias and Ministry of Defence Medal Office guides. Otherwise, you could consult an expert or an informed collector.
  • If you are researching WWI military records, medals, honours and gallantry awards: you may find details, units and transcriptions on Ancestry, Findmypast, or The Genealogist.
  • Ancestry online (£) holds records for UK, Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949. The database contains lists of more than 2.3 million officers, enlisted personnel and other individuals entitled to medals and awards commemorating their service in campaigns and battles for the British Army between 1793 and 1949.

First World War Representative Medical Records of Servicemen

(TNA MH 106) are a representative selection of several types of medical records from various theatres of war. They include admission and discharge registers from hospitals and casualty clearing stations, field ambulances, an ambulance train and a hospital ship. The National Archives reference is PRO 57/2158.

  • Forces War Records ‘WWI Casualty Records’ collection now numbers over a million individuals' records, transcribed and available to search by name.

Other ranks who served after 1920 and Officers who served after 1922

  • 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.
  • For service after 1920: full records will be released to proven next of kin but not to others. Only very basic information about deceased service personnel will be released to other enquirers, with slightly more detail made available 25 years after the date of death. Fees are charged and there may be a lengthy wait for this service (Imperial War Museums).

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 Veterans 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.
  • Generally speaking: until the criteria are met, the record relating to any one subject will usually be restricted.

Indian Army, Commonwealth, and Southern-Asia Service

  • The UK National Archives (UKNA) does not hold significant collections of Indian army records. UKNA do hold a set of published Indian Army Lists 1903-1939.
  • The India Office Records cover mainly the archives of the Indian Army. There is a small amount of material on the British Army in India, i.e. chiefly: officers of regiments in India 1806-1865; officers formerly on the Indian Establishment transferred to the British Army, 1863-68, or vice-versa 1859-1861, and some embarkation and disembarkation lists of 1871-89, and 1909-1914 (British Library).
  • Main sources for the British Army in India are held in the Kew Public Record Office.
  • The British Library has information on Indian Army service records held in the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collection. These also include records of the Honourable East India Company.
  • 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, in perpetuity. Search for war dead and graves at https://www.cwgc.org/find.
  • Soldiers in African forces under British control and former British colonies can be searched at the UKNA: regimental medal rolls and WWI Medal Index cards (WO 100 and WO 372).
  • The British Library has information on Indian Army service records held in the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collection. These also include records of the Honourable East India Company.
  • The FIBIS website has information on tracing ancestors & soldiers in British India and the Indian Army. FIBIS (Families In British India Society) can help with researching India or South Asia between 1600 and 1947: https://wiki.fibis.org/w/Main_Page .
  • UK TNA has a research guide to the key records relating to the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth, held at The National Archives and at other archives in the UK. Go to Empire and Commonwealth records.

Births, Marriages and Deaths

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.

  • You can order birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership and death certificates from the General Register Office (GRO) to help you research your family history and family tree.
  • The GRO has all the records registered in England and Wales from July 1837; Parish records may trace back further. GRO also has some other records, starting at a later date, for example for civil partnerships and adopted children. You can check which records are held by the GRO.
  • Free UK Genealogy provides free, online access to family history records and claims to contain index information for the period 1837-1983.
  • Parish Registers are records of baptisms, marriages, and burials made by the Church. They are a prime source for building family trees because the census and official records of birth, marriage and death do not go back further than 1837.

You can find out where and how to access UK Census records online at TNA Census records. Most local and county record offices also hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own area, excluding 1911.


Subscriptions to the major Genealogy Pay Sites

In most cases, serious researchers have to subscribe to pay sites such as Ancestry.com, FindMyPast or Forces War Records. Once you have the person's full name and basic details: search the free open access sites with no subscriptions: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site (CWGC) or the Armed Forces Memorial (AFM) Roll of Honour. Afterwards, you might proceed to the specialist websites (£) and sources, Pensions records, Unit War Diaries (WO 95), military museums and associations.

The MOD suggests that before requesting official information (£), you should carry out searches from sources that provide free access to the details of deceased service personnel. You can also take out free 14 day trials; check the terms for any subscriptions. Sites like Ancestry-UK offer free trials which can be cancelled at any stage within the trial or you will be charged (source).

Archives and Census Research Guides

  • The Army Museums Ogilby Trust "is linked with well over one hundred museums throughout the United Kingdom, all as varied and individual as the regiments they represent. They are a rich source of historical information". Most of them hold valuable records and other archive material, and they offer support to researchers.
  • In England and Wales, you can search local archives for research like family history, house history and local studies.

Regulations and Best Practice in Genealogy

Before starting your family research or obtaining official copies of armed forces service records, you need to know or find out your subject’s full name, date of birth and their (unique identifier) service number and branch of service. If you know their rank, regiment, Naval ship or Squadron: so much the better.

Records remain closed for people born less than 100 years ago until proof of death is verified (TNA). All World War 2 medal records for the British Army are held by the MOD, also be aware that the genealogy industry is regulated with ethical standards, and that Data Protection and privacy rules apply.

As a rule you should treat all information and private personal data as strictly confidential. Information providers impose restrictions on records access and disclosures, according to their own policies and various legislative Acts. The new EU "GPDR" law is effective from May 25, 2018; it will still apply in UK after Brexit.

Research Criteria and Confidentiality

  • You should never post or share any details of living persons, and there are complicated rules for service records and confidential personal data regarding deceased persons. Best practice and applicable legislation are beyond the scope of this article, but living persons, relatives, and the deceased, have rights including privacy. In summary, think about confidentiality and relatives first.
  • Plagiarism destroys trust and credibility. If you use other people's work, then you should credit them in full. Acknowledge and attribute the research done by others, and acknowledge such work as a secondary source only.
  • You should not rely exclusively on online records; copies of official records can be acquired if you have the right information and privileges, and there are rules for accessing military records with personal data. Furthermore the process can be complicated.

Service Records and Personal Data Held by the Ministry of Defence

The Ministry of Defence is the custodian of the more recent records of service personnel, and of Home Guard records, until they are opened to general public access at the National Archives. To enquire about access to service records and personal data held by the MOD, visit their website.

Records 1921 to the Present

For ex-service personnel wishing to obtain their Service Records they can apply here: 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.

You can "at no charge" also obtain copies of your own service records by SAR. To request records of deceased service personnel, apply at Request records.

There are separate procedures and restrictions for those who are not the immediate next of kin, and who are applying without the consent of the immediate next of kin.

Researching ancestors via bureaucracy not only incurs costs (£): results can take several months. In the meantime there are several sources of free information listed here, including newspaper archives tips and the forums on RootsChat.

Using the ARRSEpedia

There is more than enough information on this page, plus several links and pointers here to help you. Search the ARRSE forums before you post a general enquiry which has probably been answered many times before. ARRSE Members have responded to genealogy and military history enquiries, but there are plenty of self help resources on the ARRSEpedia which includes a Military Genealogy category.

Seeking Assistance

Local History Centres and public libraries are useful for people starting out in research. Knowledgeable staff usually have access to a range of archives and most of these hubs have online computer facilities. Library members can order books on loan, including published Unit War Diaries and regimental histories.

Many times in the past, ancestry threads on ARRSE have assisted enquirers. One of many research threads: Tracing ancestors, a users guide is a fairly comprehensive thread which also suggests other more specialised forums (listed below) where helpful members sometimes answer questions as a courtesy.

The British and Commonwealth Military Badge Forum might help you to identify badges and insignia. RootsChat can be useful to novice researchers, and it has a wealth of Armed Forces Resources. Simply search the multitude of free genealogy and specialist armed services research websites; you may strike lucky if you join forums and post your enquiries.


Researching Military Records.

Summary

Original documents do not rely on copying or using other records, and are therefore the most accurate sources of evidence. The more information you collect and analyse, the further you might progress in forming a picture of your subject’s life, service, family and home, their travels, and any awards. The genealogy sector is vast and there is a wealth of free guidance and multi-format public archive material out there. There may be fees if you subscribe to corporate websites or use third party researchers, and when you apply for official records.

Several genealogy pay sites offer free subscription trials, during which time you may cancel your subscription. Check home pages for terms, details and current offers. More importantly: you should abide by Data Protection law and treat all information as confidential, confined to entitled individuals only, under the strict rules called ‘data protection principles’. Information providers may also limit access to records and disclosures, according to their own policies and legal restrictions.

Websites, Sources and Tips A to Z

You could start with census records or search the National Archives. Ancestry.com is currently free to use in public libraries. Including a date of birth is a good way of distinguishing your subject from several other people with the same name and (if they served) similar service numbers. The following long list should cover most needs:

  • A British Army researcher offers tips, links and articles at http://armyancestry.blogspot.co.uk/ ; this is not a recommendation or an endorsement. The same researcher has a blog on Army Service Numbers.
  • Ancestry.co.uk offers a 14 day trial and you can currently use it for free at public libraries. When searching military and civilian records online: library staff can be very helpful. You should collect as much information as possible before starting your online search.
  • Archive.org and similar projects are great for digitised memoirs, diaries, and battle histories. There is a huge amount of archived primary source information online, free in the public domain, including archived books, reports, records and campaign histories.
  • Armed Forces Memorial Roll of Honour . "The Memorial commemorates members of the armed forces killed since the end of World War 2". Run by the Ministry of Defence and Veterans UK: one can search the roll of honour and print a certificate.
  • Army Lists: "military lists recording details of officers who served in the three main branches of Britain's armed services during the First and Second World Wars. Official lists for the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have been published since the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries respectively. Also includes unofficial 'Hart's Army Lists' of British Army and, from 1862, Indian Army Officers published between 1839 and 1915". Visit http://digital.nls.uk/british-military-lists/archive/88735803 .
  • British Army of the First World War: see The Long, Long Trail website. For information about soldiers, units, regiments and battles, and a whole lot more on WWI: go to http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/ . Widely recommended for its depth of knowledge.
  • Census records (historical censuses from 1841 to 1911) often lead to tracing an ancestor’s service record and awards. It is possible to trace Victorians including service personnel from the 19th century. Also the Honourable East India Company or the Royal Navy, before 1900.
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). You can search the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website for WWI and WWII war dead and cemeteries at https://www.cwgc.org/ . The CWGC also shows brief burial and family records; sometimes they include medals data, cause of death, and useful notes on forms which are not recorded elsewhere.
  • CWGC gravestones show the casualty's age, service number, badge, unit and rank. CWGC records include regular, territorial and auxiliary personnel who died during (or as a direct result of) service in the two world wars.
  • Facebook history groups; amateur researchers and local 'graveyard heritage groups' could also help you with newspaper archives, grave sites, cemetery maps, and photographs. These excellent resources are all, essentially, local military history and social history group databases, maintained by family members and amateur historians.
  • FindMyPast "helps to locate your ancestors who served in World War One and World War Two". "You can also search a range of historical lists and roll calls, including records for the Battle of Waterloo, as well as army BMDs (not found in the civil indexes) and consular records for those who may have lived abroad". "You can also search a range of historical lists and roll calls, including records for the Battle of Waterloo, as well as army BMDs (not found in the civil indexes) and consular records for those who may have lived abroad". https://www.findmypast.co.uk/content/expert-other-useful-records .
  • FreeBMD You can search it for births, marriages and deaths. This is an ongoing project, the aim of which is to trace records. FreeBMD is a part of the Free UK Genealogy family, which also includes FreeCEN (Census data) and FreeREG (Parish Registers).
  • Google: searching the person’s name and regimental number in Google might produce results, especially with antique records.
  • Gravestone resources online: there is a little-known international directory of photographed graves and monuments: the https://www.gravestonephotos.com database isn't complete, but it could mean you won't have to leave your desk to find a particular gravestone with details.
  • Indian Army. If your relative was in the Indian Army or another Commonwealth force, try the British Library. You'll probably need to pay a personal visit to inspect the archives with an appointment
  • Library staff in County Research Collections and Local History Centres are usually very well informed; they can also provide old books, newspaper archives, and unit war diaries for your research. You probably won't be able to borrow them and fees are usually incurred only for photo copies. Some County Research & Archives Centres have microform research facilities.
  • Museums and local historians may be able to help. For service personnel and civilians, try local cemetery records and town museums to see if they have information on your subject, and a parent unit if they served.
  • Museums large and small collate and curate war letters, post cards, old newspapers, diaries and photographs; they can be a great source of information.
  • Not all personnel who died in war service or as a result of their wounds including gassing (DoW or DW) are buried in CWGC plots. Some families opted to bury them in private family plots. It is quite possible that the CWGC recorded the burial and that you can view the records.


Disclaimer: Information checked and correct during Feb-March 2018. Rules, links, websites, content, and information may change.