British Military Records
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Military records are potentially of great genealogical value and may provide information not found in any other source. These records identify individuals who served or were eligible to serve in the military. Military service (other than the militia) was usually a lifetime career. Officers came from the upper classes; soldiers usually came from the poor. On occasion, compulsory conscription was enforced and even "press-gangs" were used.
You may find evidence that an ancestor served in the military from family records, biographies, census, probates, civil registration, or church records. In addition, militaria such as headress badges, buttons, photographs of uniforms, soldier's trunks, paybooks, letters, colours, and medals with clasps can provide proof of ancestral links. Medals can have the soldier's number on the rim of the medal itself.
- 1 Online Records and Websites
- 2 The National Archives
- 3 History and Background
- 4 Royal Navy
- 5 Royal Marines
- 6 Army
- 7 Royal Air Force
- 8 Casualties
- 9 British Markings
- 10 Medals
- 11 Understanding Military Records
- 11.1 Muster Rolls
- 11.2 WO 12 Series: General Muster Books and Pay Lists
- 11.3 Pension Records.
- 11.4 Description Books
- 11.5 Returns of Service (WO 25)
- 11.6 Pay Records
- 11.7 Ship Logs
- 11.8 Continuous Service Engagement Books
- 11.9 Registers of Service
- 11.10 Soldiers’ Documents (WO 97)
- 11.11 Chaplains’ Returns
- 11.12 Regimental Registers
- 11.13 Records of Service.
- 11.14 Lists of Officers
- 11.15 Militia Lists and Musters
- 11.16 Other Records
- 12 Resources
- 13 Search Strategies
- 14 Bibliography for Military Records
- 15 References
Online Records and Websites[edit | edit source]
- 1760-1939 - British Army Service Records at findmypast - index and images ($)
- 1772-1935 - Great Britain, War Office Registers, 1772-1935 at FamilySearch — index and images
- 1918-1919 - United Kingdom, Royal Air Force Officers' Index, 1918-1919 at MyHeritage ($) - index
- United Kingdom, Chelsea Pensioners' Service Records, 1760-1913
- Scotland, Ireland and Wales, Militia Attestation Papers, 1800-1915, index - at Ancestry.com ($)
- United Kingdom, Waterloo Roll Call 1815, index, images available at FindMyPast ($)
- Waterloo Roll Call, 1815, index ($) at FindMyPast
- England Military Links
- "Thankful Villages" List of villages who had all their WWI and WWII military return home safely
- The Long, Long Trail : The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918]
- Requesting Service Records
- First World War Websites
- Army Service Numbers 1881-1918
- Regiments of Foot A historical record of all the foot regiments of the British Army
The National Archives[edit | edit source]
The National Archives at Kew in the London area 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.
Britain's armed forces comprise, in order of seniority, the Royal Navy (including the Royal Marines - ADM) , Army (WO) and Royal Air Force (AIR). Other units can include local militia, fencibles, yeomanry and territorial units of the army. These are briefly discussed at the end of this section.
History and Background[edit | edit source]
Seven Years War[edit | edit source]
1756–1763: Seven Years War. Called the French and Indian War in North America, this war involved 120,000 British soldiers and began a continuous series of army records.
American Revolutionary War[edit | edit source]
1775–1783: American Revolutionary War. The British army had 135,000 men in North America when fighting broke out. Some men remained in Canada after the war, but most returned to Britain. Records of Loyalists and others who remained in Canada are separate from other military records.
Muster rolls for British Forces in the United States during the Revolutionary war are part of the British military records, "C" series, 1757-1899. They are microfilmed and held at the Family History Library 928940-948947 and 1631540-1631549.
Napoleonic Wars[edit | edit source]
1803–1815: Napoleonic Wars. Numerous battles across Europe involved 365,000 British soldiers and 300,000 seamen. These battles include the Peninsular Wars in Portugal and Spain and the famous Battle of Trafalgar. The names of some 1640 officers and men who served in the various ships of the Fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar are listed in a series of files through Genuki.co.org.
War of 1812[edit | edit source]
The War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States confirmed the separate existence of the United States and the future Canada.
See the Wiki article, Great Britain in the War of 1812, for information concerning military records and histories.
For more general information about the war, including online documentaries, see the War of 1812 article.
Crimean War[edit | edit source]
Indian Mutiny[edit | edit source]
1857–1860: Indian Mutiny. Many of the troops discharged after the Crimean war were recalled to quell the revolt in India.
Boer Wars[edit | edit source]
1880–1902: Boer Wars. The first Anglo-Boer War (1880–1881) led to South African independence in 1881. The second Anglo-Boer War (1898–1902) led to the unification of South Africa in 1910. Transport Ships has information about the ships and the Regiments.
World War I[edit | edit source]
1914–1918: World War I. About 6,000,000 British service personnel served in this war. Almost 1,000,000 died.
1914-1918 - First World War. About 35,000 Welsh servicemen died.
Order of Battle
- Ray Westlake. British Battalions in France and Belgium, 1914. London: Leo Cooper, 1997.
- Ray Westlake. British Battalions in France and Belgium, 1915.
- Ray Westlake. British Regiments at Gallipoli. (1996)
- Ray Westlake. Tracing British Battalions on the Somme. (1916)
- Ray Westlake. British Battalions on the Somme.
- Ray Westlake. Order of Battle of Divisions, Index. Naval & Military Press, Ltd, 2009
- Ray Westlake. British Battalions on the Western Front. January to June, 1915.
- Ray Westlake. British Territorial Units, 1914-1918.
Prisoners of War
- Simon Fowler. Army service records of the First World War. Kew, England : PRO Publications, 1996. FHL 942 M23fs
- Simon Fowler. Tracing Your Great War Ancestors: The Gallipoli Campaign: A guide for Family Historians. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Family History, 2015. FHL 942 D27fsg
- Simon Fowler. Tracing Your Great War Ancestors: Ypres: a guide for family historians. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Family History, 2015. FHL 942 D27fsy
- Simon Fowler. Tracing Your Great War Ancestors; the Somme: a guide for family historians.Barnsley, England : Pen & Sword Family History, 2015. FHL 942 M27fso
- Sarah Paterson. Tracing your prisoner of war ancestors : the First World War : a guide for family historians.Barnsley, England : Pen & Sword Family History, 2012. FHL 942 D27ps
- Keith Gregson. A Tommy in the Family: First World War Family History and Research.
- Andrew Rawson. Ancestor's Footsteps. The Somme 1916. Pen & Sword Military, 2016.
Chinese Labor Corps
- Chinese Labor Corps - Wikipedia
- Noyelles-Sur-Mer-Chinese Cemetery, Nolette, France
- Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front - Blog The National Arhives
- Report - History of the Chinese Labour Corps used behind the lines in France, 1917-1919. British Library
World War II[edit | edit source]
1939-1945 - Second World War. About 20,000 Welsh servicemen died.
[edit | edit source]
The first permanent naval fleet was formed during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509–1547). For many years Britain had the strongest navy in the world. The earliest surviving navy records are from 1617, but the majority of the extensive collection date from the mid-1600s. Many records are available only at The National Archives.
Several sources list navy ships with descriptions and the dates on which they were placed in service
The Navy Official List books, available from 1673, give ports of call for ships during each year. Some of these lists are available in the Family History Library.
Seamen often moved between the navy and the merchant marines. Until 1853 enlistment was informal and lasted for the ship’s commission, usually three years. Individual "ratings" (seamen) were not mentioned in navy records other than musters or pay lists unless they deserted, misbehaved, or earned a medal. After 1853 seamen often made the navy their career. They were assigned continuous service numbers and records were maintained for the duration of their careers.
You can usually find navy officers in the Navy Lists (1782 to the present) or in the Index to Commission and Warrant Books (1695 to 1742). See the sub-heading of "Lists of Officers" in this section for details.
Royal Navy records online at the National Archives:
- Royal Naval Rating's Service Records, 1853-1923
- French Muster Rolls from the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805
- Women's Royal Naval Service Records, 1917-1919
- Royal Naval Division Service Records, 1914-1919
- Royal Naval Officers' Service Records, 1756-1931
- Royal Naval Reserve Service Records, 1860-1955
- Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Service Records, 1903-1922
- Logs and Journals of Ships of Exploration, 1757-1904
Royal Marines[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Royal Marines
(Corps of Her Majesty's Royal Marines)
The Royal marines originally maintained military discipline on navy vessels. It has been a separate corps of the military since 1755, although under the control of the Admiralty and forming part of the Naval Service. Alphabetically arranged records of marines exist from 1790, some by enlistment date and others by discharge date. Royal Marine Service records, 1842 -1926 can be accessed online via The National Archives.
The Family History Library has Royal Marine Attestation papers on microfilm for the following divisions:
Chatham Division, 1790-1883
Plymouth Division, 1804-1881
Portsmouth Division, 1804-1881
These Attestation papers give the age, birthplace, trade and physical characteristics of each man on recruitment and details of his enlistment and attestation. There is a summary of his service and details of his discharge. The forms are arranged alphabetically under the year of attestation or discharge.
For more information see "Looking for records of a Royal Marine" on The National Archives website.
Army[edit | edit source]
The army began as a permanent organization in 1660. Earlier armies were raised as needed, usually as county militia units. The oldest regiment is the Honourable Artillery Company, formed in 1537. For information on pre-1660 military records, see the handbooks listed at the end of this section. The Soldier in Later Medieval England database has names of about 250,000 soldiers.
The basic unit of the Army is the regiment under a colonel or lieutenant colonel. Regiments are usually divided into two or more Battalions. The main types of regiments which should be searched are:
- Corps (e,g, Army Service Corps; Royal Signals; Royal Engineers etc.)
Prior to 1847, English army service was usually for life. Some soldiers were discharged early for disability (liberally defined) or age (often by age 40).
Pre-1872 army records are organized by regiment. Most regiments have published histories that tell the places where they served and the battles they fought. For a bibliography of these histories, see:
Pre-1751 infantry and cavalry units were known by the names of their colonels, i.e. Sir Thomas Adams Regiment of Foot.
Post-1751 a numerical system was adopted to name the regiments, with rank in order of precedence, i.e. Queens 9th Regiment of Foot.
Originally the responsibility for directing the British Army fell under the command of the staff of the National War Office. Thus, the category for records in The National Archives of England is labeled WO for locating all Army collections. Now the army is run by comissioned officers.
Available Records[edit | edit source]
Service records for "Other ranks" i.e. not officers, who served in the British army are held at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, although various online subscription-based research providers offer access to digitised copies. At the time of writing, these services were not complete although new records up to and including 1913 are constantly being added. The leading provider of this service is $ Find My Past, but $ TheGenealogist.co.uk has army lists from 1806-1940. Free examples:
- English Army Lists and Commission Registers, Vol. 1, 1661-1685 at Google Books
- English Army Lists and Commission Registers, Vol. 2, 1685-1689 at Google Books
- English Army Lists and Commission Registers, Vol. 3, 1689-1694 at Google Books
- English Army Lists and Commission Registers, Vol. 4, 1694-1702 at Google Books
- English Army Lists and Commission Registers, Vol. 5, 1702-1707 at Google Books
- English Army Lists and Commission Registers, Vol. 6, 1707-1714 at Google Books
If a soldier was entitled to receive any sort of pension due to his army service, a separate record was created although some information was duplicated from his service papers. These pension papers provide a good insight into a soldiers career although they focus more on his medical history rather than his service career.
Officers papers were compiled and held separately although they too are located at TNA. They are not currently available to view online and can only be accessed at TNA.
Primarily covering WW1 service, these service records are often referred to as the "Burnt Series" due to the fact that the storage facility housing these records was hit by a German bombing raid during WW2 and consequently over 60% of the records were destroyed. The records that survived have been preserved and indexed, even those partially damaged by water and fire.
You can search the FamilySearch Catalog to obtain the microfilm number of the TNA Catalogue Number WO 364 records. Alternatively, $ ancestry.co.uk also has the records available to search free of charge although viewing is via subscription.
- 1917-1920 United Kingdom, World War I Women's Army Auxiliary Corps Records, 1917-1920 at FamilySearch — index and images
British Army war Diaries 1914 - 1922
Some diaries record little more than daily losses and map references whilst others are much more descriptive, with daily reports on operations, intelligence summaries and other material. The digitised diaries cover activity in France and Belgium.
The diaries sometimes contain information about particular people but they are unit diaries, not personal diaries. A few contain details about awards of the Military Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.
Many maps and plans were included in the original diaries but some confidential material was removed before the files were made available. This accounts for the absence of some appendices referred to on the covers of many diaries. Find the diaries at this link British Army War Diaries
World War I Service Files.
These records are the service files of soldiers who were discharged from the British army between 1914 and 1920. They are a collection known as the "unburned documents." They represent about 8 percent of the soldiers who served during those years.
The files usually contain the soldier’s unit name and number, birthplace, age at time of enlistment, name and address of next of kin, and date and reason for discharge. They may also include the names of his parents, spouse, and children. Some mention his occupation before he enlisted in the service and show the assignments he had in the service. Some files contain death certificates.
The files are arranged alphabetically, but many documents are missing. Therefore, you will not find every soldier in these files.
The original files are at the Public Record Office in England. The Family History Library has microfilmed copies, which are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:
GREAT BRITAIN - MILITARY RECORDS - ARMY - WORLD WAR, 1914-1918
Search the FamilySearch Catalog by title for: Military records of the British Army, 1914-1920 you will see two items with that exact title and several that have letters of the alphabet added to the end of the title. Look at the catalog entries for the two without any additional letters.
In the notes section of the catalog entry you should see the National Archives catalogue number, either WO 361 or WO 364. Be sure to use the correct one.
On the page of the FamilySearch Catalog that has the Notes you will need to click on the View Film Notes button near the top right portion of the screen to get the film numbers that apply to surnames in the different parts of the alphabet. There are 804 rolls of microfilm for the WO 364 records
If you cannot locate the service papers of the soldier you are searching for, it is also worthwhile looking within the pension papers index as many men were entitled to pensions for prior service or due to injuries sustained during WW1.
Officers papers are stored at TNA as above and an index of WW1 officers is available to download free of charge from TNA's website here: $ Officer's Papers
Individual regimental archives may also hold limited records and it is well worth writing to the relevant regimental museums. The Guards depot (Grenadier, Coldstream, Irish, Welsh & Scots) also keep separate archives and can, on request supply information. Bear in mind though that some archives, quite reasonably, request payment for such services.
For information on twentieth century army records, see:
- Holding, Norman H. World War I Army Ancestry. 2nd ed. Solihull, England: Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) Ltd., 1991. (Family History Library book 942 M2hol.)
- Holding, Norman H. More Sources of World War I Army Ancestry. 2nd ed. Solihull, England: Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) Ltd., 1991. (FHL book 942 M24hnr.)
Civilians[edit | edit source]
Civilians were also captured and put in prison camps. One such camp is called The Ruhleben Civilian Internment Camp. Chis Paton has built a website dedicated to this camp and is identifying those who were there during World War 1. See Ruhleben Civilian Internment Camp Ancestors
Due to data protection laws, the records of servicemen or women who served after 1920 are not readily accessible. Under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, you may request record details only if you can supply proof of one of the following criteria:
1. You are the direct next of kin.
2. The person was born more than 112 years ago
3. The person died more than 25 years ago.
There is currently a £30 fee for copies of these records and the record copies are normally heavily censored.
The application forms and guidlines can be found here: UK Veteran's Agency
Royal Air Force[edit | edit source]
Formed on 1st April 1918 by merging the aviation branches of the existing services, namely the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Royal Navy). This merger created the totally independent Royal Air Force (RAF), and is the oldest air force in the world.
The RAF maintains its own records archive although officers papers are downloadable (£) from TNA here: $ RAF Officers records. Other ranks service records are not online but if service ended prior to 1920, can be accessed at TNA. Post-1920 records are dealt with in the same way as army & Navy records under FOI requests(see above).
RAF Officers can also be found listed in the Air Force lists, which have been published annually since August 1918, Most public libraries have copies available to browse.
The Internet Archives has some Air Force lists available online:
- The Monthly Air Force list (Volume Aug 1919)
- The Monthly Air Force list (Volume Sep 1919)
- The Monthly Air Force list (Volume Oct 1919)
- The Monthly Air Force list (Volume Nov 1919)
- The Monthly Air Force list (Volume Dec 1919)
The Internet Archives has some Army lists available online:
- Army List (Volume October-December 1914)
- Army List (Volume July-September 1915)
- Army List (Volume January-March 1916)
- Army List (Volume January-March 1918)
- Army List (Volume July-December 1939)
There are a large number of records held at TNA that can be researched such as Station and Squadron record books; photo albums and so forth.
Royal Air Force records accessible online at the National Archives in England:
- Air 78: An index to airmen and airwomen's service records held in AIR 79.
- Combat Reports, 1939-1945
- Operations Record Book, 1939-1945
- Officer's Service Records, 1918-1919
- Women's Royal Air Force Service Records, 1918-1920
Casualties[edit | edit source]
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Established by Royal Charter in 1917, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission pays tribute to the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars from all services including civillian war dead. It is a non-profit-making organisation that was founded by Sir Fabian Ware. The Commonwealth includes such countries as Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand & South Africa.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a searchable internet website:
Lists of British army personnel who died during World War I have been compiled from official casualty lists and published in:
Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914–1919. Reprint. 80 parts. Colchester, England: J.B. Hayward, 1988–9. (Family History Library book 942 M23s; compact disc number 128.) This gives birthplace, place of enlistment, rank, date of death and cause of death.
Ancestry.co.uk also offers a searchable database of those listed in Soldiers Died in the Great War as part of its subscription service.
The War Dead of the British Commonwealth and Empire. London, England: Imperial War Graves Commission, 1957. (Family History Library 942 M2wdf; film 1441037.) This work gives the name, rank, regiment, and grave location of casualites buried in France during World War II.
Post-WW2 casualties can be found listed at the Armed Forces Memorial website.
[edit | edit source]
- Casualty lists of the Royal and Dominion Navies 1889-2009, complied by Don Kindell (Naval-History.Net)
British Markings[edit | edit source]
- Formation signs were first used by the British Army in WW1 in order to provide an easy method of visual identification of the various units.
- Vehicle Markings in 21st Army Group 1944-1945
Medals[edit | edit source]
Tokens or medals have been awarded to British service personnel since the medieval times although the first officially named campaign medal is the Waterloo Medal (1815). The Military General Service Medal instituted in 1847, covered a retrospective period and was awarded to all army personnel that had served on active campaigns between 1793-1815. Each medal was named to the recipient along with his unit details. A clasp (sometimes incorrectly referred to as a bar) bearing the name of the relevant campaign or battle was attached to the ribbon suspension, with subsequent clasps being added in the sequence in which they were earned. In some cases 10 or more campaign clasps were earned. 29 clasps were authorised in total. Altogether, over 25,000 medals were issued.
The Royal Navy instituted its own equivalent, the Naval General Service Medal, also in 1847 but covering the slightly longer period of 1793-1840. Whilst a staggering 231 different campaign or battle clasps were authorised, not all were issued. The most clasps issued to any single recipient was 7. As the medal was authorised some considerable time after most of the campaigns and battles had taken place, and also due to widespread illiteracy, a large number of men did not claim their medals. In total just over 20,000 medals were actually issued.
These two medals started a precedent of issuing campaign medals that still continues to this day, with the RAF joining the process in 1918 by following the lead set by the Army. It is a widely collected field and there are many resources on the subject. From a family history perspective, knowing what medals a relative was entitled to can lead to fascinating journies of discovery as well as the medal themselves providing useful information.
Awards and Honours[edit | edit source]
Brave conduct, meritorious service and so forth have long been awarded publicly. Since the 19th century, such awards to the military have generally taken medallic form although it has historically been shown that a reward may also involve a promotion or a share of the spoils, particularly if at sea and an enemy vessel was captured,
As such, honours and awards tend to be publicly announced in the London Gazette newspaper. The online search archive can require a certain amount of skill to find what or rather who you are searching for but it can yield fantastic results: London Gazette Archive
Online Resources (Medals):[edit | edit source]
WW1 Army medal index cards are available through $ ancestry.co.uk - if you have a subscription they are free. Otherwise you will have to pay £2 fee to download it if you get it through The National Archives website: $ Medal Index Cards . These cards contain details of name, rank, service number(s), unit(s) as well as confirmation of medal entitlement. Some of the cards have additional information on the reverse such as theatre of operations, home addresses, next of kin and so forth. Only Ancestry have copied both sides of these cards. Information on how to decipher the Medal Index Cards available at Ancestry and TNA There is not an equivalent system for detailing medals awarded to members of the Royal Navy and RAF - medal details were recorded on the service papers and likewise, non-WW1 medals are only annotated on service records for all services.
Various medal rolls for different campaigns also exist in various forms e.g. printed books; CD's; TNA records etc. Some are also available on the subscription based sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past.
The British Medals Forum is probably about as definitive a website as one can find when it comes to the subject of British medals of any type. A huge fount of knowledge resides on the forum and membership is free.
The Victoria Cross is Britian’s highest award for valour to members of the armed forces of Commonwealth countries. The Victoria Cross website lists the burial location for Victoria Cross holders world-wide.
Medals indexes and records online at the National Archives
- British Army medal index cards, 1914-1920
- Recommendations for military honours and awards, 1935-1990
- Merchant seamen's campaign medal records, 1914-1918
- Merchant seamen's medal records, 1939-1945
- Victoria Cross registers, 1856-1944
Understanding Military Records[edit | edit source]
Before you can use British military records, you must determine the specific name or number of the army regiment or navy ship name[s] on which your ancestor served. For suggestions on finding this information, see "Search Strategies" at the end of this section.
Once you know the ship name[s] or the regiment name or number, the following records may help you trace your ancestor’s career, age, and birthplace.
Muster Rolls[edit | edit source]
"Muster Rolls and Pay Rates" were monthly accounts that were kept of military enlistment and pay schedules. They were kept for privates up through officers and may contain valuable information such as "good conduct" awards, punishments, special assignments, and the like. A commanding officer made every effort to list everyone on his muster rolls since the number of men determined his funding. The records usually list each person assigned to a ship or regiment at the muster date, his age on joining, the date he joined, the place where he joined, and sometimes information such as a dependent list (in later army musters) and birthplace (on sea musters from 1770). Muster records for the Royal Artillery are the earliest, beginning in 1708. Other army musters exist for 1760 to 1878. After 1790, they were kept in bound volumes. Navy musters cover 1667 to 1878. Naval musters contain "alphabets" (indexes organized by the first letter of the surname) from 1765.These records can also be used to track the movements of a specific individual.
- Photo courtesy of National Archives at Kew, London, England
WO 12 Series: General Muster Books and Pay Lists[edit | edit source]
These records begin in 1732 and end in 1878. They cover guards, infantry, cavalry, and household troops. According to the National Archives these records also include special groups, such as colonial troops, various foreign legions, special regiments, and other depots.
These records show an individual's enlistment dates, his movements and dischage dates as show below, notice the sections under "First Muster, Second Muster, and Third Muster", these are the locations of the soldiers at the time of their pay.
- Photo courtesy of the National Archives at Kew, London, England
If the information you seek is after 1868. there is a "Roll of Married Establishment" which lists husbands and wives as shown below:
- Photo courtesy of the National Archives at Kew, London, England
Recording all this information must have been a daunting task as these books are very large as shown in the earlier picture. There are 13, 307 volumes of these records located at the National Archives. To view them, you have to be there and view them in a special document room.
Because photopying these very large volumes would be extremely difficult, you can use a camera (without flash) to capture the images.
If you are unable to visit the National Archives, they provide a document service at £0.40 per page.
Visit $ WO12 Series General Muster Books and Pay Lists to learn more about these valuable records.
Pension Records.[edit | edit source]
These records often contain details of an individual’s reason for pension, his fitness on discharge, and sometimes the address where pension payments were sent.
Army pension records start in 1690. Pensions were awarded for length of service, disability, or wounds to most individuals who legally left army service. Sometimes the widows or children of military men received the payments. Payments to retired officers, called half-pay, were not considered pensions. Many different types of pension records covering different time periods still exist.
Naval pension records begin as early as 1617 and give the name of pensioner, reason for discharge, and sometimes next of kin, birthplace, age, and physical description.
Widow’s or children’s pension records often include marriage or baptismal certificates in support of the claim for assistance.
There are many other pension-related records among those of the Paymaster General (Class PMG) at the Public Record Office. The Family History Library also has some pension records.
Description Books[edit | edit source]
The army description book for each regiment includes each recruit’s full name on "attestation" (enlistment), age when he joined, place where he joined, birthplace, previous trade, and physical description. Most books start about 1805 and continue to 1850. Many no longer exist. Similar records were kept for each navy ship from 1790, but many were never turned in or no longer exist.
Returns of Service (WO 25)[edit | edit source]
In 1806 the War Office compiled the first return of service, listing all men in the army. The scope, content, and frequency of returns of service vary greatly. Returns of officers’ service tend to be more complete, including the names of the officer and his wife and children; birth and marriage dates and places; and a complete summary of stations, regiments, and promotions.
The returns of officers services for 1828 and 1829 have been transcribed and are found at the Family History Library. The 1828 return was for active duty officers only, while the 1829 return was for both active and half-pay (retired) officers. These records have the National Archives designation of WO 25. Two sets of books serve as a rough "index" to the original returns of service for 1828 and 1829. They only list officers who had children and they are in the same order as the names appear in the original returns (grouped by first three letters of the surname). The two sets of several volumes are:
Children of Officers on Full or Half-pay, 1828. Bound manuscript. N.p., n.d. (Family History Library book 942 M23ber.)
Children of Officers on Full-pay, 1829. Bound manuscript. N.p., n.d. (Family History Library book 942 M23be.)
Similar returns of naval officers begin in 1817. The naval returns are indexed at The National Archives (ADM 10). See England Archives and Libraries for the address.
Pay Records[edit | edit source]
Pay records include the following:
- Pay lists give the name and rate of pay and sometimes ‘to whom paid’ (which may be a spouse or other relative). Navy pay lists were kept by ship and are not indexed. Active duty army personnel were paid from the muster rolls, and separate pay lists do not always exist.
- Pay warrants are records of actual payment filed with the Exchequer records at The National Archives. Final pay warrants often mention a will or administration and the death date.
- Pay ledgers contain the assignments of pay, addresses to which pay was sent (from 1837), and sometimes birth dates.
- Half-pay registers contain officers’ names, ranks, regiments, dates of first half-pay, rates of pay, and sometimes death dates.
Ship Logs[edit | edit source]
Ship logs exist from 1673. While they usually give information only on position, weather, and sightings of other ships, records of shipboard events may include names of individual seamen.
Continuous Service Engagement Books[edit | edit source]
From 1853 navy ratings (seamen) were assigned continuous service numbers. The records gave name, birth date and place, description, and ship. Brief career details were later added. From 1872 until 1892 merchant seamen were included.
Registers of Service[edit | edit source]
These records tell which ship a man served on. For officers these start in 1846. Those for warrant officers and seamen cover 1802 to 1871.
Soldiers’ Documents (WO 97)[edit | edit source]
These records of army service are available only for those soldiers who were discharged to pension. Corresponding records for those who left the Army for reasons other than discharge were destroyed. These records vary over time and even between soldiers. They usually include attestation and discharge documents. They often contain the reason for discharge and details on age, birthplace, and trade or occupation on enlistment. They are arranged by regiment, then alphabetically by surname for the years 1760 through 1872. The records for 1873 to 1882 are alphabetically arranged by corps (cavalry, foot soldiers, artillery, guards, and so forth). From 1883 to 1914, these records are arranged in one alphabetical series.
An index to these records is available as part of the online catalogue of the National Archives of the UK. You may enter the name of a soldier in the 'Word or phrase' field and the 'Department or series code' of WO (for War Office) 97. See National Archives for further information.
At the Family History Library the records are on microfilm and arranged by regiment. These records have been digitised and are available online via findmypast.co.uk. There are also searchable on FamilySearch.org
It was possible to have a qualified pension commuted to allow a soldier to immigrate to British colonies. A list of those who did, between the years 1830-1839, is found online at TheShipsList.com.
The Public Record Office has a computerized index to the soldiers’ documents from 1760 to 1854. The index shows the name, age, birthplace, year of enlistment and discharge, the regiment, and the reference to the original document.
Chaplains’ Returns[edit | edit source]
Army chaplains throughout the British Empire kept records that list the baptisms, marriages, and burials of officers, soldiers, and their families. These returns (from 1760 to 1971) are indexed and are available by correspondence from the Office of National Statistics (formerly Registrar General). Indexes for births 1796–1880, for marriages 1796–1955, and for deaths 1786–1880, are available on microfiche at the Family History Library.
Regimental Registers[edit | edit source]
Regiments kept birth, marriage, and death records for officers and men. Births and baptisms are indexed. These records (1790–1924) are available by correspondence from the Office of National Statistics (formerly Registrar General). The indexes are available on microfiche at the Family History Library.
Records of Service.[edit | edit source]
These records, similar to soldiers’ documents, were kept for army officers from 1771 until 1911. However, they are incomplete before 1828. They contain the officer’s birth date and place; promotions; transfers; marriage date and place; his spouse’s name; and his children’s names, birth dates, and birthplaces.
Lists of Officers[edit | edit source]
Published annually, these records give an officer’s name, rank, regiment or ship, and date of commission. See:
- Army List. London, England: publishers and title vary, 1754–. (Family History Library book 942 M25; films 856427–452 and others.) First published in 1740, these lists have been published continuously since 1754 and are indexed beginning in 1766. They list army officers and are arranged by regiment. Half-pay (semi-retired) officers were not included in the early indexes. The listing for WO 65 is avaliable for free download Family History: Digital Microfilm Catalogue Description WO 65 National Archives online
- Index to Commission and Warrant Books. N.p., n.d. (Family History Library films 824516–7.) This index lists naval officers from 1695–1742 and gives dates of commission and a reference to further details available at The National Archives.
- Navy List. London, England: several publishers, 1782–. (Family History Library book 942 M25gba; films 918928–940, 990323–326.) The Navy List names all commissioned officers, including masters, pursers, surgeons, chaplains, yard officers, coast guardsmen, and reservists.
Militia Lists and Musters[edit | edit source]
Militia lists (beginning as early as 1297) contain the names of men eligible for military service. Militia musters are lists of men in the militia. Early militia lists and most militia musters contain only the men’s names. A brief explanation of musters and the location of available pre-1757 lists are given in:
- Gibson, Jeremy, and Alan Dell. Tudor and Stuart Muster Rolls. Solihull, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Ltd., 1989. (Family History Library book 942 M2gj)
Militia units were generally raised on a county basis and kept their own records. From 1757 to 1876, lists of men ages 18 to 55 were compiled by individual parishes and turned in to the shire (county) lieutenant. These lists usually contain each man’s name, parish of residence, age, fitness for service, and sometimes cause for exemption (such as a man with more than two young children, a disability, or an exempt occupation).
Origins.net has a dataset that contains over 110,000 names of militia recruits in England and Scotland. The Irish Origins index contains another 12,500 names of militia recruits. A project is also underway to digitize Militia Attestation (enlistment) papers for 1806-1915 (WO 96), and make them available online through findmypast.com, by the end of 2011.
For further information on militia lists and musters, see:
- Medlycott, Mervyn, and Jeremy Gibson. Militia Lists and Musters, 1757–1876. 3rd Editor. Solihull, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Ltd., 1994. (Family History Library book 942 M2gmm.BYU Harold B Lee Library book CS 414 .X1 G533 2001.)
Other Records[edit | edit source]
Many other records are available, such as records on medals, casualties, promotions, desertion, and court martials. The following military branches have separate records:
- Fencibles were army units raised for home service only. Fencibles were usually classed with the militia, and records are kept with militia records.
- The Ancient British Fencible Cavalry 1794-1800. A brief history of the British Fencible Cavalry with a list of Officers who served with the Regiment, covering years 1794-1800. Article in Hel Achau, #3, Spring 1981, pages 21-24, Family History Library Ref. 942.23 D25h
- Yeomanry were volunteer regiments, records of which often do not survive or are less complete than other military records.
- Colonial armies were forces raised in other countries. Records of these forces are usually in the country where the forces were raised. A notable exception is the Indian Army, for which many records are held at the British Library Oriental and India Office Collections, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB England. British Army in India information, click here.
- The Coast Guard (1816–1923) kept their own records, including pension, description, and other records.
These records are at The National archives. For further information on military records for branches of the service other than navy or regular army, see the military record handbooks at the end of this section.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has an incomplete list of all known POWs and internees of all nationalities for both World Wars. Searches can be made only by a written request and an hourly rate is charged. To learn more about how to obtain a copy of a listing use the contact information located on their website.
Resources[edit | edit source]
The National Archives (TNA), located at Kew, West London, houses a wealth of information on military personnel, much of it now available to download. See the "Online Resources" section below for further information.
Military histories or regimental histories are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:
GREAT BRITAIN - MILITARY HISTORY
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU England
Post-1914 army records are at:
Army Records Centre
Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF
Post-1914 navy records are at:
Ministry of Defense
Main Building, Whitehall SW1A 2HB
Imperial War Museum
Imperial War Museum, London (WWI & WWII Collections)
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library’s collection of army records includes:[edit | edit source]
- Army soldiers’ documents (before 1882)
- Description books
- World War I service files
- Officers’ records of service
- Army Lists 1740 to the present
- Indexes to the Regimental Registers and the Chaplains’ Returns
- Regimental histories
- Other miscellaneous army records
For theNavy, the library has:
- Continuous service engagement books
- Indexes to commission and warrant books
- Bounty papers
- Various published sources
Some Royal Marine attestation (enlistment) records are also available at the library.
A number of name indexes to some military records containing birth, marriages, or deaths are in the Family History Library. These indexes can be found in the Place search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:
MILITARY RECORDS - CIVIL REGISTRATION
Library records are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under either ENGLAND or GREAT BRITAIN and the following subject headings:
MILITARY RECORDS - ARMY
MILITARY RECORDS - NAVY
Search Strategies[edit | edit source]
It is difficult to locate an individual’s record without knowing his ship or regiment. If you do not know this, you may find it in other types of records. Once you know the regiment or ship, consult the muster rolls, records of service, or other records available for that ship or regiment. Strategies for finding the ship or regiment follow.
If you know a campaign or battle in which the ancestor fought, a place he was stationed, or a place where a child was born while he was in the service, use:
Kitzmiller, John. In Search of the "Forlorn Hope," 2 vols. plus supp. Ogden, Utah: Manuscript Publishing Foundation, 1988. (Family History Library book 942 M2j.) This work will help you find where regiments were stationed during a range of years.
Army Officers. You can usually find army officers in the Army List (1740 to the present - see "Lists of Officers" in this article). If your ancestor does not appear in the Army List for the right time period, consult the card index to officers, available only at the Public Record Office.
If an officer was living during 1828 or 1829, you can use the indexed returns of service. "Birth certificates" submitted with widow’s pension applications may reveal an officer’s name. If you still cannot find a record, use the search strategies for soldiers.
Usually there are separate records for Commissariat officers, staff officers, medical officers (surgeons), chaplains, and others. Board of Ordnance officers (artillery, engineers, sappers, miners, artificers, and others) are not always included in the Army List and have their own records until 1855.
Royal Navy personnel. If your ancestor was in the navy after 1852, search the index to Continuous Service Engagement Books, or the Surname Index to the 1861 Census Returns of Ships. (See the "Merchant Marine" article.) Before 1853 the source to use depends on what you know about your ancestor. If you know:
- The name of a ship on which he served, search the ship musters, pay lists, and ship logs for the time period he should have been aboard.
- A port where your ancestor landed on a specific date, search the List Books, a geographically arranged list of ship locations at the Public Record Office (class ADM 8).
- A battle or campaign in which his ship was involved, search the medal rolls.
- The name of an officer serving with your ancestor, search the Navy List for that officer’s ship.
Since many seamen also served in the Merchant Marines during their careers, search the records described in British Merchant Marine
Many officers are included in published biographies, such as:
Bibliography for Military Records[edit | edit source]
The resorces listed below may assist you in your research:
Bevan, Amanda, and Andrea Duncan. Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office. Fourth Edition. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1995. (Family History Library book 942 A5 no. 19 1995.)
Colledge, James J. Ships of the Royal Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1987. (Family History Library book 942 M3c.)
Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald. In Search of Army Ancestry. London, England: Phillimore & Company, Limited, 1977. (Family History Library book 942 M2. BYU FHL book CS 415 .H36 1977.)
Higham, Robin. A Guide to the Sources of British Military History. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. (Family History Library book 942 M2h.)
Kew Lists. (See England Archives and Libraries for details.)
Records of Officers and Soldiers Who Have Served in the British Army. London, England: Public Record Office, 1984. (Family History Library book 942 M23 number 1.)
Rodgers, N.A.M. Naval Records for Genealogists. Second Edition. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1988. (Family History Library book 942 A5 number 22.)
Swinson, Arthur S., Editor. A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army. London, England: Archive Press, 1972. (Family History Library book 942 M2.)
White, Arthur S. comp. A Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army. Dallington, East Sussex, England: Naval and Military Press Ltd., 1992. (Family History Library book 942 M23was.)
References[edit | edit source]
- Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald (1977). In Search of Army Ancestry. Phillimore, p. 73.