How to research a soldier of the "other ranks" 1914-1918

Be prepared to be disappointed ... and delighted if you find something ...

 

What do you mean by 'a soldier of the "other ranks"' ?

What this page is about

This page offers advice on how to trace details of a soldier of the British Army of the Great War - with the following exceptions:
  • Men who were commissioned as officers: see our page of advice;
  • Men who served in the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Air Force;
  • Men who served in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines or Royal Naval Division;
  • Female members of the armed forces

Did he serve after 1921?

Yes, I know he did

If the man served after 1921, his record will not yet be public.
The records of these men are held by the Ministry of Defence and copies can be obtained.
It is necessary to provide evidence of kinship.
It currently costs £30 and turnround time can be lengthy.
It should be available on application from the Veteran's Agency.
Download the "Kinship Certificate" not the Subject Access Request unless you are that soldier.

I do not know

In most cases a man who enlisted for the war and survived it were out of the army by this date, by by no means all. It can be very difficult to know if a man continued in service (and do not forget that many re-enlisted for short periods of service after the war). There is no central index or population census that will help you. Family records and stories are best for this, but unless you know - we'd suggest you assume he left and follow the advice given below.

No, he left the army before 1922 (or died in service)

Then you can follow the advice given below.

The prime task: finding his army service record

The military career of every soldier was recorded in great detail. His enlistment, promotions, postings, movements, health, conduct and eventual discharge were all written down on official army forms. The forms used varied depending on the type of soldier Grandad was. An "army service record" is this collection of the forms and documents referring to the individual soldier. The record gives the single most comprehensive view of a soldier's army career. The records vary considerably in size and content.

There are a number of places where you might find the service record of a soldier.
Overall the chances of success are only about 1 in 3.
Most of the records were held at a War Office building at Arnside Street in London which was destroyed by fire resulting from a German air raid in 1940. Well over half of the records held there were lost, and many of those that survived are damaged by smoke and water.

1. The "burnt series".

The remains of records rescued from the burned building. These records are often damaged by smoke and water.

Free access to these records Paid access to these records
These records were transferred to the National Archives and are viewable by the public.

They are held in document series WO363.

The original documents are frail and access is only by microfilm.

This is free of charge but of course you need to visit the National Archives in person or hire help to do so.
The records have also been scanned and can be accessed for a fee from Ancestry.

It is the microfilm images that have been scanned, not the originals.

Search British Army WWI "Burnt Series" Service Records now (opens in new window).

You may, if you will not be a frequent user of Ancestry's service, find it cheaper to hire help.


2. The "unburnt series" or "pension records".

It was later discovered that some of the records were not in the building when it was burned. They had been taken to the Ministry of Pensions for analysis. In most cases the records are only parts of the original service record and tend to be concentrated on medical and discharge documents. They are generally in good condition.

Free access to these records Paid access to these records
These records have also been transferred to the National Archives and are viewable by the public.

They are held in document series WO364.

The original documents are frail and access is only by microfilm.

This is free of charge but of course you need to visit the National Archives in person or hire help to do so.
The records have also been scanned and can be accessed for a fee from Ancestry.

It is the microfilm images that have been scanned, not the originals.

Search British Army WWI "Unburnt Series" Service Records now (opens in new window).

You may, if you will not be a frequent user of Ancestry's service, find it cheaper to hire help.

The WO364 collection is often erroneously described as pension records: it is not - it is a collection of a sample of records that mostly happen to be of men who were awarded a pension.

The two collections are not exclusive: we have found some examples where a man's record (parts of it) are in both WO363 and WO364.

3. Other sets of service records

The Guards.
The Guards regiments maintained a separate set of records and these are accessible via the Archivists of those regiments, all of whom can be contacted at the respective regimental headquarters at

The Regimental Archivist of the [name] Guards
Wellington Barracks
Birdcage Walk
London
SW1E 6HQ
.

Some of the Guards regiments require payment for supplying a copy, others invite a donation.
In all cases you should at first write, asking for a copy of the form that the regimental archivist requires in order to carry out a search.

We have found plenty of Guards records in WO364; fewer in WO363.

The Household regiments.
If the man served in the Household regiments [Household Battalion, Life Guards or Royal Horse Guards] his records may be intact. Some (mainly of casualties, it seems) are held in collection WO400 at the National Archives. The Household Cavalry Museum, Combermere Barracks, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 3DN, also has a set. Written enquiries are welcomed but enquirers are recommended to contact the museum for access conditions before visiting in person.

The little known pension records PIN26.
There is another collection of service records held at the National Archives, which is an even smaller sample of men discharged to pension. They are not available online and have not been microfilmed. Search the Catalogue at the National Archives website using the man's surname and the series number PIN26. But don't hold your hopes high - we are talking about very small numbers of records.

The Royal Naval Division.
If the man served in the Royal Marine Light Infantry or the Royal Naval units of the Royal Naval Division, his service record can be searched and downloaded from the Documents Online section of the National Archives website. There is a fee for downloading the documents. Further RND records are held at the Fleet Air Arm Museum.

 

What does a soldier's service record include?

The "standard" content of a service record

There is no standard content. The record consists of a number of different army forms, papers and correspondence and no two records are exactly alike in their content. Sadly what remains is generally only part of the man's original file. The records were thinned out in the 1930's and much was destroyed. We have seen men's files of just a few pages, up to whoppers of 100 documents or more.

On the other hand, service records often provide very little information on what the soldier actually did, where he went and whether he had any kind of specialism. They can be hard to read and full of army abbreviations and jargon, which you might need help to interpret.

One of the more commonly found documents in a service record: the Casualty Form - Active Service

An army service record is likely to be the only military document you will find that gives any useful family detail.


What else can I find about a man's service?

There are a number of other sources which can be consulted and which can add detail to that found in his service record. If the man's record has been destroyed these other sources are invaluable in assisting you in reconstructing his career. They include:

  • The documents relating to campaign medals that he was awarded: see our guide;
  • The documents relating to mentions in despatches, gallantry and other special awards: our guide;
  • The war diaries of his unit(s): our guide;
  • The local press carried many articles, lists and letters from men who sere serving;
  • The 1918 Absent Voters List often provides a valuable snippet of information: see our guide;
  • There are excellent sources concerning men who died: see our guide;
  • There are additional sources concerning Prisoners of War: see our guide;
  • Published regimental or unit histories are unlikely to mention "other ranks" but can give useful background information;
  • The Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum, the Liddle Collection and the regimental archives all have extensive collections of documents, photographs, correspondence and other material in which a man may be mentioned. It's a very long shot in most cases and best left until all else has been exhausted.

You should find the Long, Long Trail sections on army abbreviations, unit definitions, types of soldier etc useful in putting his story together.


Did your soldier serve before 1914?

If you soldier was in the army before 1914, there are two or three more places you can search

  • The army service record of men discharged up to and including 1913 are held in documents series WO96 (for part-time Militia) and WO97 (for full-time regulars) at the National Archives. The WO97 collection has been digitised and is now searchable at Findmypast. In theory if he re-enlisted for Great War service his papers should not be in WO97 but we have found many that are;
  • The population census of 1911 is a most valuable toll, for whether they were in barracks at home or on garrison duty overseas, soldiers are recorded, giving their age, rank, place of birth, unit and location. Again, this census is at Findmypast.
  • If a man served in the Boer War of 1899-1902, he is likely to have qualified for at least one campaign medal (the most common being the Queen's South Africa Medal). A medal roll exists, on microfilm, in series WO100 at the National Archives. There is no central index so it is necessary to know the man's regiment.

 

If you need more help to interpret what you have found, try our professional service fourteeneighteen|research.