How to find records of soldiers of the British Army of 1914-1918

There are many potential sources of information about a soldier. On this page you will find details of Soldier's service records + Campaign medals records + Gallantry awards + Foreign awards + Long Service awards + Silver War Badge + Records of deaths + Operational records + Prisoner of War records + Absent Voters Lists + Published national rolls + Local sources + Sources specific to officers

Soldier's service records
  • Every soldier had a service record, although only some 30% or so now exist.

  • A service record consists of a number of different army forms used to record information about a soldier during his military career. The numbers and types of forms in a man’s record vary greatly from soldier to soldier, as does the quality and legibility of the information they contain. Service records often also contain private correspondence: for example if a man was enquiring with regard to his medals or if a widow was enquiring about a pension.

  • The records were thinned out before going into storage in the 1930s, by disposal of many documents.

  • An army service record is the only source likely to give family, age, birthplace and trade information.

  • There are several separate collections of records to search, depending on circumstances:
The extent and quality of information found in a service record varies greatly. Below: this is part of one of the most useful documents, Army Form B103, the rather misleadingly-named "Casualty Form Active Service" on which was recorded the man's movements between units. This example, of which only the top part is displayed, was found in WO363.
Example
Collection WO363, also known as the Burnt Records. This is the main collection of army service records to men who left the army between 1914 and 1921 inclusive, including those who died in service. The records were affected by a fire in the building where they stored in 1940: the 20-30% that survived the fire are in this collection, but many are only fragments or have suffered damage.
  • These records are now online at Ancestry
  • They are also available on microfilm at the National Archives
  • The originals are no longer accessible
Collection WO364, also known as the Unburnt Records. It is also often referred to (incorrectly) as the Pension Records. Some records had been removed from the building that burned and were later found at the Ministry of Pensions. These records are usually a relatively small subset of what would have been the man’s record. It is possible to find a record in both WO363 and WO364.
  • These records are now online at Ancestry
  • They are also available on microfilm at the National Archives
  • The originals are no longer accessible
Collection PIN26. Also found at the Ministry of Pensions, this is a very small but often overlooked collection.
  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives
Collection WO97. This is the main collection of army service records to men who left the army up to 1914. If a man re-enlisted for the war then theoretically his record should not be here but I have found many that are.
  • These records are now online at Findmypast
  • They are also available in original form at the National Archives
Collection WO96. Similar to WO97 but for men who served in the Militia (which was abolished in 1908).
  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives
Collection WO339. This is the main collection of army service records to men who served as officers of the regular army and who left the army before 1922. The collection is incomplete, with senior officers being notably absent.
  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives
Collection WO374. This is the main collection of army service records to men who served as officers of the Territorial Force and who left the army before 1922.
  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives
Collection WO400. This is a collection of army service records to men who served with the regiments of the Household Cavalry.
  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives
  • The collection is not complete and appears in the main to be of casualties
  • 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.
Guards regimental collections 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.

I have found plenty of Guards records in WO364; fewer in WO363.
The Ministry of Defence If the soldier continued in service to 1921 or later (and the possibility of his re-enlisting in 1919 for just one or a few years service should not be ignored; thousands did so) or if he returned to serve in the army in WW2, his record will not yet be public. It can be obtained - on payment of a fee and demonstration of evidence of kinship - from the Ministry of Defence Veteran's Agency.


Campaign medals records
  • Every soldier qualified for at least one campaign medal if he left his native shore to serve overseas.

  • The medals records generally do not have age, address, next of kin or similar information .

  • But they are vital records, especially if the man's army service record can not be found:
The extent and quality of information found in a medal record varies somewhat. Below: this is part of one of the most useful types, in which the man's units are given in full. This example is from a roll held in WO329.
Example
Eligibility See The campaign medals of the Great War
Medal rolls The man's details were entered into an issuing roll, one per medal (although the British War and Victory Medals were usually issued from the same roll). Most rolls carry useful information: indeed vital information if the service record can not be found. The man's numbers, ranks, regiments, units and sometimes dates in theatre are given.
  • The rolls are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives (a very few are on microfilm there).
  • Most infantry units are given in the rolls, but units of men in the larger Corps are rarely quoted.
Index cards An index was created in the form of a card system, giving the references to the rolls the man was entered into.
  • The index cards have been digitised and can be found at the National Archives DocumentsOnline and at Ancestry
  • Note that is some (rare) cases the card appears at either DocumentsOnline or Ancestry but not both
  • See Interpreting a medal index card
  • Tip: a man sometimes has two or more index cards
Silver War Badge

The Silver War Badge had a similar roll. The reference is usually included on the medal index card, but it is not uncommon to find it entered on a separate card. This is also true if the man did not qualify for medals but was eligible for the badge.

  • The rolls have been digitised and can be found at Ancestry


Gallantry awards records
Eligibility Most gallantry awards were made for specific acts of bravery or meritorious conduct in the field, although some were also given in the New Year and King's Birthday Honours. See The British gallantry awards of the Great War
Citations Some types of award had a published citation describing the act. The New Year and King's Birthday Honours do not have citations and it is rare to find a citation for the Military Medal and the Mention in Despatches.
Records The awards and citations were published in the London Gazette, replicated a day or two later by the Times.
  • The London Gazette and Times have been digitised and are searchable online, although the Times Archive has restricted access
  • Tip: citations and mentions of the awards often appear in unit war diaries and published unit, formation or regimental histories.
Finding aids The National Archives has an incomplete card index to gallantry awards, giving details of the London Gazette issue in which it appeared.
  • These cards have been digitised and are searchable at Ancestry in the campaign medal index cards collection.


Foreign awards records
  • Many Allied and friendly governments granted awards and decorations to men serving in the British Army:
Below: an example of a citation for the French Croix de Guerre, given to 45947 Sergeant G. R. Baird of 88 Brigade (Royal Field Artillery). This was found in the brigade's war diary.
Example
Citations The awards did not have a published citation describing the act or service for which it was given.
  • Tip: some mentions of the awards, very occasionally with citations, appear in unit war diaries and published unit, formation or regimental histories (as in teh example shown above).
Records The various awards were published in the London Gazette, replicated a day or two later by the Times.
  • The London Gazette and Times have been digitised and are searchable online, although the Times Archive has restricted access.


Long Service awards records
Eligibility Soldiers qualified for the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal if they met the eligibility criteria (which required eighteen years service, with war service counting double).
  • This award was recorded in a roll, held in the National Archives in series WO102 and now available in digitised form as a free-of-charge download. The roll is organised by regiment and goes up to awards made in 1919.
  • Awards made after 1919 are not yet public information.
Records Availability of public records depends on when the man qualified for the award.
  • The award was recorded in a roll, held in the National Archives in series WO102 and now available in digitised form as a free-of-charge download. The roll is organised by regiment and goes up to awards made in 1919.
  • Awards made after 1919 are not yet public information.


Silver War Badge records
  • The Silver War Badge was instituted in 1916 and awarded to men who were honourably discharged. It was also made in retrospect (that is, to men discharged in 1914 or 1915 who otherwise met the criteria):
Below: an example of a page from the roll of the Silver War Badge, held in WO329.
Example
Records The man's details were entered into an issuing roll, similar to the medal rolls (above). The War Badge rolls carry useful information: indeed vital information if the service record can not be found. The man's date of enlistment, number, rank, regiment, unit at time of discharge, date and cause of discharge, whether he had served overseas and sometimes his age are given.
  • The reference to the roll is given as "SWB List" or "List" or "Action taken" on the medal index card.
  • Sometimes the man has a separate SWB index card.
  • Tip: the SWB cards are not always indexed using the man's full name; try his surname and number if known, or his surname and initial.
  • The rolls are held in original format at the National Archives. They have also been digitised and can be seen at Ancestry.
  • For more information see Interpreting a medal index card
Badges The badges were individually numbered. It is possible to trace the recipient of the badge from its number. Contact fourteeneighteen|research or use the search facility at Ancestry


Records of military deaths
Below: an example of the details held in the "debt of Honour" database by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Example
Commonwealth War Graves Commission The principle record of soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War is the "Debt of Honour" database maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
  • The database is free to search.
  • The information was compiled from original cemetery and memorial registers, copies of which can be found at most of the cemeteries and in some libraries (for example, Birmingham Central Library has a set).
  • As seen in the example, the man's name, number, rank, regiment, date of death and place of burial or commemoration are given; in many cases it also gives his age and some personal detail such as the name and address of next of kin.
"Soldiers Died in the Great War" The death of soldiers was also compiled into a 1921 publication, "Soldiers Died in the Great War", which was based on regimental records.
  • "Soldiers Died" was originally published in a large number of regimental volumes, listing men by unit and surname.
    • Original and reprinted volumes are reasonably easy to find on the used book market and are held in many regimental museums.
    • The information has been digitised and is available on CDROM from The Naval & Military Press.
    • The CDROM information has been used as a basis for a searchable listing at Ancestry.
  • The information includes the man's name, rank, number, regiment, date of death, cause of death, theatre of war and some or all of his place of birth, place of residence and place of enlistment.
    • The original version contains some errors of fact.
    • The CDROM version inevitably contains the same errors of fact and adds some transcription errors.
    • The Ancestry version has not used the full theatre of war description, so for example both France and Italian theatres are given as "Western European".
National press listings The death of a soldier was usually listed in the "Times" and/or "The Scotsman" newspaper, both of which are searchable online. "The Scostman Archive" is a pay-per-view site; the "Times" archive is accessible to some libraries, archives and educational establishments.
  • When a man was initially declared missing and his death was later officially accepted as having taken place, he may not be mentioned at all.
Registration of death The deaths of a soldier was registered in the same way as a civilian (even if killed in action overseas), and a copy death certificate can be ordered from the General Register Office (England and Wales office).
  • The death certificate may not give much information beyond that found in the CWGC "Debt of Honour" register and "Soldiers Died".
  • The index to overseas military deaths can be found at the pay-per-view site Findmypast.
Records of effects Some records of soldiers effects (mainly cash) can be found in the London Gazette and at the National Army Museum.
  • The records held by NAM are off site and it is necessary to apply in writing.
More sources of information

The local newspapers carried many announcements, lists and obituaries including many with photographs.

County Records Offices, regional libraries with local history sections, and the Newspaper Library at Colindale in London, are all good sources for local press articles.

For Ulster, the private website Eddie's News Extracts has an excellent collection of locals rolls of honour.

The private website Roll of Honour has many listings from war memorials in the UK.

The private website North East War Memorials Project has many listings from war memorials in the North east of England.

More information on records of deaths and how to determine where and in which action a man died.



Operational records
  • Units that served overseas recorded their day-to-day movements and activities in a war diary. They are vital documents for understanding, for example, the location and circumstances in which a man was killed or won a gallantry award:
Below: an example of a page from the diary of the 7th South Staffords, held in WO95/1816. It is typical in terms of condition and legibility.
Example
Nature of the records The diary was not a record of individuals, although officers are often named, as are men who were given gallantry awards.
  • Some diarists were also meticulous in recording the names of the dead and wounded.
  • Some diaries include casualty or other lists of men.
  • Not all unit diaries have survived, with the Labour Corps and Royal Garrison Artillery being particularly affected.
  • The higher formations also maintained diaries and they tend to have more appendix material in the form of maps, orders and reports - so if you are looking for an infantry battalion, for example, it is also worth looking the the diary of their brigade.
Availability The diaries are held at the National Archives in document series WO95.
  • Most are originals and require a personal visit in order to view them.
  • Some of the diaries have been digitised and can be purchased at the DocumentsOnline area of the National Archives website.
  • Some regimental museums have copies of the original diary.
  • Efforts by some museums and individuals have transcribed some diaries which can now be found online. Try Googling for the regiment or unit in which you are interested.


Records of Prisoners of War
  • The best records of British POWs are held in Switzerland:
Fragmentary records in UK There are very few records of British POWs held in the United Kingdom.
  • A (relatively small) number of records of debriefing interviews and reports from the Red Cross and other observers, compiled for a committee investigating cases of mis-treatment of British POWs, is held by the National Archives in document series WO161.
    • The records have been digitised and are available at the DocumentsOnline area of the National Archives website.
  • A printed list of officers taken POW was produced during the war and has been reprinted in recent years: there is a copy in the National Archives Library and it can be found on the used book market. It is the List of officers taken prisoner in the various theatres of war between August 1914 and November 1918. It was originally published by Cox & Co.
  • Unit war diaries (above) sometimes named men who were missing.
  • The "Times" and "The Scotsman" newspaper printed official War Office lists of the missing, and also notifications when a man previously declared missing was now known to be in enemy hands.
  • Records of men who died in enemy captivity are recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (above).
  • Local newspapers recorded men who were declared as missing or as POWs.
  • The British Red Cross & Order of St John of Jerusalem produced lists of wounded and missing British personnel in all theatres of war about whom enquiries had been made; the list is up to and including 20 July 1917 had been repinrted by the Naval & Military Press.
  • Unit war diaries occasionally name officers or men who were reported missing.
Records in Switzerland The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva holds more records.
  • This was the single largest archive retaining records of POWs from the Great War period, but access is restricted. There is an appropriate form to complete, available on the ICRC Archives website. This is a paid service and ICRC will provide details of costs once you have submitted the form.




Absent Voters Lists
  • This can be a valuable source if you can not find a man's service record and do not know his regiment or number:
Eligibility An electoral roll was produced for the General Election of December 1918. This was the first election after the passing of the Representation of the People Act in February 1918 and meant that for the first time all male resident householders aged 21 or older and all women over 30 (if they were a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register) could vote.
Records Those eligible to be on the roll but who were away from home on military service were compiled into a separate Absent Voters List. The list carried snippets of vital information: regiments, units, numbers. Not all the lists have survived; some appear not to have been compiled at all; local archives often profess to be unaware of them - but as a last resort they are well worth checking.
  • See the page on Absent Voters Lists for more information.
  • Some districts did not produce a separate roll but identified the person who was away on the standard electoral roll.


Published national rolls
  • Incomplete and inaccurate but can add useful details if you are lucky:
National Roll of Honour and De Ruvigny's Roll Two privately-produced rolls listing men who served, which between them list thousands of men (most with a few lines of biography and in De Ruvigny's many with photographs) but which merely scratch the surface in terms of proportion of men who were covered.
  • Details of how the two were compiled are meagre but it appears both were by subscription (that is, the man or his family paid for an entry).
  • The National Roll is solidly an "other ranks" publication, de Ruvigny's mainly officers. The National Roll in particular is not reliable as a source of military information, but it does give a background and importantly it has an address for the soldier. It went out of business after covering perhaps 10% of the country.
  • The National Roll is now available as a searchable database at Ancestry or in printed form from The Naval & Military Press.
  • The early volumes of De Ruvigny's roll can be downloaded as whole volumes from archive.org.
The Bond of Sacrifice A privately-produced roll listing officers who lost their lives in the first years of the war.
  • Can be downloaded as a complete volume (free) from Archive.org.


Local sources
  • Whether you have found a man's details from the national sources described above or not, local sources can be vital and add much colour to the stark official facts:
Local press Local newspapers can be a goldmine of information about soldiers. They printed many obituaries, biographies and official reports about local men, as well as many letters and unofficial news.
  • Copies of local newspapers can usually be found in regional libraries, particularly those with local history sections.
  • County Record Offices are another place to try.
  • The National Newpaper Library at Colindale in London, administered by the British Library, has the most important single collection.


Additional sources specific to commissioned officers
The Army List A monthly and quarterly War Office publication that listed officers by regiment, rank and seniority. Also included Warrant Officers Class 1. A vital source for tracking an officers career. The National Archives library has an extensive if incomplete collection. There is also an Indian Army List and equivalents for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
Officers promotions and appointments Officers commissions, promotions and appointments were published in the London Gazette and followe a day or two later by republication in the "Times".

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