Researching military ancestors

As genealogists we’re all about honouring our ancestors, so it’s inevitable that when November comes around, thoughts turn to Armistice Day.  With this in mind, I was asked by my friend Jules to write about finding military records.  It’s a huge area, so I’m going to concentrate on Army records for the ranks in more recent conflicts, because that’s where I have most experience.  If your ancestor was a rank and file soldier in the First World War or the Boer War I hope you’ll find what follows useful. If the person you’re researching falls outside this narrow scope (e.g. they were in the Army but as an Officer, or in the Navy, etc.) I hope you’ll still find something of interest.  The records will be different, and arranged differently, but I hope that having seen the kinds of record discussed here, you’ll be able to look for equivalents, either with your genealogy subscription site or by getting to know what records exist at The National Archives (TNA).  I’ll talk about TNA at the end of this post.

If the person you’re researching served in WW2 it’s more complicated.  For reasons of confidentiality, you won’t be able to get hold of your ancestor’s WW2 record unless they are deceased and you are next of kin.  It’s a little easier if your person of interest has been deceased more than 25 years.  Find out how to get hold of WW2 records here.  There’s a charge of £30 for each record.  I’m sure that eventually these records, too, will be digitised and online, but not for at least another twenty years.

Today I’m going to look at the range of records and other information we might be able to use to start to understood our military ancestors’ experiences.  I’ll follow this up in my next post with a few case studies showing how I’m using these diverse information sources in combination to build a picture of the military careers of my family members.  And finally, I’ll draw November to a close with a post about Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries.

What records exist, and where are they?
Many records exist about our military ancestors.  Most of them are held at The National Archives (TNA) and only a small proportion have been digitised for online availability through subscription sites.  There are also museums and archives dedicated to each of the services, and to specific army regiments.  A list of all the army museums is available at the Army Museums Ogilby Trust website.  A quick note about the Navy: the naval ‘equivalent’ to the regiment is the ship, so a sailor’s record includes lists of ships, dates and destinations.

It’s likely that your search for information about any military ancestor will begin online, using your subscription website.  However, what I hope to demonstrate is that you can still learn a lot about your ancestor’s experience even if the main person-specific records are not available.

At FindMyPast start by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, then select Military, Armed Forces and Conflict and enter the name and other details in the search form that appears on the next page.  You can further refine your search using the sub-categories listed at the left of your screen.

At Ancestry.co.uk start by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, then select Military.  On the next page you’ll find a search form, or you can further narrow your search by selecting a sub-category from the upper right sidebar.

When you’ve exhausted what these general searches have to offer, you could try more targeted searches, particularly on Ancestry (the better search engine on FindMyPast is likely to find all the available records using the search method outlined above.)  For a more targeted search on Ancestry, try browsing the specific data collections listed in the bottom left sidebar on that search form page, or by clicking on Search on the top menu bar, selecting Card Catalogue, and searching with a title or keywords.  Both these subscription websites have a lot of military collections.  If you use a different genealogy site, it will help you a lot to know how to do these types of targetted search on there.

What types of record might we find?

The Service Record
This should include attestation (joining up) papers, discharge papers and a summary of activity and conduct during the years of service.  This is the one we all hope to find because it will include a physical description as well as some information about family and civilian life, promotions and demotions, and the soldier’s service number.

However, not all service records have survived.  Sadly, about 60% of WW1 service records were destroyed during a bombing raid in 1940.

If the Service Record for your ancestor isn’t available, all is not lost.  You can still learn a lot about their military experience provided you can find their regiment and battalion.

Commonwealth War Graves
If your ancestor was killed in action during the First or Second World Wars they will be commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website.

You’ll be able to search for them just by name or by advanced search.  If you’re planning to visit the cemetery, the information given even includes the exact location of your ancestor’s grave or commemoration tablet.  It will also include the regiment, battalion and soldier’s service number.

Soldiers’ Wills
If your ancestor died while serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986, you may be able to obtain a digitised copy of their Soldier’s Will at the government’s online Find A Will service.  Remember that probate is not necessarily granted in the year of death, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for, try a year or two afterwards.

Unfortunately, not all the Soldier’s Wills have survived.  I found the will of one of my great uncles but not the other.  The accompanying notes, made at the time of processing the will, include the regiment, battalion and service number.

Medal rolls
Apart from details of medals awarded, medal rolls include name, regiment, rank and service number.  However, unlike the CWGC and the Soldiers’ Wills, there are no other identifying features (next of kin, etc), so unless the soldier’s name is unusual, you do need to know regiment or regimental number before you can be sure this is the right person.

Regimental War Diaries
Although as genealogists we love to find personal records about our family members, once we have the basic information about their regiment and battalion, we can learn a lot about their experiences by reading the regimental war diaries.  I found two regimental diaries online (here), and was able to follow the movements of my two great uncles right up to their deaths – although their names don’t appear in the diaries.

The National Archives
After exhausting all the available online records you could move onto the National Archives.
As mentioned above, it’s a huge archive, and you’ll find records there that are not (and probably never will be) available anywhere else.  The online search facility takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth the effort (and not just for military records) to learn how to use it, and how the records are arranged.

From the Home page you can click on Search the catalogue to search by name, but you’ll get far better results by doing a more targetted search, by which I mean narrowing it down to a specific collection, or ‘department code’. For example, the War Office records collection have the prefix WO, while Admiralty are recognisable by the prefix ADM.  Specific types of record are then assigned a number, so WO 97 is where you’ll find Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913; Royal Navy Officers’ Registers of Pensions and Allowances 1830-1934 are at ADM 23, and so on.

If you find any of these records using FindMyPast you’ll see this TNA reference on the citation under ‘series’, along with the exact reference for the document.  But if you’re trying to search for new records on TNA website, how do you know what department and series codes to use?  Well, you’ll find them (and lots more information) from the Home page if, before starting your actual search, you click on Help with your research.  This will enable you to home in on relevant categories, such as:

  • First World War
  • Second World War
  • Military and maritime

Click on one of these categories to refine your search, and then select from the range of focused topic guides.  Each guide will give you an overview of what records are kept by TNA, whether or not they are searchable, whether they may be viewed at TNA online, or perhaps through Ancestry or FindMyPast, etc.  Sometimes a visit to the archives at Kew (or paying for copies to be sent to you – which is very expensive) is the only way to see the records.  Amongst my treasured finds is a huge file about my great granddad’s medical record and military pension, which I was able to browse and photograph, including letters written by him.  It was far too personal to ever be included online.

Other ideas:

Family memorabilia and heirlooms
If you’re lucky you might have some cherished heirlooms that have been passed down in your family: medals, regimental publications, Soldier’s Small Book, a ‘death penny’, photos, letters and Christmas cards, etc.  By really looking at these you might be able to pick up other information.  (More about this in my next post.)

Visiting the graves and battlefields
If your ancestor/ family member was killed in action there will be a grave or a memorial on or near the battlefield.  It’s also likely that tours by knowledgeable local historians will be available.  You can learn an awful lot about their experience by joining one of these.

Wider reading about military history and specific battles
and
Films and documentaries relevant to your ancestor’s experience
When you know where the person you’re researching was on active service, you might find it interesting and enlightening to read relevant military history books or watch films and documentaries.

3 thoughts on “Researching military ancestors

  1. Pingback: Military ancestors: case studies | English Ancestors

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