Welcome to our guide to help you understand how you can find as much out about your ancestors past as possible.
We are always happy to help you in any way we can, perhaps by pointing you in the right direction or even advising you of what is actually possible in our experience and sadly, what may not be.
The guidelines below are based on dedicated research and our findings throughout our thousands of hours spent on individual and general military & conflict searches. Please use these guidelines and helpful hints & links in the first instance to get you started, if you reach a brick wall or are confused at any time simply contact us or/and ask a question within the forums.
Researching military records can be a daunting task, some of our helpful hints are sure to assist you in your quest.
When searching it is very useful if you already have the following:
- Full name of the individual. If you have as full a name as possible as this will make tracking your individual easier. E.g. John Smith. There are hundreds of 'J Smiths' in the casualty roll of each year WWI alone.
- If you have a middle name it will make things a bit easier. E.g. John A Smith, although bear in mind that some records will only hold the first initial which makes things a little harder on a first search.
- The Service in which they served - Army, Royal Navy or Air Force.
- Rank and Regiment or Naval Ship or Squadron - having the service number can be particularly helpful as this is 'a unique identifier'.
- Find out when the person served;
Pre First World War,
First World War,
and after 1920
- some records will be much more complete depending on the era and even if the record is still regarded as 'restricted'.
- The more details you already have the better. Even the Enlistment date and Demobilisation dates are useful as well.
Soldiers had a 'service record', sadly about 70% of WWI records were destroyed from the 1930’s onwards by various civil service audits of the bulk of the material, however the worst damage came from a direct hit on the Arnside (London) repository in an air raid on the 2nd day of the Blitz and the damage also caused in putting the raging fires out.
A service records the military career of the individual, it is made up of various different military forms. The types of forms will differ greatly, this goes hand in hand with the fact that many records will be handwritten and have annotations from the serviceman/woman themselves or a dependents enquiry, therefore whilst very interesting per se, the general legibility of some records is poor.
Service records are sometimes the only place where family details, age, birthplace and former occupations are recorded.
Collection WO363 'The Burnt records'-The National Archives
Many pre WWI records were destroyed intentionally by the war department when being placed into limited storage space in the 1930's, many more were destroyed in the Blitz of 1940. The bulk of these consist of discharge records of those leaving the army between 1914 and 1921, including those who died, sadly only between 20-30% of the total now survive and the originals are not accessible: there are microfiche copies of the surviving records although many are merely fragments of the originals, severely damaged by fire and water.
Pre WWI and up until 1920
Pre WWI and records up to 1920 are held at the National Archives in Kew, and are available to view there by appointment.
WWI Medal cards are also available to download, for a fee, from National Archives - Documents Online.
Please use our document expert service for any help you need in interpreting these. https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/photo-expert
There are records other than WO363 within the national archive which are not presently available elsewhere:
- WO364 - commonly misnamed as 'the pension records' these contain a small part of what would have originally been in a service record for a number of persons.
- WO97 - Service records until 1914, many remain in their original format at TNA.
- WO96 - as per wo97 but for the militias that existed until 1908.
- PIN26- pensions records, a very small collection.
It is worth noting that if a soldier reenlisted and served therefore after 1921 his records would still be held by the MOD only (see below).
1921 to the present including WWII
All British service records are available only from the MOD directly, they are not online anywhere at all.
Full details can be found on this government website: www.gov.uk/veterans-uk
The MOD restrict access to living veterans records for the veteran themselves only, ex service personnel should also use the veterans-UK website to download the request forms.
There is supposedly a time expiry when such records will be released to the archives but this is rumoured now to be 100 years+!
All Australian records are held by the National archives of Australia
- WO339 - Officers records up until 1922, incomplete, most senior officers not included.
- WO374 - TA Officers prior to 1922.
- WO400 - Household cavalry regiments.
Forces War Records Guide to British and Commonwealth Campaign Medals.
These are crucially important if you cannot find a service record. If any soldier was posted overseas he will have qualified for a campaign medal. Medal records do not have age, address or next of kin information, however a soldiers details were listed on a 'medal roll', usually including the regiments name (not corps however), and service number and a roll index number and rank. A soldier may have more than one medal index roll.
Awards are generally made for specific acts of bravery, although a few were given in new years and Kings/Queens birthday honours, many have a citation published which describes the act of valour they were awarded for, however this is not always the case: The Military Medal (M.M.) being a case in point. Awards and citations are generally recorded in the London 'gazette' and were then replicated a day or so later in 'the times', often citations and mentions in despatches are called 'gazetted' in actual fact.
Many allied nations also bestowed awards to British service personnel, notably France and Belgium in WWI. The wearing of foreign medals was/is not permitted unless with royal decree however!
Foreign medals do not generally have a citation record. Long service and good conduct medals WO102 TNA lists awards up until 1919 only.
Silver War Badge
This was first made in 1916 to those who were honourably discharged: perhaps in recognition that they might otherwise be viewed with suspicion! It was also retrospectively issued to those who had served since 1914. Records for these are shown in TNA WO329.
Deaths, casualties, missing and wounded were usually recorded in 'The Times' and 'The Scotsman' in some cases, the times archive is available for viewing via some libraries and educational establishments.
These registers were originally published in the 1920's and we have many within our historic documents collection, they are split by cemetery/memorial and list both those who have an individual grave and those who are commorated on an official memorial.
Some of the larger editions & books have detailed plans and photographs of the cemeteries.
The Navy has always prided itself on good record keeping: accuracy was often a matter of life and death in navigation terms and record keeping followed this naval tradition! Was the person an officer or rating? If the person was an officer you should find their name in the Navy List.
Prior to 1860 it is important to know the name of a ship that the person you are looking for, served on in the case of sailors, and which company or division a marine served in. Nearly all of the records of service for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines from 1860-1923 still survive. The records, whilst very thorough, do not always contain the records of the person you are looking for. The admiralty records are usually arranged according to when an individual joined. The records of Royal Navy ratings from 1873 are arranged by service number.
The following records have been moved from the former PRO (public record office) to the National Archives (TNA) and are available for public access: Royal Navy Officers commissioned prior to 1914, Royal Navy Ratings who enlisted prior to 1924, First World War records for the Women's Royal Naval Service, Royal Marine Officers commissioned prior to 1926, Royal Marine Other Ranks that enlisted prior to 1926.
If you have any medals awarded to a member of the Royal Navy or Royal Marines are usually named with the recipient's details, either on the back or around the edge, these may additionally be useful in narrowing down the medal award to a particular conflict or campaign and thus possibly a date.
50,000 men who served during WWI are available to search and download from the National Archives Documents Online - Documents-Royal Naval Division.
Prior to 1972 Royal Naval personnel were given their service records on discharge. Only pay details were kept for Pension purposes. Therefore the only information held on RN personnel who served prior to 1972 is their Service details (number, rank, name etc) and a list of dates and ships/shore bases. As with Army searches there must be a Search Document and a Certificate of Kinship
Royal Air Force
Prior to 1922 Officers and Airmen serving before 1924 are held at The National Archives. Records for Airmen and Officers serving after these dates are held by the RAF. These records are retained by Service Number, Rank and Full Name, and will also contain the Date of Birth. It is important that as much information as possible can be provided in order to locate the correct record.
For current and former airmen a search document must be completed or in the case of family members of deceased airmen a completed search document and, a Certificate of Kinship must accompany along with the appropriate fee. These forms can be downloaded from this site and the address as to where to send them is also given.
- Operational data
- War diaries
Overseas units recorded their daily movements and actions in a war diary, these may be very useful if you wish to research why a gallantry medal was issued or which action a person was killed in. War diaries are held in TNA WO95. Some, although not all by a long stretch, will be meticulous in recording deaths and wounded. Not all diaries have survived to be archived, some regimental museums will contain the original document and may allow access upon request.
There are individual tutorials on all POW records please see these for more details. There are very few records currently held within the UK, most records for European theatre of WWI and WWII are held by the Swiss Red Cross. The Swiss Red Cross do charge £67 currently for each search: like the MOD disclosures unit a search is no guarantee that anything will be produced by such a search. These are however a definitive source for camp transfers.
Currently the ICRC are not undertaking research until 2015 due to digitising their vast WWI records.
There are some records held in TNA WO161. An officers list was produced during WWI, and sometimes war diaries will also record those taken prisoner. Records of men who died during captivity are kept by the Commonwealth War Graves commission. The order of St John of Jerusalem also has some data up until July 1917.
There are some very detailed notes and further information to assist you here:
An article on the special 'stay behind units' for use in the planned German invasion of 1940 and our exclusive records concerning this top secret organisation.
Animals in War
A short article detailing the 'Dickin medals' recipients, widely regarded as the animals 'Victoria Cross.'
The Nazi wanted list 1940
The ‘Black book’ was a popularised name of the Nazi ‘special wanted arrest list’ drawn up for the immediate period after a successful Nazi invasion in 1940.
An invasion that was, thankfully, never to be, largely as a result of the ‘Battle of Britain’ culminating in September that year with air supremacy retained by the British RAF, making a sea & airborne Nazi invasion impossible.
Your questions answered
A list of frequently asked questions of our support team.
Did you know? - significant military dates
Dates where significant history has taken place.
There is also further help here in our interesting and informative research magazines: