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Tracing Military Records

Updated Tuesday, 4th September 2007

The records collected by the armed forces can help untangle a lot of questions about family history.

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Most of us have a relative or ancestor who was a soldier, so maybe you will be researching this fascinating field. Here are some tips to get you going.

First, find out as much as possible about the person concerned. Check family scrap books, oral testimony, cap badges, pay books, uniforms, photographs and anything else that may give some clues as to places and dates of service. If the person was stationed in Britain in the period 1801–1901, the census (available on line) may also yield valuable information. So too may the usual family history records, such as parish registers (often available from the 16th century onward) and certificates of births, deaths and marriages (available from 1837).

Soldiers have a motto: reconnaissance is seldom wasted. The same is true with history. Before looking up primary sources and doing research, do as much reading around the subject as you can. Otherwise, your investigation may not always make sense or you may miss or ignore vital clues. Check histories of campaigns and regiments. Get help from your local library (however small the library, it will be connected to inter-library loan) and your local records office (usually based in the county town). The internet may also be helpful but be careful – there is some wonderful material available but information on the internet may inaccurate or just plain wrong.

There are many other sources that may be available. Many regiments have regimental museums: again based usually in the main county town. You may need to take some care, though as, over the last few centuries, many regiments have been amalgamated or disbanded and new ones have been created. Specialist military museums, such as the Tank Museum at Bovington, may also be helpful.

Your main sources of help are likely to be the Imperial War Museum and the National Archive.  The Imperial War Museum is at Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ (tel: 020 7416 5000).  It has an internationally famous collection of diaries, memoirs, letters, photographs, army forms and records, paintings and many other artefacts concerning every aspect of modern war.  Your relative’s or ancestor’s regiment may well be included. It also runs permanent and temporary exhibitions to do with war in the 20th century. The Imperial War Museum website has a very useful guide to investigating family history in relation to military service and is highly recommended. It also has a very large collection of regimental histories and journals, and books on every aspect of war. An added attraction is that it offers its services free! It has a very comprehensive record of that most military of records – medals.

The National Archives have a wide range of records of army service prior to 1921 but two important reservations should be made. First, enemy action during World War Two meant that two-thirds of its records on soldiers were destroyed. Secondly, it is much stronger on details about officers than other ranks.

The National Archives are at the moment organising an archive around pension details but this is in progress and only some records are available. Note that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also have their own public record offices and may have additional information. For all of these archives, a preliminary phone call is a very good idea. 

You can get service records from 1921 to 1997 from the Ministry of Defence (tel: 0845 600 9663). Be warned: it costs £30 to get a photocopy of one record and it takes about six to nine months to become available. Another source of background information is the National Army Museum at Chelsea (tel: 020 7730 0717). It too has a wide range of histories and artefacts, and is particularly good on uniforms.

Governments over the last few centuries have issued army lists. These are comprehensive for the last two centuries and have been issued annually in peace time and quarterly at times of war. The problem is that they list officers only and contain the very basic of details but can be a useful start to research. The Imperial War Museum has a very comprehensive collection of these.

No soldier is, however, identical; every case is different and brings fresh challenges.  But over the centuries, certain common characteristics stick out. Soldiers tend to move more than most social categories. Do follow up any available local records. They tend also to die or be wounded earlier in life and particularly in the last two centuries.  Papers, such as The Times, have produced official lists of these categories.  Most libraries have The Times on microfilm; they will also have the very helpful annual Times index. Details have usually been released on a regular basis and very soon after battles.

Hopefully, you will find out that there may not be so much truth in the words of the old song: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.

Two additional sources of help:

  • For medals, see British Battles and Medals – John Hayward, Diana Birch and Richard Bishop (Spink), ISBN: 1-902040-77-5.  You are advised to look at this book in the library, it costs about £85!
  • The War Graves Commission, 2 Marlowe Road, Maidenhead, Berks, SL6 7DF.  Tel: 01628 507200.

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