How to trace British military ancestors

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01 February 2022
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Image credit: First World Soldier, Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo
Discover how to research the military service of your family members. Read on for simple steps to get started and how to get a free downloadable check list & guide to help you trace your military ancestors

On this page you will find:

Most of the links below will help you gain knowledge of those who served in the British armed forces. The websites and records that will be of use to you will depend on which branch of the armed forces your ancestor served in (British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force), and the time period in which they served. For further details sign up to the free Family Tree enewsletter. Email [email protected] to get your free Family Tree Military Check List and Guide.

Discover 5 top sources for tracing military ancestors

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1. The National Archives

Explore the military and maritime research guide to learn about the holdings at The National Archives, Kew. Alternatively browse the A-Z list of research guides, to search for 'Army' under 'A', and so forth.

Search the catalogue - some of the collections have been indexed by name, so you may find your ancestor listed in the search results.

Some of the military records may only be seen at The National Archives, some have been digitised and may be downloaded from TNA's website, and others are accessible via third party sites. To see which collections are available online via third party sites, such as Ancestry and Findmypast, choose to view the research guide on online collections.

[Note that service records for those serving post-WW1 tend to be with the MoD. They may be ordered from https://www.gov.uk/get-copy-military-service-records but there is an estimated 18th month waiting list currently].

2. CWGC

Find grave and memorial records (free) of 1.7 million British and Commonwealth men and women who died in service in World Wars 1 and 2, and civilian deaths for WW2 too.

3. Imperial War Museum

Search in the online collections of more than 1 million items that have been donated to the Imperial War Museum since establishment in 1917.

Gain background knowledge from the IWM histories.

4. Ancestry 

Explore the collections of military records on Ancestry. Of particular note are the First World War Soldiers Service & Pension records (£), and the First World War British Army Medal Index Cards (free). Search for records relevant to your search interests, from, e.g. RAF Operations Record Books, to rolls of honour.

5. Findmypast

Investigate the armed forces and conflict records on Findmypast in their military collections. Of particular note are the Soldiers' Service & Pension records, pre-First World War, back to 1760 (£). Explore records relevant to a particular war, e.g. Boer War, or a particular regiment too, e.g. regimental histories.

About the Family Tree ‘Trace your military ancestors’ challenge competitions

To help to celebrate Armed Forces Day 2022, Family Tree magazine is organising two competitions. Competition 1 is now closed, but you may enter Competition 2. Simply answer the question below:

Question: What day is VE Day?

A) 5th May 1945

B) 8th May 1945

C) 11th November 1945

Then email your answer to [email protected] Closing date 24 June 2022.

About the prizes

Prizes for the Family Tree ‘Trace Your Military Ancestors’ challenge competitions include:

  • a free tickets for 2 on a hot air balloon flight
  • 2 honoured seats in the official vintage vehicles convoy
  • a free Bletchley Park Annual Family Pass
  • complimentary usage of an electric Ford Mustang Mach E for a weekend
  • an annual digital subscription to Family Tree magazine
  • and a complimentary Family Tree military research package.

To find out more about the prizes, click here.

Competition T&Cs