Army records for family tree research

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13 February 2015
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Remembering Grandpa’s war stories or finding an ancestor’s medal among the family treasures will definitely make you want to find out more about their time spent serving in the forces

There will be very few families who were not involved in the First and Second World Wars in some way, and remembering Grandpa’s war stories or finding an ancestor’s medal in among the family treasures will definitely make you want to find out more about their time spent serving in the forces. And don’t forget to search for serving ancestors in other eras too – from the Battle of Waterloo to the Anglo-Boer War and many other campaigns and conflicts besides there is a wealth of records to be discovered to learn more about your ancestor’s time spent fighting for their country.

So, what Army records are available?

If searching for an ancestor who served in the British Army, there are three main record collections that will help you find details of their service.

For those who served 1760-1913, you need to search the British Army Service records. These have been digitised and are available at findmypast.co.uk. For soldiers who served in the First World War, search the service and pension records at Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk – you can also search the Medal Index Card records at Ancestry and Findmypast.co.uk. Meanwhile, for ancestors who served in the Second World War you will need to apply to the Service Personnel and Veterans’ Agency for their service records. See www.veterans-uk.info/recordsmedalsbadges.htm for details of the application requirements.

If an ancestor died serving in the First or Second World Wars don’t forget the excellent (and free) Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, www.cwgc.org.

Where can I learn more?

Once you’ve found your ancestor’s service record or medal card, or perhaps his name engraved on a war memorial, you may like to learn more about the conflict he fought in, the regiment he served in, and so forth. Here are a few valuable ideas to try.

Search for museums of the regiments and corps of the British Army at www.armymuseums.org.uk.

View the extensive list of resources available at Forces War Records. Many of these records will help you find military ancestors in Victorian times and before.

The Imperial War Museum has excellent collections, many of which you can explore online: www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search.

Discover more about war memorials at www.ukniwm.org.uk and www.warmemorials.org.

You may find your ancestor listed in the Gazettes, which include details of officers’ promotions and gallantry awards: www.gazette.co.uk.

Examine cap badges at www.webbmilitary.co.uk.

World War I centenary plans

With the centenary commemorations for the start of the First World War unfolding year by year, check out the websites below to find out about new national and international projects:

1914.org – the official home of the First World War Centenary Partnership

www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war – dedicated portal for The National Archives’ WWI resources

www.bl.uk/world-war-one and europeana1914-1918.eu – for WWI online library based collections

www.bbc.co.uk/ww1 - find details of forthcoming BBC WWI programmes, plus guides and podcasts

www.operationwardiary.org– sign up to help index the Unit War Diaries held at The National Archives with this innovative online project

www.livesofthefirstworldwar.org – add your ancestors’ details to this permanent digital memorial of the lives of the 8 million men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth who served in WWI.

Army records in three easy steps:

  • Read the detailed guides on The National Archives’ website at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/start-here.htm to see which of their records can be searched online and which need to be searched in person.
  • Photos of your ancestor in uniform can hold crucial clues about the unit they served in, their rank, and period of service. Such details can help you identify your ancestor in the records from among the many other possible people by that name.
  • There are many specialist war-related works (whether for a specific military unit or an individual, a history or a personal memoir) published in print and online and it is well worth searching the internet to track them down, and so gain precious details of your ancestor’s service that you wouldn’t find in the official records.

More bitesize family history

Image: Official photograph taken on the British western front in France. Presentation of the Military Medal by General Plumer to nurses for their courageous conduct when their hospital was bombed by German airmen.