England Military Records
You may find evidence that an ancestor served in the military from family records, biographies, census, probates, civil registration, or church records.
Britain's armed forces comprise, in order of seniority, the Royal Navy (including the Royal Marines), Army and Royal Air Force. Other units can include local militia, fencibles, yeomanry and territorial units of the army. These are briefly discussed at the end of this section.
History and BackgroundBritain has been regularly involved in military action. Examples of these are:
1455–1485: Wars of the Roses. These ongoing wars involved mostly knights pledged to lords or vassals. Few commoners were involved, and few records were kept.
1642–1651: Civil War and Cromwellian period. Disputes over the form of government and religion led to civil war. Only very brief military records of officers still exist.
1756–1763: Seven Years War. Called the French and Indian War in North America, this war involved 120,000 British soldiers and began a continuous series of army records.
1775–1783: American Revolutionary War. The British army had 135,000 men in North America when fighting broke out. Some men remained in Canada after the war, but most returned to Britain. Records of Loyalists and others who remained in Canada are separate from other military records.
1803–1815: Napoleonic Wars. Numerous battles across Europe involved 365,000 British soldiers and 300,000 seamen. These battles include the Peninsular Wars in Portugal and Spain and the famous Battle of Trafalgar.
1854–1856: Crimean War. 225,000 troops were involved in the Crimea (Russian Black Sea).
1857–1860: Indian Mutiny. Many of the troops discharged after the Crimean war were recalled to quell the revolt in India.
1880–1902: Boer Wars. The first Anglo-Boer War (1880–1881) led to South African independence in 1881. The second Anglo-Boer War (1898–1902) led to the unification of South Africa in 1910.
1914–1918: World War I. About 6,000,000 British service personnel served in this war. Almost 1,000,000 died.
1939–1945: World War II. Just over 400,000 service personnel and civilians died in the war.
The National Archives (TNA), located at Kew, West London, houses a wealth of information on military personnel, much of it now available to download. See the "Online Resources" section below for further information.
Military histories or regimental histories are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
GREAT BRITAIN - MILITARY HISTORY
The first permanent naval fleet was formed during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509–1547). For many years Britain had the strongest navy in the world. The earliest surviving navy records are from 1617, but the majority of the extensive collection date from the mid-1600s. Many records are available only at The National Archives.
Several sources list navy ships with descriptions and the dates on which they were placed in service
The Navy Official List books, available from 1673, give ports of call for ships during each year. Some of these lists are available in the Family History Library.
Seamen often moved between the navy and the merchant marines. Until 1853 enlistment was informal and lasted for the ship’s commission, usually three years. Individual "ratings" (seamen) were not mentioned in navy records other than musters or pay lists unless they deserted, misbehaved, or earned a medal. After 1853 seamen often made the navy their career. They were assigned continuous service numbers and records were maintained for the duration of their careers.
You can usually find navy officers in the Navy Lists (1782 to the present) or in the Index to Commission and Warrant Books (1695 to 1742). See the sub-heading of "Lists of Officers" in this section for details.
(Corps of Her Majesty's Royal Marines)
The Royal marines originally maintained military discipline on navy vessels. It has been a separate corps of the military since 1755, although under the control of the Admiralty and forming part of the Naval Service. Alphabetically arranged records of marines exist from 1790, some by enlistment date and others by discharge date. Service records up to 1926 can be accessed online via TNA.
The army began as a permanent organization in 1660. Earlier armies were raised as needed, usually as county militia units. The oldest regiment is the Honourable Artillery Company, formed in 1537. For information on pre-1660 military records, see the handbooks listed at the end of this section. The Soldier in Later Medieval England database has names of about 250,000 soldiers.
The basic unit of the Army is the regiment under a colonel or lieutenant colonel. Regiments are usually divided into two or more Battalions. The main types of regiments which should be searched are:
Corps (e,g, Army Service Corps; Royal Signals; Royal Engineers etc.)
Prior to 1847, English army service was usually for life. Some soldiers were discharged early for disability (liberally defined) or age (often by age 40).
Pre-1872 army records are organized by regiment. Most regiments have published histories that tell the places where they served and the battles they fought. For a bibliography of these histories, see:
Pre-1751 infantry and cavalry units were known by the names of their colonels, i.e. Sir Thomas Adams Regiment of Foot.
Post-1751 a numerical system was adopted to name the regiments, with rank in order of precedence, i.e. Queens 9th Regiment of Foot.
Originally the responsibility for directing the British Army fell under the command of the staff of the National War Office. Thus, the category for records in The National Archives of England is labeled WO for locating all Army collections. Now the army is run by comissioned officers.
Service records for "Other ranks" i.e. not officers, who served in the British army are held at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, although various online subscription-based research providers offer access to digitised copies. At the time of writing, these services were not complete although new records up to and including 1913 are constantly being added. The leading provider of this service is Find My Past
If a soldier was entitled to receive any sort of pension due to his army service, a separate record was created although some information was duplicated from his service papers. These pension papers provide a good insight into a soldiers career although they focus more on his medical history rather than his service career.
Officers papers were compiled and held separately although they too are located at TNA. They are not currently available to view online and can only be accessed at TNA.
Primarily covering WW1 service, these service records are often referred to as the "Burnt Series" due to the fact that the storage facility housing these records was hit by a German bombing raid during WW2 and consequently over 60% of the records were destroyed. The records that survived have been preserved and indexed, even those partially damaged by water and fire.
You can search the Family History Library Catalog at www.FamilySearch.org to obtain the microfilm number of the TNA Catalogue Number WO 364 records. Alternatively, www.ancestry.co.uk also has the records available to search free of charge although viewing is via subscription.
Search the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) by title for: Military records of the British Army, 1914-1920 you will see two items with that exact title and several that have letters of the alphabet added to the end of the title. Look at the catalog entries for the two without any additional letters.
In the notes section of the catalog entry you should see the National Archives catalogue number, either WO 361 or WO 364. Be sure to use the correct one.
On the page of the FHLC that has the Notes you will need to click on the View Film Notes button near the top right portion of the screen to get the film numbers that apply to surnames in the different parts of the alphabet. There are 804 rolls of microfilm for the WO 364 records
If you cannot locate the service papers of the soldier you are searching for, it is also worthwhile looking within the pension papers index as many men were entitled to pensions for prior service or due to injuries sustained during WW1.
Officers papers are stored at TNA as above and an index of WW1 officers is available to download free of charge from TNA's website here: Officer's Papers
Individual regimental archives may also hold limited records and it is well worth writing to the relevant regimental museums. The Guards depot (Grenadier, Coldstream, Irish, Welsh & Scots) also keep separate archives and can, on request supply information. Bear in mind though that some archives, quite reasonably, request payment for such services.
Due to data protection laws, the records of servicemen or woman who served after 1920 are not readily accessible. Under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, you may request record details only if you can supply proof of one of the following criteria:
1. You are the direct next of kin.
2. The person was born more than 112 years ago
3. The person died more than 25 years ago.
There is currently a £30 fee for copies of these records and the record copies are normally heavily censored.
The application forms and guidlines can be found here: UK Veteran's Agency
Royal Air Force
Formed on 1st April 1918 by merging the aviation branches of the existing services, namely the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Royal Navy). This merger created the totally independent Royal Air Force (RAF), and is the oldest air force in the world.
The RAF maintains its own records archive although officers papers are downloadable (£) from TNA here: RAF Officers records. Other ranks service records are not online but if service ended prior to 1920, can be accessed at TNA. Post-1920 records are dealt with in the same way as army & Navy records under FOI requests(see above).
RAF Officers can also be found listed in the Air Force lists, which have been published annually since August 1918, Most public libraries have copies available to browse.
There are a large number of records held at TNA that can be researched such as Station and Squadron record books; photo albums and so forth.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Established by Royal Charter in 1917, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission pays tribute to the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars from all services including civillian war dead. It is a non-profit-making organisation that was founded by Sir Fabian Ware. The Commonwealth includes such countries as Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand & South Africa.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a searchable internet website:
Lists of British army personnel who died during World War I have been compiled from official casualty lists and published in:
Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914–1919. Reprint. 80 parts. Colchester, England: J.B. Hayward, 1988–9. (Family History Library book 942 M23s; compact disc number 128.) This gives birthplace, place of enlistment, rank, date of death and cause of death.
Ancestry.co.uk also offers a searchable database of those listed in Soldiers Died in the Great War as part of its subscription service.
The War Dead of the British Commonwealth and Empire. London, England: Imperial War Graves Commission, 1957. (Family History Library 942 M2wdf; film 1441037.) This work gives the name, rank, regiment, and grave location of casualites buried in France during World War II.
Post-WW2 casualties can be found listed at the Armed Forces Memorial website.
Tokens or medals have been awarded to British service personnel since the medieval times although the first officially recognised campaign medal is the Military General Service Medal instituted in 1847 and awarded to all army personnel that had served on active campaigns between 1793-1815. Each medal was named to the recipient along with his unit details. A clasp (sometimes incorrectly referred to as a bar) bearing the name of the relevant campaign or battle was attached to the ribbon suspension, with subsequent clasps being added in the sequence in which they were earned. In some cases 10 or more campaign clasps were earned. 29 clasps were authorised in total. Altogether, over 25,000 medals were issued.
The Royal Navy instituted its own equivalent, the Naval General Service Medal, also in 1847 but covering the slightly longer period of 1793-1840. Whilst a staggering 231 different campaign or battle clasps were authorised, not all were issued. The most clasps issued to any single recipient was 7. As the medal was authorised some considerable time after most of the campaigns and battles had taken place, and also due to widespread illiteracy, a large number of men did not claim their medals. In total just over 20,000 medals were actually issued.
These two medals started a precedent of issuing campaign medals that still continues to this day, with the RAF joining the process in 1918 by following the lead set by the Army. It is a widely collected field and there are many resources on the subject. From a family history perspective, knowing what medals a relative was entitled to can lead to fascinating journies of discovery as well as the medal themselves providing useful information.
Awards & Honours:
Brave conduct, meritorious service and so forth have long been rearded publicly. Since the 19th century, such awards to the military have generally taken medallic form although it has historically been shown that a reward may also involve a promotion or a share of the spoils, particularly if at sea and an enemy vessel was captured,
As such, honours and awards tend to be publicly announced in the London Gazette newspaper. The online search archive can require a certain amount of skill to find what or rather who you are searching for but it can yield fantastic results: London Gazette Archive
WW1 Army medal index cards are available through www.ancestry.co.uk - if you have a subscription they are free. Otherwise you will have to pay £2 fee to download it if you get it through The National Archives website: Medal Index Cards . These cards contain details of name, rank, service number(s), unit(s) as well as confirmation of medal entitlement. Some of the cards have additional information on the reverse such as theatre of operations, home addresses, next of kin and so forth. Only Ancestry have copied both sides of these cards.
There is not an equivalent system for detailing medals awarded to members of the Royal Navy and RAF - medal details were recorded on the service papers and likewise, non-WW1 medals are only annotated on service records for all services.
Various medal rolls for different campaigns also exist in various forms e.g. printed books; CD's; TNA records etc. Some are also available on the subscription based sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past.
The British Medals Forum is probably about as definitive a website as one can find when it comes to the subject of British medals of any type. A huge fount of knowledge resides on the forum and membership is free.
Understanding Military Records
Once you know the ship name[s] or the regiment name or number, the following records may help you trace your ancestor’s career, age, and birthplace:
Muster Rolls. "Muster Rolls and Pay Rates" were monthly accounts that were kept of military enlistment and pay schedules. They were kept for privates up through officers and may contain valuable information such as "good conduct" awards, punishments, special assignments, and the like. A commanding officer made every effort to list everyone on his muster rolls since the number of men determined his funding. The records usually list each person assigned to a ship or regiment at the muster date, his age on joining, the date he joined, the place where he joined, and sometimes information such as a dependent list (in later army musters) and birthplace (on sea musters from 1770). Muster records for the Royal Artillery are the earliest, beginning in 1708. Other army musters exist for 1760 to 1878. After 1790, they were kept in bound volumes. Navy musters cover 1667 to 1878. Naval musters contain "alphabets" (indexes organized by the first letter of the surname) from 1765.
Description Books. The army description book for each regiment includes each recruit’s full name on "attestation" (enlistment), age when he joined, place where he joined, birthplace, previous trade, and physical description. Most books start about 1805 and continue to 1850. Many no longer exist. Similar records were kept for each navy ship from 1790, but many were never turned in or no longer exist.
Returns of Service. In 1806 the War Office compiled the first return of service, listing all men in the army. The scope, content, and frequency of returns of service vary greatly. Returns of officers’ service tend to be more complete, including the names of the officer and his wife and children; birth and marriage dates and places; and a complete summary of stations, regiments, and promotions.
The returns of officers services for 1828 and 1829 have been transcribed and are found at the Family History Library. The following books serve as an index to the original returns of service for 1828 and 1829:
Children of Officers on Full or Half-pay, 1828. Bound manuscript. N.p., n.d. (Family History Library book 942 M23ber.)
Children of Officers on Full-pay, 1829. Bound manuscript. N.p., n.d. (Family History Library book 942 M23be.)
Similar returns of naval officers begin in 1817. The naval returns are indexed at The National Archives (ADM 10). See England Archives and Libraries for the address.
Pay Records. Pay records include the following:
- Pay lists give the name and rate of pay and sometimes ‘to whom paid’ (which may be a spouse or other relative). Navy pay lists were kept by ship and are not indexed. Active duty army personnel were paid from the muster rolls, and separate pay lists do not always exist.
- Pay warrants are records of actual payment filed with the Exchequer records at The National Archives. Final pay warrants often mention a will or administration and the death date.
- Pay ledgers contain the assignments of pay, addresses to which pay was sent (from 1837), and sometimes birth dates.
- Half-pay registers contain officers’ names, ranks, regiments, dates of first half-pay, rates of pay, and sometimes death dates.
Ship Logs. Ship logs exist from 1673. While they usually give information only on position, weather, and sightings of other ships, records of shipboard events may include names of individual seamen.
Continuous Service Engagement Books. From 1853 navy ratings (seamen) were assigned continuous service numbers. The records gave name, birth date and place, description, and ship. Brief career details were later added. From 1872 until 1892 merchant seamen were included.
Registers of Service. These records tell which ship a man served on. For officers these start in 1846. Those for warrant officers and seamen cover 1802 to 1871.
Soldiers’ Documents. These records of army service are available only for those soldiers who were discharged to pension. The records contain the reason for discharge and details on age, birthplace, and trade or occupation on enlistment. They are arranged by regiment, then alphabetically by surname for the years 1760 through 1872. The records for 1873 to 1882 are alphabetically arranged by corps (cavalry, foot soldiers, guards, and so forth). From 1883 to 1914, these records are arranged in one alphabetical series.
Chaplains’ Returns. Army chaplains throughout the British Empire kept records that list the baptisms, marriages, and burials of officers, soldiers, and their families. These returns (from 1760 to 1971) are indexed and are available by correspondence from the Office of National Statistics (formerly Registrar General). Indexes for births 1796–1880, for marriages 1796–1955, and for deaths 1786–1880, are available at the Family History Library. They are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
GREAT BRITAIN - CIVIL REGISTRATION
GREAT BRITAIN - MILITARY RECORDS
Regimental Registers. Regiments kept birth, marriage, and death records for officers and men. Births and baptisms are indexed. These records (1790–1924) are available by correspondence from the Office of National Statistics (formerly Registrar General). The indexes are available at the Family History Library. Look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
GREAT BRITAIN - CIVIL REGISTRATION
GREAT BRITAIN - MILITARY RECORDS
Lists of Officers. Published annually, these records give an officer’s name, rank, regiment or ship, and date of commission. See:
Army List. London, England: publishers and title vary, 1754–. (Family History Library book 942 M25; films 856427–452 and others.) First published in 1740, these lists have been published continuously since 1754 and are indexed beginning in 1766. They list army officers and are arranged by regiment. Half-pay (semi-retired) officers were not included in the early indexes.
Index to Commission and Warrant Books. N.p., n.d. (Family History Library films 824516–7.) This index lists naval officers from 1695–1742 and gives dates of commission and a reference to further details available at The National Archives.
Navy List. London, England: several publishers, 1782–. (Family History Library book 942 M25gba; films 918928–940, 990323–326.) The Navy List names all commissioned officers, including masters, pursers, surgeons, chaplains, yard officers, coast guardsmen, and reservists.
Gibson, Jeremy, and Alan Dell. Tudor and Stuart Muster Rolls. Solihull, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Ltd., 1989. (Family History Library book 942 M2gj)
Militia units were generally raised on a county basis and kept their own records. From 1757 to 1876, lists of men ages 18 to 55 were compiled by individual parishes and turned in to the shire (county) lieutenant. These lists usually contain each man’s name, parish of residence, age, fitness for service, and sometimes cause for exemption (such as a man with more than two young children, a disability, or an exempt occupation).
For further information on militia lists and musters, see:
Medlycott, Mervyn, and Jeremy Gibson. Militia Lists and Musters, 1757–1876. 3rd Editor. Solihull, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Ltd., 1994. (Family History Library book 942 M2gmm.)
Other Records. Many other records are available, such as records on medals, casualties, promotions, desertion, and court martials. The following military branches have separate records:
- Fencibles were army units raised for home service only. Fencibles were usually classed with the militia, and records are kept with militia records.
- Yeomanry were volunteer regiments, records of which often do not survive or are less complete than other military records.
- Colonial armies were forces raised in other countries. Records of these forces are usually in the country where the forces were raised. A notable exception is the Indian Army, for which many records are held at the British Library Oriental and India Office Collections, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB England.
- The Coast Guard (1816–1923) kept their own records, including pension, description, and other records.
These records are at The National archives. For further information on military records for branches of the service other than navy or regular army, see the military record handbooks at the end of this section.
Pre-1914 records for both the army and the navy are at The National Archives.
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU England
Post-1914 army records are at:
Army Records Centre
Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF
Post-1914 navy records are at:
Ministry of Defense
Main Building, Whitehall SW1A 2HB
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library’s collection of army records includes:
- Army soldiers’ documents (before 1882)
- Description books
- World War I service files
- Officers’ records of service
- Army Lists 1740 to the present
- Indexes to the Regimental Registers and the Chaplains’ Returns
- Regimental histories
- Other miscellaneous army records
For the navy, the library has:
- Continuous service engagement books
- Indexes to commission and warrant books
- Bounty papers
- Various published sources
Some Royal Marine attestation (enlistment) records are also available at the library.
A number of name indexes to some military records containing birth, marriages, or deaths are in the Family History Library. These indexes can be found in the Place search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
MILITARY RECORDS - CIVIL REGISTRATION
Library records are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under either ENGLAND or GREAT BRITAIN and the following subject headings:
MILITARY RECORDS - ARMY
MILITARY RECORDS - NAVY
It is difficult to locate an individual’s record without knowing his ship or regiment. If you do not know this, you may find it in other types of records. Once you know the regiment or ship, consult the muster rolls, records of service, or other records available for that ship or regiment. Strategies for finding the ship or regiment follow.
Army Officers. You can usually find army officers in the Army List (1740 to the present - see "Lists of Officers" in this article). If your ancestor does not appear in the Army List for the right time period, consult the card index to officers, available only at the Public Record Office.
If an officer was living during 1828 or 1829, you can use the indexed returns of service. "Birth certificates" submitted with widow’s pension applications may reveal an officer’s name. If you still cannot find a record, use the search strategies for soldiers.
Usually there are separate records for Commissariat officers, staff officers, medical officers (surgeons), chaplains, and others. Board of Ordnance officers (artillery, engineers, sappers, miners, artificers, and others) are not always included in the Army List and have their own records until 1855.
Royal Navy personnel. If your ancestor was in the navy after 1852, search the index to Continuous Service Engagement Books, or the Surname Index to the 1861 Census Returns of Ships. (See the "Merchant Marine" article.) Before 1853 the source to use depends on what you know about your ancestor. If you know:
- The name of a ship on which he served, search the ship musters, pay lists, and ship logs for the time period he should have been aboard.
- A port where your ancestor landed on a specific date, search the List Books, a geographically arranged list of ship locations at the Public Record Office (class ADM 8).
- A battle or campaign in which his ship was involved, search the medal rolls.
- The name of an officer serving with your ancestor, search the Navy List for that officer’s ship.
Since many seamen also served in the Merchant Marines during their careers, search the records described in England Merchant Marine
Many officers are included in published biographies, such as:
Bibliography for Military Records
The resorces listed below may assist you in your research:
Bevan, Amanda, and Andrea Duncan. Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office. Fourth Edition. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1995. (Family History Library book 942 A5 no. 19 1995.)
Colledge, James J. Ships of the Royal Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1987. (Family History Library book 942 M3c.)
Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald. In Search of Army Ancestry. London, England: Phillimore & Company, Limited, 1977. (Family History Library book 942 M2.)
Higham, Robin. A Guide to the Sources of British Military History. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. (Family History Library book 942 M2h.)
Kew Lists. (See England Archives and Libraries for details.)
Records of Officers and Soldiers Who Have Served in the British Army. London, England: Public Record Office, 1984. (Family History Library book 942 M23 number 1.)
Rodgers, N.A.M. Naval Records for Genealogists. Second Edition. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1988. (Family History Library book 942 A5 number 22.)
Swinson, Arthur S., Editor. A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army. London, England: Archive Press, 1972. (Family History Library book 942 M2.)
White, Arthur S. comp. A Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army. Dallington, East Sussex, England: Naval and Military Press Ltd., 1992. (Family History Library book 942 M23was.)
- Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald (1977). In Search of Army Ancestry. Phillimore, p. 73.