Military Archive Research
by Dr. Stuart C Blank
Member of the Orders and Medals Research Society (OMRS)
Member of the Royal Air Force Historical Society (RAFHS)
Member of the Naval Historical Collectors and Research Association (NHCRA)
Member of the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS)
Member of the International Bank Note Society (IBNS)
Member of the International Bond and Share Society (IBSS)




Army Service Records

Service Records for Army personnel can essentially be divided into four categories, namely:

(1) Officers' Records 1660-1913
(2) Officers' Records 1914-1918
(3) Soldiers' Discharge Papers 1760-1913
(4) Soldiers' Papers 1914-1918

(1) British Army Officers' Records 1660-1913
The Army has not always kept systematic records of its officers. The broad outline of an officer's career can be discerned from the Army Lists but there are also plenty of manuscript sources to explore.

Details can also be found on Officer's Families. These records have been kept from 1764 and cover various details of the officers' personal life. Various details have been kept over the years and may cover the officer's rank, age, marriage details and children.

(2) British Army Officers' Records 1914-1918
Only 217,767 officers' service records survive from the First World War. A large number of records were destroyed by bombing in 1940. The details in each record vary - they may simply note date of death, personal correspondence or attestation papers for those commissioned from the ranks.

(3) Soldiers' Discharge Papers 1760-1913
There is an incomplete collection of Soldiers' Documents (attestation and discharge papers) at the National Archives. This set of documents covers discharges from the army between 1760 to 1913 and are often an excellent source of data on a soldier.

If the subject was discharged between 1760 and 1854, then searching for an individual is helped as there is a name index. For those discharged between 1855 and 1872 it is no longer necessary to know the soldiers' regiment and there is now a name index. Records for discharges between 1873 and 1882 are organised along branch of the army (e.g. Cavalry, Household Cavalry, Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Foot Guards, Infantry, Army Service Corps, Army Hospital Corps, Military Staff Corps, Rifle Brigade, Colonial Regiments etc). The 1882-1913 discharges are filed alphabetically for the whole army. 

If the above does not yield sufficient data then the basic framework of a soldiers' career can also be found by examining Muster Rolls, Pay Lists, Pension records or Medal Rolls.

(4) British Army Soldiers' Papers 1914-18
About 6 to 7 million men served as soldiers in the Great War. During the Second World War a large percentage of documents were destroyed by enemy bombing. About 2 million records survived or were reconstructed from pension records. There is about a 40% chance of the service record for an individual surviving to the present day. As an alternative Campaign Medal Rolls may yield basic details on a soldier.

First World War Household Cavalry (including the Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards and Household Battalion) records for both non-commissioned officers and soldiers have survived in their entirety.

Generally the documents that are likely to be found include: attestation papers, discharge papers, medical records and casualty form (active service). To search for WW1 soldiers you need to know the name, rank, number and regiment. If you don't know these then it is possible to examine the medal index cards which would yield a number of candidates.