How to look for records of... British Army operations up to 1913
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
This research guide describes records held at The National Archives of military operations and campaigns undertaken by the British Army and its predecessors from 1660 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The guide provides advice on how to find these records, aiding research into English and British involvement in specific wars and conflicts.
A permanent, professional, standing army was not established in England until 1660, following the Restoration. What was then the English Army did not become the British Army until 1707. This permanent Army, sometimes referred to as the Regular Army, consisted of the Guards, and the Horse and Foot regiments.
2. What kinds of records are there?
Records held at The National Archives covering any given war or campaign tend to be spread throughout a number of different record series and types of documents. These varied series of documents are found chiefly within the State Papers department, for military campaigns before 1782, and the War Office department. Amongst the various types of documents that provide insight into Army campaigns are letters and other forms of correspondence, often between officials in central government and military commanders, headquarters papers as well as the private papers of military officials.
3. Published finding aids for campaign records
The major guide to military campaign records at The National Archives is the Alphabetical Guide to Certain War Office and Other Military Records Preserved in the Public Record Office (List and Index Volume 53 [LIII], Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1963). This is an index by subject, name and regiment to the State Papers and War Office records and provides document references for each entry.
Many of the State Papers have been indexed in the various Calendars of State Papers Domestic series, Charles II, James II, William and Mary, Anne (Public Record Office Calendars, 1860-1947). These indexes contain considerable detail and may sometimes preclude the need to consult the original records themselves.
4. Searching by name of war or campaign
You can search Discovery, our catalogue, using the name of a war. It will sometimes help to restrict such a search to departments WO and SP. The table below also provides some useful references.
|Campaign or war||Dates of war||Record series|
|Third Dutch War, Flanders campaign||1672-1674||SP 44/52|
|Nine Years’ War (also known as King William’s War)||1689-1698||SP 8, SP 87/1|
|War of Spanish Succession||1702-1713||SP 87/2-7|
|Campaigns in North America and the Caribbean against the French and various Native American peoples||n/a||CO 5|
|War of Austrian Succession||1740-1748||SP 87|
|Seven Years’ War||1756-1763||SP 87, WO 34|
|Campaigns by the British forces in India 1757-1796||n/a||WO 1, WO 40|
|American War of Independence||1775-1783||WO 1, WO 36, WO 28/2-10|
|Peninsular War||1810-1814||WO 1, WO 28, WO 107|
|Opium War||1840-1844||WO 1, WO 6, WO 28|
|Crimean War (aka Russian War)||1853-1856||WO 1, WO 6, WO 28|
|Sepoy Mutiny||1857-1860||WO 28|
|Boer War||1899-1902||WO 32, WO 105, WO 108|
|Various campaigns of the later 19th century||n/a||WO 32, WO 107|
5. Searching for details of military campaigns in official correspondence
A rich source of information on military campaigns can be found in the letters to and from central government departments and the military commanders in the field. The out-letters, sent from central government, were usually written either by the monarch, the secretaries-of-state who managed military affairs or the senior officers of the Army stationed in Whitehall, namely the Commander-in-chief, the Adjutant-General or the Quartermaster-General.
The table below provides the appropriate records series to search within according to date. Though the records series listed contain information on actions and campaigns of British forces, in many cases the series is not necessarily confined to these subjects and may contain much else besides.
|Dates||Type of correspondence||Record series|
|1660-1828||Kings’ letters, secretaries’ letters, warrants and other documents||SP 44|
|1670-1698||Papers and letters of William III||SP 8|
|1674-1679||Papers and letters of the Duke of Monmouth||SP 44/41, SP 44/48, SP 44/52 and SP 44/58|
|1684-1861||Out-letters from the Secretary-at-War||WO 4|
|1695-1765||Includes despatches from commanders and reports on both military campaigns and diplomatic negotiations||SP 87|
|1702-1711||Reports and despatches of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough||SP 87/2, SP 87/3, SP 87/5 and SP 87/6|
|1702-1782||Letters from the Secretary-at-War and the senior officers of the Army and the Board of Ordnance to the secretaries-of-state relating to military affairs||SP 41|
|1711-1712||Papers and letters of the Duke of Ormond, Major General William Cadogan, Henry Watkins and others||SP 87/7|
|1714-1782||Military entry books containing the secretaries’ correspondence on army matters||SP 44/176-203|
|1732-1868||Letters, papers, despatches and reports of battles and campaigns addressed to the Secretary-at-War and its successor the Secretary of State for War||WO 1|
|1753-1815||Letters, despatches, reports of battles and campaigns and papers addressed to the Secretary-at-War and its successor the Secretary of State for War||WO 40|
|1758-1855||Out-letters to the Secretary-at-War and others||HO 51|
|1759-1858||Indexes of correspondence consisting of abstracts of the letter books of the Secretary-at-War||WO 2|
|1765-1868||Out-letters from the Commander-in-Chief||WO 3|
|1782-1840||Letters from the Commander-in-Chief, the Secretary-at-War, the Board of Ordnance and other military departments. Includes correspondence about the French War (1793-1794)||HO 50|
|1793-1859||Out-letters from Secretary-of-State||WO 6|
|1794-1840||In-letters from the Secretary of State for War (and Colonies from 1801). After 1815, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the letters are concerned only with the Militia and other domestic military affairs.||HO 30|
|1801-1855||Military correspondence of the War and Colonial Office||CO 323|
|1837-1962||Reports of actions and campaigns in which British forces participated||WO 106|
|1855-||Military correspondence of the Colonial Office from 1855, including the affairs of the King’s African Rifles and the Niger and West Africa Frontier Force, which were in peacetime administered by the Colonial Office||CO 445, CO 534, CO 581, CO 582, CO 623, CO 624, CO 641, CO 642, CO 820 and CO 871|
6. How to find records of Army strength, location and movement
The strength, composition, location and movements of units and formations of the Regular Army and, after 1855, of the whole Army, may be found in these series:
|Dates||Record series||Type of records|
|1683-1852||WO 5||Marching orders|
|1750-1912||WO 27||Inspection returns|
|1754-1866||WO 17||Monthly returns|
|1758-||WO 25||Embarkation and disembarkation returns|
|1737-1967||WO 379||Disposition and movement of regiments|
|1803-c.1983||WO 380||Designation, establishments and stations of regiments|
|1859-1950||WO 73||Monthly returns|
7. How to find records of Army supplies and finances
The government department responsible for supplying food to the Army was known as the Commissariat, which was run by the Treasury. Records of the Commissariat up to 1855, and the financial affairs of the Army in general, can be found in Treasury Papers T 1, T 27, T 53 and T 54, and from 1855 in T 24.
8. How to find maps and plans
9. How to find records of campaigns in private papers
The private papers of high-ranking Army officers are another useful source for researchers looking for details of particular military campaigns and the British involvement in them. The table below provides the record series references for the private papers of Army officers, or the official papers they collected, which are held at The National Archives. The records of British Army Headquarters in North America from 1775-1783 are in PRO 30/55, and include papers of the successive commanders-in-chief, Generals Thomas Gage, Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton and Sir Guy Carleton.
|Individual||Relevant service and campaigns covered by papers||Dates of records||Catalogue reference|
|General Sir Jeffrey Amherst (later Lord Amherst)||Commander-in-Chief in America 1758-1763; Governor of Virginia 1763-1768; Commander-in-Chief at home 1778-1782 and 1783-1795. Military operations in North America during the Seven Years’ War 1756-1763 and the American War of Independence 1775-1783. Relations with and operations against Native American tribes.||1712-1786||WO 34|
|General Sir Robert Brownrigg||Military secretary to the Commander-in-Chief 1795-1803 and Quartermaster-General 1803-1811.||1792-1820||WO 133|
|General Sir Redvers Buller||Zulu campaign of 1878; Commander of Natal Army in Boer War 1899-1900.||1872-1901||WO 132|
|Major-General Sir James Carmichael Smyth||Senior officer with the Royal Engineers; service in the Cape of Good Hope 1806-1807; service with Sir Thomas Graham’s Dutch expedition and fortifications in the Netherlands and France 1813-1818.||1805-1838||PRO 30/35|
|Colonel R B Colvin||Records of the 20th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry||1900-1902||WO 136|
|Lieut-General Charles Cornwallis||Service in the American War of Independence from 1780-1782. There are also papers relating to his later service in India.||1612-1854||PRO 30/11|
|Major-General Sir William Eyre||Crimean War 1853-1856||1855-1859||PRO 30/46|
|Lieutenant-General H G Hart||Ashanti War 1873-1874||1838-1875||WO 211|
|Field-Marshal Earl Kitchener||The Gordon Expedition and the conquest of the Sudan; the Boer War; tenure of office as Commander-in-Chief, India||1877-1938||PRO 30/57|
|General Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole||Served in Sicily 1806-1809 and commanded the 4th Division in the Peninsula 1809-1815. Official and personal letters and papers.||1752-1843||PRO 30/43|
|General Sir George Murray||Commander-in-Chief in Ireland 1825-1828; Secretary of State for War and the Colonies 1828-1830; Master General of the Ordnance 1834-1835 and 1841-1846.||1804-1859||WO 80|
|General Sir Marmaduke Peacocke||Commander in Lisbon 1809-1814. Garrison and general orders only.||1808-1814||WO 134|
|Major Rice Price||56th Foot papers and journals, covering a considerable part of the siege of Gibraltar by the Spanish in 1779.||1760-1827||PRO 30/85|
|Field-Marshal Lord Roberts||Commander-in-Chief during Boer War 1899-1902||1835-1905||WO 105|
|Major J S Rothwell||British Operations in China 1840-1842||1884-1891||WO 273|
|General Sir George Scovell||Served during the Peninsular War in the Intelligence Branch of the Quartermaster-General’s Department and was for sometime Wellington’s chief cipher officer. Many intercepted French dispatches, campaign diaries and miscellaneous papers.||1762-1860||WO 37|
|General Sir Harry Smith||Served with Rifle Brigade on the Montevideo expedition 1806-1807; in the Peninsular War 1808-1814; in America 1814-1815 and Waterloo 1815. There is a diary covering 1806-1808 and official and private letters from 1813.||1805-1851||WO 135|
|Field-Marshall Lord Wolseley||War with China 1860; Ashanti War 1873-1874; Zulu War 1879; and the Sudan expedition of 1884.||1860-1885||WO 147|
10. Administration and hierarchy of the Army
During the 17th century and after, the commander of the Army, the principal military adviser to the Crown, took the title Captain-General or Commander-in-Chief. This position was filled only when required. The two most senior permanent officers of the Regular Army, responsible for discipline and administration, were the Adjutant-General and the Quartermaster-General. They worked from Whitehall with the Secretary-at-War, a civilian official.
Until well into the 18th century, however, discipline and the control of operations were closely controlled by the King himself. The appointments to field commands, and all orders for field operations, were made in the King’s name by one of the Secretaries of State.
Weapons and ammunition were issued by the Board of Ordnance, which was responsible through its head, the Master-General of the Ordnance, directly to the King (until 1801 Irish regiments at home were similarly supplied by the Irish Ordnance Board). Besides issuing weapons and ammunition, the Board of Ordnance was also responsible for the Corps of Artillery and Engineers, and for the Waggon Train.
In 1854-1855 the office of Secretary-at-War and the entire Board of Ordnance were abolished and the administration of all arms, and of the Commissariat, responsible for supplying the Army with food, was combined in a new department, the War Office. At the head of the War Office was the Secretary-for-War. The Commander-in-Chief was from 1870 subordinated to the Secretary-for-War, and in 1904 abolished.
11. Records in other archives
Significant collections are held at:
- National Army Museum
- Regimental museums – listed on the Army Museums Ogilby Trust website
- British Library – for operations in India
12. Further reading
An Alphabetical Guide to Certain War Office and Other Military Records Preserved in the Public Record Office (List and Index Society Volume 53 [LIII], Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1963)
Roger B Manning, Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702 (Oxford University Press, 2006)
M Roper, Records of the War Office and Related Departments, 1660-1964 (PRO, 1998)