This is a brief guide to researching British army records for a soldier who was discharged after the beginning of the First World War. These records are informative and varied, though not all for this period survive.While many records are available at The National Archives, some service recordsservice record - a document recording the career of an individual in the armed forces are currently held by the Ministry of Defence. The majority of the personnel records for the First World War have been destroyed or damaged.
Soldier ranks include Private, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, and Warrant Officer. The Ministry of Defence website gives more detail.
What do I need to know before I start?
Try to find out:
- the name and regimenta unit of infantry or cavalry forces in the British army of the person
- medals received (if applicable)
- a date range and geographical location to help focus the search
What records can I see online?
Soldiers' records (1914-1920)
Search military records of non-commissioned officersNon-commissioned officer - a senior member of the 'other ranks'. These are junior to commissioned officers. and other ranksOther rank - a person ranking below an officer on Ancestry (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) including service records (WO 363), pension records (WO 364) and campaign medala medal awarded to a person who took part in a particular military campaign cards.
These cover regular soldiers who may have enlisted as early as 1892 for 22 years' service as well as a small number of stray service records of pre-war soldiers who did not serve from 1914-1920.
You should find
- soldiers discharged between 1914 and 1920
- soldiers killed in action between 1914 and 1920
- soldiers who served in the war and died of wounds or disease without being discharged to pension
- soldiers who were demobilised at the end of the war
You are unlikely to find
- regular soldiers who continued in the army after 1920
- soldiers who transferred to another service, taking their service record with them
The British Army contained regiments from parts of the former colonies. The service records in WO 363 and WO 364 include regiments such as:
- the West African Field Force (such as Nigerian, Gold Coast, Sierra Leonean and Gambian Regiments. Covers only British Army non-commissioned officers of European descent)
- British West Indies Regiment
- the West India Regiment
They do not include the service records for soldiers serving in the armies of Commonwealth countries (such as Canada, New Zealand or South Africa). You will need to contact their respective archives for advice on how to locate these records.
Household Cavalry service records (1799-1920)
Search and download (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) service records (WO 400) of non-commissioned officersNon-commissioned officer - a senior member of the 'other ranks'. These are junior to commissioned officers. and other ranksOther rank - a person ranking below an officer who served in one of the Household Cavalry regiments during the First World War.
Medal cards (1914-1920)
Search the First World War army medal cards (WO 372) on our website (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) for a soldier who received a campaign medala medal awarded to a person who took part in a particular military campaign or gallantry awardmedals awarded for heroic or exceptional service.
Campaign medal rolls (1914-1920)
Search the campaign medal rolls (WO 329) on Ancestry (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) by name, regimental number and regiment. You may find abbreviations on a roll entry - some of these abbreviations are explained on our army medal index card guide (see section above).
The British War and Victory medal entries may give you a battalion/unit number which will help you to find a unit war diary.
Silver War Badge rolls (1914-1920)
Search the Silver War Badge rolls (WO 329) on Ancestry (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) by recipients' name or by badge number.
Recommendations for military honours and awards (1935-1990)
Search the recommendations for military honours and awards (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) (WO 373) for personnel of the British Army and dominions' armies.
What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?
Pension case files (1914-1920)
Search our catalogue (below) for pension case files in record series PIN 26. Only a 2% sample of these records survive.
Army casualty lists (1939-1945)
Browse by date the daily army casualty lists in WO 417 - these cover British Army officers, other ranks and nurses. They state the individuals' rank, service number, date of becoming a casualty and type of casualty. It sometimes gives the unit/battalion number - you can use this to locate a unit war diary.
The term 'casualty' covers anyone in the British Army who was killed, wounded, missing, or was a prisoner of war.
What records can I find in other archives and organisations?
Service records (1920-present)
Visit the GOV.UK website for information about how to request a summary of a service recorda document recording the career of an individual in the armed forces from the Ministry of Defence. These are not available to members of the general public, but next of kin may request access to them.
Records of Guards regiments
Guards regiments retain their own records which can be accessed by writing to the appropriate regimental headquarters.
Soldiers' effects ledgers (1901-1960)
Contact the National Army Museum about soldiers' effects ledgers covering April 1901 to March 1960. These list monies owed to a soldier who died in service.
You may be able to purchase a transcript from the ledgers which usually show
- full name
- regimental number
- date, and sometimes place, of death
- next of kin and monies paid to them
Ledgers from 1901 to 1914 also show the soldier's trade and date of enlistment.
Selected soldier pension record cards
Contact the The Western Front Association (WFA) to request a paid search into the selected soldier pension records cards. Read their guidance pages for more information about the records.
What other resources will help me find information?
Search the London Gazette on The Gazette website for information about British Army soldiers' gallantry awards.
Read First World War Army Service Records by William Spencer (The National Archives, 2008).
Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The books are all available in The National Archives' reference library, or you may be able to find them in a local library.
You can also search our bookshop for a wide range of history titles.