How to look for records of... British Army officers up to 1913

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This guide provides advice on searching for records of British Army officers who served up to 1913. It covers both commissioned officers and officers who were promoted through the ranks.

Although Britain has had a regular standing army since around 1660, there are few personnel records before the early 18th century. Even then, the British Army did not keep records of individual officers spanning their entire careers. You will have to look at a number of sources to piece together an officer’s service.

Officer ranks

Officer ranks include:

  • Lieutenant
  • Captain
  • Major
  • Colonel
  • Brigadier
  • General

The Ministry of Defence website gives more detail.

Online records

Officers’ service records (1764–1913)

Search officersservice records by name in WO 25 and WO 76. Please note, these record descriptions have been created from a card index which was not comprehensive and may contain some errors.

Narrow your search by using (double) quotation marks to find a person’s full name, such as “John Williams”.

Please note, this is a search across the entire catalogue description of each record, not just the name. A search for someone called Barnes, for example, may give some results for people born in Barnes.

Alternatively browse WO 76 and WO 25 by regiment in the catalogue, and select individual pieces (such as WO 76/1 or WO 25/2) to view on digital microfilm.

Printed annual army lists (1754–1879)

Browse the printed army lists (WO 65) available as digital microfilm via Discovery, our catalogue. They are arranged by regiment, of the regular army only, and give the names of officers with dates of their commissions. They are indexed from 1766, but engineer and artillery officers are only included in the index from 1803.

Campaign medals (1793–1949)

Search by name online in the campaign medal and award rolls (WO 100) using Ancestry (£), if you know a person was awarded a specific medal. The medal rolls do not usually contain biographical information. You can also search these records on microfilm at The National Archives at Kew, but you will need to know the campaign and the relevant regiment to use these records.

Birth, marriage and death certificates (1755–1908)

Search certificates of marriage, death, burial and the birth of officers’ children in WO 42 (1755–1908) on Ancestry.

The records can also be browsed, but not name searched, in our catalogue and downloaded. There are printed index books to these records in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew and separate indexes for the French, Swiss, Italian and Greek corps; Loyal American and Canadian corps; and the King’s German Legion.

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

Manuscript army lists (1702–1752)

Browse the manuscript army lists in WO 64 to trace an officer’s promotions before the published army lists appeared in 1740.

Baptismal certificates (1777–1868)

Look through the baptismal certificates for British Army officers in WO 32/8903-8920 (1777-1868).

Officers’ commissions (1679–1914)

Though the records contain scant information on each individual, the commissions or warrants of appointments of an officer are likely to be recorded in several places. Browse by reference or search using keywords such as ‘commissions’, ‘appointments’, ‘warrants’, ‘promotions’, ‘commission books’ or ‘succession books’ in the following series:

  • Military entry books (1758–1855) in HO 51
  • Submissions for royal approval of commissions, promotions and appointments (1809 and 1871–1914) in WO 103

In addition, use the index found in a private notebook (IND 1/8914) to locate records of commissions in SP 44/164 (1679–1782).

Army Purchase Commission records (1758–1908)

Browse through the various types of records created by the Army Purchase Commission in WO 74. Our catalogue does not yet contain separate descriptions for each piece but the series description provides some detail on the records included. Applications from officers of the British and Indian establishment (c.1871–1891) are in WO 74/1. The papers include certificates of service and related correspondence.

Commander in Chief’s memoranda of appointments, promotions and resignations (1793–1870)

Browse by reference the Commander-in-Chief’s memoranda in WO 31 for personal applications to purchase and sell commissions. The records are arranged by the date the appointment or promotion was announced in the London Gazette.

Secretary-at-War correspondence on the purchase and sale of commissions (1704–1858)

Select records by year range from WO 4/513 to WO 4/520 (1704–1858) to view War Office correspondence on the purchase and sale of commissions. Later volumes may include details of where the officer’s regiment was stationed or his own private address.

Half pay, disability and widows’ pensions (1755–1921)

Officers were not automatically entitled to a pension until 1871. Before then, when officers retired they sold their commissions or went on half pay.

Though there is little genealogical information in these documents, you can search for pension records using this advanced search option in our catalogue. Refine your search by date and try the following keywords and keyword combinations:

  • ‘pension’ AND ‘widow’
  • ‘pension’ AND the rank of officer
  • ‘pension’ AND type of pay such as ‘half pay’

The following series all contain some records relating to officers’ pension. Click on the series codes for more information and to browse by reference/year or to search by the keywords suggested above:

Within the above listed series, the following may prove most useful and easiest to use:

  • Registers of the annual bounty paid to officers’ widows in WO 25/3995 (1755–1816) and WO 25/3069-3072 (1815–1856). The registers come with indexes.
  • Ledgers of payments of half pay in PMG 4 (1737–1921). After 1841 arranged alphabetically, not by regiment, making it easier to find an officer by name, even if you do not know the regiment.
  • Records of officers on half pay in WO 24/660-747 (1713–1809). The records provide an officer’s name, rank and regiment.

Records in other archives and organisations

Sandhurst registers (1783–1964)

Visit the Sandhurst Collection website to search by name the registers of cadets who attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst 1783–1964 (£). These contain the cadets’ dates of attendance and may also include other personal information such as date of birth, school attended, religion and their father’s profession.

Records held elsewhere

The National Archives’ catalogue contains collections and contact details of local archives around the UK and beyond. To locate these records, search our catalogue with keywords and refine your results to ‘Other archives’ using the filters.

Other resources

Published British Army Lists

Consult the official published Army Lists to trace an officer’s career in the British Army. There are annual lists (1740–1879), quarterly lists (1879–1922) and monthly lists (1798–1940) for the regular army in this period. The monthly lists include officers of colonial, militia and territorial units. All lists contain dates of commission and promotion.

Officers on half pay can be traced in the Army Lists, which give date of commencement.

Annual lists:

  • arranged by regiment
  • name indexed from 1766 (except engineer and artillery officers)
  • name indexed for engineer and artillery officers from 1803

Quarterly lists:

  • list officers in order of seniority
  • include details of officers’ war service from April 1881

Monthly lists:

  • name indexed from 1867
  • provide some details of a regiment’s location

Other books

Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ Bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

William Spencer, ‘Army Records’ (The National Archives, 2008)

Consult ‘Hart’s Army List’ by Henry George Hart (Smith, Elder & Co., 1839–1915), an unofficial alternative to the official Army List with details of officers’ war service from 1839.

Websites and blogs

Search the London Gazette on The Gazette website for information about British Army officers’ commissions and gallantry awards.

Read the blog Isaac Chetham: From ‘Scum of the Earth’ to Commissioned Officer in Wellington’s Army which explains the process of researching an Officer in this period.