This is a guide to finding records of soldiers who served with the British Army after the end of the First World War, including service in the Second World War and up to the 1980s. However, though we do hold some records that may help to paint a picture of a soldier’s time in the army during this period, we do not hold the service records of individual soldiers who served after the early 1920s, in the Second World War or later – they are all still with the Ministry of Defence.
The ranks covered by the records detailed in this guide include Private, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, and Warrant Officer – but not commissioned officer ranks.
How to get started
To uncover details of a soldier’s service you should begin by searching for the following three types of records:
- Service records: Usually the most detailed record of a soldier’s time in the army. These records are still held by the Ministry of Defence (see below).
- Medal and honours records: Most soldiers were issued with campaign medals awarded for service during conflict, details of campaign medals are with the Medal Office. Some soldiers were also awarded medals for acts of gallantry and meritorious service (see below).
- Unit war diaries: You will need to know which unit, often a battalion, a soldier served with to effectively search these records; in most diaries only officers are mentioned by name.
Whether other records survive or ever existed for a soldier depend upon a number of variable factors. If, for example, a soldier was wounded or received an army pension, records may survive recording these facts.
Many records held at The National Archives are available online, some of them on partner websites, others on our own website. For details of other online First World War records, see the Records in other archives and organisations listed below.
Recommendations for military honours and awards, 1935–1990
Search the recommendations for military honours and awards (£) (WO 373) for personnel of the British Army and dominions’ armies.
Announcements of the award of gallantry medals and honours
Search the London Gazette on The Gazette website for the official announcements of British Army soldiers’ gallantry awards.
British Army casualty lists, 1939–1945
Search the daily British Army casualty lists (WO 417) on Findmypast.co.uk (£). 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.
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 (£).
Second World War unit war diaries
Read the advice in our guide to records of British Army operations in the Second World War on unit war diaries. All units, from battalions and brigades to divisions and whole armies, maintained a daily record of events during the war.
Records 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 record from the Ministry of Defence (MOD). These are available to next of kin and members of the general public on request to the MOD, provided the subject is no longer living. An administrative fee applies.
Service records of Guards regiments
The Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards regiments retain their own records. To access them write to or call the appropriate regimental headquarters.
For Grenadier, Irish and Welsh Guards service records visit the GOV.UK website.
Some of these records were destroyed by enemy bombing of the Guards chapel during the Second World War.
Campaign medal records for Second World War and campaigns since 1945
Contact the Ministry of Defence Medal Office for records of Second World War and post-Second World War campaign medals. There are also details of how to apply for a medal if you meet the criteria.
Soldiers’ effects ledgers, 1901–1960
Search the soldiers’ effects ledgers (£) covering April 1901 to March 1960 (from The National Army Museum) by name or regiment on Ancestry.co.uk. 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.
Absent Voters Lists, 1918–1925 and 1939
Search for a soldier by name in the Absent Voters Lists, taken from electoral registers held at the British Library, on Ancestry.co.uk (£) and Findmypast.co.uk (£).
The Absent Voter Lists enabled servicemen and women away from home to vote by proxy or by postal application. They record the address, service number and regimental details of each person.
The following book, available in The National Archives’ reference library, is one of the most detailed reference books for Second World War records held at the The National Archives, formerly known as the Public Record Office. You can also search our shop for a wide range of history titles.
John Dennis Cantwell, The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office (Public Record Office, 1998)