How to look for records of... British Army soldiers of the First World War

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

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This is a guide to the records of British Army soldiers who served in the First World War. Some First World War veterans continued to serve with the army after the war and for the records of these soldiers you may need to read the advice in our guide to British Army soldiers in service after 1918. However, many of the records in the First World War collections cover service up to 1920.

The ranks covered by the records detailed in this guide include Private, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, Sergeant Major and Warrant Officer – but not commissioned officer ranks.

For the service records of soldiers serving in the armies of Commonwealth countries (such as Canada, New Zealand or South Africa) you will need to contact the respective archives of those countries.

How to get started

To uncover details of a soldier’s service in the First World War you should begin by searching for the following three types of records:

  • Service record: If it survives it is likely to be the most detailed record for an individual soldier that you will find but most service records for First World War soldiers were destroyed following bomb and fire damage at the record office.
  • Medal records: Low on detail but far more likely to have survived than a service record and a reliable way to identify a soldier’s service number and unit. Most soldiers were issued with campaign medals; some were also awarded medals for gallantry and meritorious service.
  • Unit war diaries: You will need to know which unit 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, taken prisoner or was granted an army pension, records may survive recording these events.

Online records

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.

Soldiers’ service records (for all units except Household Cavalry and Guards regiments), 1914–1920

Search military records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks on Ancestry.co.uk (£) and Findmypast.co.uk (£) including service records (WO 363), pension records (WO 364) and campaign medal 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.

The records include:

  • 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

The records do not usually include:

  • 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 but the records are of British Army non-commissioned officers of European descent only)
  • 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 (£service records (WO 400) of non-commissioned officers and other ranks who served in one of the Household Cavalry regiments during the First World War.

Medal roll index cards, 1914–1920

These cards, along with the medal rolls to which they form an index (see below), were created primarily to record the awarding of campaign medals. Campaign medals were awarded to all soldiers who served in a theatre of conflict overseas. In some instances the cards also record gallantry awards.

Search by name or regimental (service) number for First World War army medal index cards (WO 372) on our website (£).

Campaign medal rolls, 1914–1920

Search the campaign medal rolls (WO 329) on Ancestry (£) by name, regimental (service) number and regiment. You may find abbreviations on a roll entry – some of these abbreviations are explained in our guide to army medal index cards.

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 (£) by recipients’ name, regimental number or by badge number. Alternatively you can search by regiment.

The badge was awarded to all of those military personnel who were discharged as a result of sickness or wounds contracted or received during the war, either at home or overseas.

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.

Unit war diaries from the Western Front, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli, 1914–1922

Search by unit name and number for the war diaries of British Army units that served on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia on our website (£) and for units that served in the Gallipoli Campaign at the Dardanelles on Ancestry.co.uk (£).

See below for advice on searching for the war diaries of units that served elsewhere in the world during the war.

Prisoner of war records, 1914–1918

See our guide to records of British prisoners of the First World War for details of the prisoner of war records available online.

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

To access these records you will either need to visit us to see the documents for free at our building in Kew or, where you can identify a specific document reference, order a copy (£) to be sent to you.

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.

Unit war diaries from Russia, British colonies and other theatres of operations, 1914–1922

Search by unit name and number for document references to unit war diaries in series WO 95 using the series search. Use this search tool if you are looking for the war diaries of units that served in Russia, British colonies and theatres of operations other than the Western Front, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli – for these latter three see the advice on online diaries in the previous section.

For more detailed advice see our guide to British Army operations in the First World War.

Records in other archives and organisations

Service records of Guards regiments

For service records of the Guards regiments (Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Grenadier Guards, Irish Guards and Welsh Guards) visit the GOV.UK website.

Some of these records were destroyed by enemy bombing of the Guards chapel during the Second World War.

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.

First World War pension record cards for servicemen killed or injured

Search among the First World War pension record cards on Fold3.com (£) – you can also search on Ancestry.co.uk (£) but for images of the records you will need to go to Fold3.com.

The cards record details of the pension entitlements of soldiers and other servicemen killed or injured in the war, both of officers and other ranks, and of the widows and dependants of deceased soldiers.

The much larger collection of originals are in the care of The Western Front Association (WFA) but had previously been held locally, around the country, and then by the Ministry of Defence. Read the WFA’s article on the records for more information.

Absent Voters Lists, 1918–1921

Search for a soldier by name in the Absent Voters Lists, taken from electoral registers held at the British Library, on Findmypast.co.uk (£) and Ancestry.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.

Other resources

Books

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.