How to look for records of... British Army soldiers up to 1913
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to search for British Army records of soldiers who served between the 18th and early 20th centuries and covers the service of soldiers who were discharged right up until just before the start of the First World War.
Although Britain has had a regular standing army since around 1660, there are few personnel records before the early 18th century.
The advice here applies to records of non-commissioned officer ranks, which include:
- Lance Corporal
- Warrant Officer
2. The surviving records
Finding information on a soldier’s service prior to the First World War presents a different and generally more complicated puzzle than it does from the First World War onwards. Self-contained service records of the kind created and retained for the First World War itself, and subsequently, do not exist. In most cases, a soldier’s service must, instead, be pieced together using the mixture of records that survive. These records typically include regimental muster books and pay lists, discharge papers and pension records. Attestation records were created but relatively few survive and those that do tend to be found only among the papers of those discharged to pensions.
In general, if a soldier died in service or/and did not receive an army pension it is much less likely there will be any detailed record of his service – muster rolls and pay lists may be all that survive.
3. Online records
Many of the most detailed records of soldiers from this period are available online and it is possible to search for these records with no more than a soldier’s name, though you will usually need some way of distinguishing him from other soldiers with the same name, such as his date of birth.
3.1 British Army service, pension and discharge records 1703-1913
Search and download British Army service, pension and discharge records from findmypast.co.uk (£). These records were, in the vast majority of cases, originally retained for pension purposes.
The records include:
- service records from the Royal Hospital Chelsea 1760-1913 (WO 97) – before 1883 these records are usually only for men who were discharged and received a pension; from 1883 to 1913 the series includes soldiers who were discharged to pension and those who were discharged for other reasons, such as termination of limited engagements or discharge by purchase
- records of pension payments 1842-1883 (WO 22)
- Royal Hospital Chelsea admission books, registers and other papers 1702-1933 (WO 23) – view a breakdown of this varied set of records in our catalogue
- soldiers discharged from the Army between 1787 and 1813 and awarded a Chelsea out-pension (WO 121)
- soldiers awarded deferred pensions from 1838-1896 (WO 131)
- Pension records, discharge documents and reports of medical boards on invalids for men who served in foreign regiments 1816-1817 (WO 122)
The records do not usually include:
- documents of soldiers who died in service (see section 8 for these)
- documents of soldiers who were discharged by purchase
See sections 4, 5 and 6 for more advice on pension and discharge records, including how to find those that are not online.
3.2 Campaign medals 1793-1949
Search by name in the campaign medal and award rolls (WO 100) on Ancestry.co.uk (£) for records of medals awarded for service. 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.
3.3 Soldiers and militiamen discharged due to disability 1715-1913
Download, free of charge, digital microfilm copies of Royal Hospital Chelsea admissions books for soldier with disabilities 1715-1873. These registers list men awarded out-pensions following their discharge from the regular army or the militia on grounds of disability (WO 116/1-165). See our guide to free online records for advice on how to use digital microfilm.
3.4 Soldiers awarded pensions for length of service 1823-1913
Download, free of charge, digital microfilm copies of admission books from Royal Hospital Chelsea for pensions awarded to soldiers for length of service 1823-1913 (WO 117). See our guide to free online records for advice on how to use digital microfilm.
3.5 Imperial Yeomanry in the Boer War (South African War) 1899-1902
Search for and download attestation and discharge papers (£) from findmypast.co.uk for men serving in the Imperial Yeomanry during the Second Boer War, also know as the South African War (WO 128).
See section 10 for advice on finding other Boer War records.
3.6 Soldiers in the Household Cavalry 1799-1920
Search for and download service records of the Household Cavalry (£), including the Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards and Household Battalion 1799-1920 from record series WO 400.
3.7 Soldiers discharged from the Army in Ireland 1783-1822: certificates of service
Search for and download certificates of service (£) from records series WO 119 on findmypast.co.uk for men awarded out-pensions by the Board of Kilmainham Hospital.
3.8 Royal Hospital Chelsea regimental registers of pensioners who served in Canada 1713-1882
Search the Royal Hospital Chelsea regimental registers of pensioners who served in Canada (£) between 1713 and 1882 from record series WO 97 and WO 120 on Ancestry.co.uk.
4. Beyond online records: searching for records at The National Archives in Kew
There remains a significant number of British Army records for soldiers from this period that cannot be viewed online. To view these records, the most significant of which are highlighted in the following sections of this guide, you will either need to visit us to view them in person at our building in Kew, order copies of records to be sent to you (you will need the exact reference for the record) or pay for research.
Where records have not been digitised you will usually need to know which regiment an individual served in to find records of him. This is especially so if he was, like most soldiers, not discharged to pension.
There are various ways to approach this research but the following steps provide a logical order to follow (assuming the soldier did not die in service):
Step 1: Search for a pension record (see sections 4 and 5)
Step 2: Search for the soldier in muster rolls and pay lists (see section 6)
In the absence of a pension record and without a known date of discharge the best place to start a search is in the muster rolls and pay lists. You will need to know either where in the world he served at any point during his service or at least one of the regiments he served with to make a start.
Of limited detail by themselves, tracing a soldier’s career through the muster lists should lead you to a discharge date and would therefore allow you to find a record of discharge – likely to be the most detailed record available if the soldier did not receive an army pension.
Step 3: Search for a record of discharge (see section 7)
Most soldiers were not discharged to pension and for those that weren’t the number and detail of surviving records is likely to be reduced. There are still, however, records which you can search for.
5. Soldiers discharged to pension
Some of the most detailed documents of soldiers’ service up until the First World War are records that were kept for pension purposes. If an individual received an army pension there is a better than average chance that there will be a record for him.
5.1 The royal hospitals for British Army pensioners
Most of the pre-First World War British Army pension records held at The National Archives originate from the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London and the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin. These were hospitals set up, in 1679 and 1681 respectively, to administer army pensions and look after army pensioners.
The hospitals in Ireland and England reflected the separate army establishments for the two countries, which did not become joined until the Act of Union in 1800.
From the late 17th century, soldiers who left the army with a disabling injury, as invalids or after completing an agreed term of service, were entitled to a pension from one of these two army veterans hospitals.
In December 1822 the payment of Kilmainham out-pensions was taken over by Chelsea Hospital, whilst in-pensioners remained in Kilmainham until 1929, when the last transferred to Chelsea.
5.2 In-pensioners and out-pensioners
Some ex-soldiers became residents of these veterans hospitals and were known as in-pensioners. Most, however, were out-pensioners, receiving a pension administered by the hospitals but not actually residing in them. Both in-pensioners and out-pensioners are often referred to simply as pensioners, or sometimes Chelsea pensioners.
To be eligible for admission as an in-pensioner a man had to be a life pensioner of the army (that is, in receipt of a service or disability pension), aged 55 or more (unless in receipt of a disability pension) and free from the responsibility of supporting a wife or children.
5.3 How to find out if someone received a British Army pension
It is not always possible to find this out other than by looking for a pension record but a useful alternative source is the census. Many individuals are listed on census records as “Army pensioner”.
Censuses from 1841 to 1911 are available to search and view online. For more details on how to access and search for censuses, see our guide to census records.
5.4 How to search for and view pension records
Many of the most significant series of British Army pension records are now available to view online (see section 2). Some records of this type, however, are not available online. Though some can be found searching with a soldier’s name, in general it will help to know when an ex-soldier was drawing his pension, or, even more usefully, to have at least a rough idea of when a soldier was first granted his pension.
Search for the following records by clicking on the series reference below and searching by soldier’s name:
- Personal case files on pensions awarded for disability arising from service in the Army or Navy before the First World War, including case files for widows of such servicemen, in PIN 71
Search for the following records by clicking on the series references below and using the date boxes to search either by date of admission to pension or by the dates during which an ex-soldier was in receipt of a pension:
- Pension admission books from Royal Hospital Kilmainham 1704-1922 in WO 118
- Soldiers awarded out-pensions following their discharge from the regular army or the militia on grounds of disability in WO 116 – some of these records are available to view online (see section 2)
- Registers of admissions to pensions from Royal Hospital Chelsea arranged by regiment in WO 120. There is a name index for 1806-1836 only, and the volumes for 1839-1843 each have an index included.
Search for the following records by clicking on the references to ranges of piece numbers below and browsing through the range:
- Pensioners’ certificates from Royal Hospital Chelsea 1799-1892 – only a small sample has been retained, in WO 900/9-38
- Pensioners’ certificates from Royal Hospital Kilmainham 1798-1817 – only a small sample has been retained, in WO 900/39-42
- Men discharged with free, free modified, deferred and purchased pensions 1830-1870 in WO 25/3850-3868
6. Soldiers discharged to pension in British colonies and black soldiers
There are discreet sets of records for out-pensioners based overseas.
Records of payments made to pensioners living overseas, whether in British colonies or foreign countries, are held in series WO 22 and WO 23, available to search and download on Findmypast.co.uk (£), as described in section 2.
You can use the ‘Series’ and ‘Additional keywords’ search functions on Findmypast’s British Army Service Records page to search within the records of payments made to British Army pensioners overseas. Select WO 22 and WO 23 from the series list and, to narrow your search further, place a country name in the additional keywords field:
Use Findmypast.co.uk (£) in the same way to search for pension records from a Foreign and Colonial subseries of WO 23 specifically for:
- a small number of Indian Army pensioners (most records for Indian Army pensioners are held by the British Library)
- a small number East India Company pensioners (most records for East India Company pensioners are held by the British Library)
- black soldiers, described in the original records as “negro” pensioners
7. Monthly and quarterly regimental muster rolls and pay lists 1732-1898
Though the appearance of individuals on muster rolls and pay lists are not determiners of whether or not they received a pension, they are particularly useful records for men who were not discharged to pension as they provide the enlistment date, movements and discharge date of all soldiers in the British Army.
Refer to the British Army muster rolls and pay lists c.1730-1898 research guide to find out which series to consult for the period 1732 to 1878. For 1878 to 1898, browse WO 16 to find the relevant regiment or regimental district.
8. Discharge papers 1817-1888
Trying to trace an individual soldier in this way can be time-consuming, with no guarantee of success. The registers are not complete but they are a useful potential source of information. A number of these pieces contain information on soldiers whose discharge document would not be in WO 97 (see section 2).
Discharge dates 1817-1829
- Soldiers who purchased their discharge (and would therefore not have received a pension) in WO 25/3845-3847
Discharge dates 1830-1838
- Register of men discharged at their own request WO 25/3848-3849
Discharge dates 1852-1870
- Soldiers discharged during their first period of service; discharged as ‘incorrigible’, discharged ‘with ignominy’; sentenced to penal servitude or 21 years with militia, 1852-1870 in WO 25/3869-3874
- Soldiers discharged when a regiment reduced its numbers 1856-1857 in WO 25/3879
- Soldiers discharged under the terms of the new Limited Service Act 1866-1870 in WO 25/3883
- Soldiers discharged on return from India 1863-1870 in WO 12/13077-13090
Discharge dates 1871-1888
- On return from India 1871-1878 in WO 12/13091-13105
- General register 1871-1884 in WO 121/223-238
- Gosport discharge depot musters 1882-1888 in WO 16/2284 and WO 16/2888-2916 (there is an index for 1883-1888)
9. Soldiers who died in service
If a soldier died in service the principal personnel records that were retained for soldiers (those used for pension purposes) are less likely to exist. There are, however, some records that were created as a result of a soldier dying in service:
- Records of deaths and the effects (possessions) of dead soldiers in a subseries within WO 25
- Registers of authorities to deal with the effects (possessions) of dead soldiers 1810-1822 in WO 25/2966-2971. These records include:
- period of death
- amount of effects and credits
- date of order to agent
- agent’s name
- person applying (usually next of kin) and his or her address
- Soldiers’ effects ledgers 1862-1881 in WO 25/3475-3501 (WO 25/3491-3501 are indexes to WO 25/3475-3490). The National Army Museum holds a set for April 1901-March 1960 (see section 11.3). The ledgers were created as a list of the monies owed to soldiers who died in service. They do not list any personal items that may have been returned to the next of kin. The information they typically contain is:
- full name
- regimental number
- date of death and sometimes the place
- next of kin
- monies paid to the next of kin
- records from 1901-1914 also detail the date of enlistment and trade
- Less informative but still helpful, as they give the regiment, are an index of effects from 1830 in WO 25/2974 and a register of effects and credits 1830-1844 in WO 25/2975
10. Royal Artillery personnel records
Until 1855 ordnance troops, which included the Royal Artillery, were the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance, not the War Office. There are therefore some series of records specifically for Royal Artillery personnel.
10.1 Royal Artillery service records and other papers
Search by name of a non-commissioned officer or soldier in our catalogue within WO 69 for records of the Royal Artillery which include:
- description books
- records of service, including original attestation papers
- registers of marriages and baptisms
- registers of deceased soldiers
- some records of transfer of men to the Army Reserve
- pension registers
- description book of the Royal Irish Artillery 1756-1774
- miscellaneous correspondence
Supplementary records of services are preserved for soldiers in the Royal Artillery, 1791 to 1855, and the Royal Horse Artillery, 1803 to 1863, in WO 69.
- You can search by name in our catalogue within WO 69.
- This series also contains other useful material, up to 1913.
10.2 Royal Artillery pension records 1770-1913
Artillery pensions were paid by the Ordnance Office until 1834, when the Royal Hospital Chelsea took over. The records are in the following series:
|Date range||Description||Catalogue reference|
|1770-1808||Vouchers for artillery pensions||WO 18/1-147|
|1808-1834||Pension minutes||WO 47/2760 -2851|
|1816-1844||Registers of Ordnance pensions||WO 54/338-493|
|1822-1855||Pension minutes||WO 55/540-572|
|1833-1913||Royal Artillery pensions||WO 116/125-185|
|1834||Registers of current Ordnance out-pensions||WO 23/141, WO 23/143-145|
11. Second Boer War personnel records 1899-1902
The British forces in South Africa during the Second Boer War, also known as the South African War and sometimes imprecisely referred to simply as the Boer War, consisted of:
- units of the regular army
- militia units
- the Imperial Yeomanry (a volunteer mounted infantry regiment set up largely for service in South Africa)
- forces recruited locally in South Africa itself
Click on the series references below to search or browse these records by unit. These records are of soldiers who enlisted in units locally raised in South Africa.
For records of the Imperial Yeomanry serving in South Africa search for:
- registers and casualty books by regimental number in WO 129
- attestation and discharge documents from WO 128 on findmypast.co.uk (£)
Please note that many soldiers and officers who served in the British Army during the Second Boer War also served in the British Army during the First World War (1914-1918). When this happened, then pre-1914 record of service (including Boer War) is more likely to be among First World War service records.
You can search and download campaign medal rolls (WO 100) at Ancestry.co.uk (£). They list militiamen who received the Queen’s (or King’s) South Africa Medal or the Queen’s Mediterranean Medal, while serving with the regular army.
12. Records in other archives
Except for the Guards regiments and the Household Cavalry, regimental museums do not hold records of service of their men and officers, although they often hold other records which can be useful to people researching their military ancestors.
12.1 Guards regiments
Records of the Guards regiments (Coldstream, Grenadier, Irish, Scots and Welsh Guards) are accessible by writing to the regimental headquarters of each regiment. All five regimental headquarters are based at Wellington Barracks, Birdcage Walk, London SW1E 6HQ. Some of these records were destroyed by enemy bombing whilst stored in the Guards chapel during the Second World War.
12.2 Household Cavalry
12.3 Records of soldiers’ effects 1901-1960
The National Army Museum holds records of soldiers’ effects for April 1901 to March 1960. Those from 1901 to 1929 are available on Ancestry (£). For 1930-1960 contact the National Army Museum directly.
13. Further reading
Amanda Bevan, Tracing Your Ancestors in the The National Archives (The National Archives, 2006)
Christopher Chant, The Handbook of British Regiments (Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1988)
Norman K Crowder, British Army Pensioners Abroad 1772-1899 (Genealogical Publishing Co Inc, 1995)
Dan Cruickshank, The Royal Hospital Chelsea: the Place and the People (Third Millennium Publishing, 2008)
Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott, Militia Lists and Musters 1757-1876: A Directory of Holdings in the British Isles (Federation of Family History Societies, 2004)
Ian S Hallows, Regiments and Corps of the British Army (Arms and Armour, 1991)
E A James, British Regiments 1914-1918 (Naval & Military Press, 2001)
J M Kitzmiller, In Search of the ‘Forlorn Hope’: A Comprehensive Guide to Locating British Regiments and their Records (Manuscript Pub Foundation, 1988)
M E S Laws, Battery Records of the Royal Artillery 1716-1859 (Royal Artillery Institute, 1952)
Gerry Murphy, Where Did That Regiment Go?: The Lineage of British Infantry & Cavalry Regiments at a Glance (The History Press, 2009)
Mustor (muster) Books and Pay Lists (List and Index Society, 1984)
Roger Perkins, Regiments: Regiments and Corps of the British Empire and Commonwealth 1758-1993: A Critical Bibliography of Their Published Histories (Roger Perkins, 1994)
Robert Pols, Dating Old Army Photographs (Family History Partnership, 2011)
Return of the Names of the Officers in the Army Who Receive Pensions for the Loss of Limbs, or for Wounds (Naval & Military Press, 2002)
William Spencer, Army Records: A Guide for Family Historians (The National Archives, 2008)
William Spencer, Records of the Militia and Volunteer Forces 1757-1945 (Public Record Office, 1997)
Waterloo Medal Roll: Compiled From the Muster Rolls (Naval & Military Press, 1992)