How to look for records of... Courts martial and desertion in the British Army 17th-20th centuries

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

This guide tells you the type of records we hold on courts martial and desertion, and provides you with guidance on how to search for them.

This guide to courts martial and deserters covers:

  • different types of courts martial in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and how they were administered
  • First World War courts martial (and subsequent pardons)
  • where to find records of courts martial at The National Archives
  • records of deserters held at The National Archives and elsewhere

If you are looking for courts martial following the Easter Rising, read the guide Ireland’s Easter Rising 1916 instead.

2. What is a court martial?

A court martial is a court convened to try an offence against military discipline, or against the ordinary law, committed by a person in one of the armed services. Courts martial were also used to try civilians when martial law was in force.

2.1 Types of courts martial

Various types of courts martial existed. They are sometimes listed by initials:

General court martial (GCM)

This was army’s highest tribunal, dealing with commissioned officers and the most serious cases involving other ranks. It could only be convened by the Crown or its deputy (for example, the commander in chief, or governors general). At least 13 commissioned officers had to be present if ‘at home’ (serving in the British Isles, Ireland, non-British territories or small British possessions), or five if ‘overseas’ (the British colonies), together with a judge advocate. Decisions were confirmed by the person who issued the warrant (that is, the Crown or its direct deputy).

Field general court martial (FGCM)

This type of court martial was often used in wartime. Only three commissioned officers needed to be present. The decision had to be unanimous for the death penalty to be imposed.

General regimental court martial (GRCM) or district (or garrison) court martial (DCM)

More limited in jurisdiction, these courts could not try commissioned officers or charges carrying the death penalty, transportation or prison sentences of more than two years. It required seven officers at home or five if overseas. Details of the sentence were sent up to the Judge Advocate General’s office. The general regimental court martial was replaced by the district court martial in 1829.

Regimental court martial (RCM)

The regimental court martial was used for ranks other than commissioned officers who were charged with lesser offences. They may be noted in war diaries, but no records were sent to the Judge Advocate General’s Office. Some of the records of these courts may survive among the records preserved by individual regiments.

3. How do I search the records?

3.1 Online records

Some records are searchable online by name. See section 4 for more information.

If the records you require are not online, it would be helpful if you know the rank of the individual and type of court before you start your research – this will help you narrow down relevant record series listed in the guide.

3.2 Using Discovery, our catalogue

Start your search by identifying relevant records series listed below.

Browse relevant record series by date to locate document references using Discovery (£), our catalogue. The records are not searchable by name on our catalogue.

For more guidance on how to conduct a search or how to browse the catalogue, read Discovery help.

3.3 Viewing the documents

For records which are not viewable online, you will either need to visit The National Archives or order digital or paper copies to be sent to you. You can order copies from Discovery by clicking on the record title (you should register an account in Discovery before you request copies).

4. What can I view online?

Search by name and download the following registers of courts martial online:

Description of records Details in the records Online source Dates Catalogue references for the original records
Field General Courts Martial and Military Courts registers from the Judge Advocate General’s Office Name, rank, regiment, place of trial, nature of charge and sentence for each prisoner (£) – you can search for records at but images of the records are exclusive to


Series WO 213, pieces 1-25
District Courts Martial registers, Home and Abroad from the Judge Advocate General’s Office Name, rank, regiment, place of trial, nature of charge and sentence for each prisoner (£) – you can search for records at but images of the records are exclusive to 1829-1979 Series WO 86, all pieces
General Courts Martial registers, Confirmed at Home from the Judge Advocate General’s Office Name, rank, regiment, place of trial, nature of charge and sentence for each prisoner (£) – you can search for records at but images of the records are exclusive to

1666-1704 & 1806-1930

Series WO 92, pieces 1-3 & 8-10

5. The Judge Advocate General

Almost all the surviving records of army courts martial came to The National Archives via the office of the Judge Advocate General, the legal officer responsible to the Crown for military law. His duties, and those of the judge advocates answerable to him, were to prepare the case, summon courts martial and administer the oath to witnesses. After the hearing the judge advocate would submit a report of the proceedings to the relevant authority for confirmation. Before 1951 soldiers had no right of appeal, although the confirming officer would often reduce the sentence.

The submitted reports on individual courts martial, 1715-1790, are in WO 71/34-64 for both home and overseas cases. Cases from 1806-1904, to be confirmed at home, are in WO 91. There is a joint index to WO 91 and WO 92, for 1806-1833, in WO93/1A. Other submissions, 1880-1938, are in WO 209.

5.1 Miscellaneous records of the Judge Advocate General

Type of record Dates Catalogue reference
Statistics 1914-1954 WO 93/49
Particulars of death sentences carried out 1941-1953 WO 93/40
War trials 1944-1969 WO 93/60-68
Changi prisoner of war camp, Malaya 1942-1944 WO 93/46-48

5.2 Judge Advocate General case index system, 1991-1999

The office of the Judge Advocate General has a database with continuing registers of Army and Royal Air Force court martial cases at home and abroad and cases in civilian standing courts for 1991 to 1999. Browse LCO 60 to find and download cases from this database. It contains the following details:

  • date and type of trial
  • defendant’s unit
  • rank
  • service number
  • name of the Judge Advocate
  • charges brought
  • court

In the case of standing civilian court hearings the relationship of the defendant to service personnel is recorded.

6. Registers of courts martial, 1796-1963

The Judge Advocate General’s office compiled registers of general and field courts martial, giving name, rank, regiment, place of trial, charge, finding, and sentence. These are in WO 90 (abroad, 1796-1960 – with a volume for India), and WO 92 (home, 1666-1704, 1806-1960 – with registers for part of the Boer War). Part of WO 92 is available online – see section what can be viewed online. An index for 1806-1833 is in WO 93/1A. Later registers for 1909-1963 are in WO 213 (see section what can I view online).

7. First World War courts martial

7.1 Death sentences

Death sentences were passed by the British Army in courts martial between 1914 and 1924 for offences such as sleeping on duty, cowardice, desertion, murder, mutiny and treason. Death sentences were passed on over 3,000 British soldiers, members of Dominion, Colonial and foreign forces, and several British and foreign civilians. Over 90% of these sentences were later changed to other punishments, such as hard labour or penal servitude.

For all offences except mutiny, see Death sentences passed by the military courts of the British Army, 1914-1924 by G Oram and J Putkowski. This gives lists of sentences by date and surname. Each entry gives a reference number. Add WO to the front of this number, and you have the full National Archives document reference.

Most records of courts martial are in:

7.2 Mutinies

Over 2,000 men were charged with mutiny between 1914 and 1922. You may find it useful to consult British Army Mutineers, 1914-1922 by J Putkowski. This lists mutinies by:

  • surname
  • unit
  • mutinies at home by date
  • mutinies abroad by date

Each entry gives a full National Archives document reference, including the internal page number. When ordering one of these documents, leave out the page number.

Most records of courts martial of mutineers are in:

7.3 Other offences

For courts martial which did not pass a death sentence, try the records described in section 9, or contact the relevant regimental museum.

7.4 Australian and Canadian forces

Name rolls of courts martial, 1915-1919, contain court martial records of the Australian Imperial Force (WO 93/42) and the Canadian Expeditionary Force (WO 93/43).

8. Trials of commissioned officers, 1668-1993

Commissioned officers could be tried only by general or field general courts martial: these are indexed between 1830 and 1904 in WO 93/1B. The records are mostly in WO 71, which includes original papers in the case (such as warrants, letters and depositions, sometimes described as ‘papers’) as well as entry books of the trial proceedings. There are several series of records in WO 71:

Type of record Dates Catalogue reference
Papers 1668-1879 WO 71/121-343
Papers 1851-1914 Destroyed by bombing in 1940: look at the registers instead
Proceedings 1692-1796 WO 71/13-64 (3 series)
Proceedings 1914-1993 WO 71/387-1586 (closed for 30-100 years)
Special cases and senior officers: papers 1780-1824, 1879 WO 71/99-120 and WO 343
Ireland: special returns: papers 1800-1820 WO 71/252-264
Irish civilians 1916-1921 WO 71/344-386

9. Trials of non-commissioned officers and other ranks, 1688-1986

Non-commissioned officers and other ranks could be tried by any of the courts martial, so you may have to look in two sets of records. For the most serious offences tried at general and field general courts martial, the records are as described for officers (see section 8). For less serious offences tried at general regimental and district garrison courts martial, consult:

Type of record Dates Catalogue reference
Proceedings 1914-1993 WO 71/387-1586
Registers: home and abroad 1812-1829 WO 89
Registers: home and abroad 1829-1971 WO 86 (see section 4 for what can be viewed online)
London area: registers 1865-1875 WO 87
India: registers 1878-1945 WO 88
Registers: field courts martial and military courts 1909-1963 WO 213 (see section 4 for what can be viewed online)

Records of minor offences tried at regimental courts martial are not held by The National Archives, but may be held at regimental museums.

10. Deserters

There are registers of deserters, 1811-1852, in WO 25/2906-2934. Until 1827 they are kept in three series: cavalry, infantry and militia (the latter up to 1820 only). After 1827 they are arranged by regiment. These registers give descriptions, dates and place of enlistment and desertion, and outcome. There are registers of captured deserters, 1813-1845, in WO 25/2935-2951, with indexes up to 1833 in WO 25/2952, WO 25/2953, and WO 25/2954. Deserters who surrendered themselves under proclamation, 1803-1815, are in WO 25/2955. On capture, some deserters were sentenced to imprisonment on the Savoy hulk: there are unindexed registers for the hulk, 1799-1823 (WO 25/2956).

Local newspapers and (for 1828 to 1845) the police newspapers Hue and Cry and the Police Gazette carried details of deserters, giving name, parish and county of birth, regiment, date and place of desertion, a physical description and other relevant information. For deserters in Australia (HO 75) consult Fitzmaurice, Army deserters from HM Service.

11. Other records

Type of record Dates Catalogue reference
Correspondence of the secretary at war 1684-1861 WO 4
Judge Advocate General: letters, etc. 1696-1850 WO 72
Judge Advocate General: letter books (indexed) 1715-1962 WO 81
Deputation books, recording deputy judges advocate 1751-1910 WO 85
Judge Advocate General: registers of in-letters 1817-1951 WO 82
Correspondence of the commander in chief 1833-1857 WO 3/541-568
Judge Advocate General: charge books 1857-1948 WO 84
Documents of the Courts Martial Committee 1938-1940 WO 225
Registers of warrants for holding courts martial 1854-1856 WO 28

12. Pardons for First World War servicemen

Amendments to the Armed Forces Act 2006 have established pardons for any person who was executed for a range of predominantly disciplinary offences committed during the war.

For more details please see Section 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. The original records of the offence are held in series WO 71.

13. Records held elsewhere

Records of minor offences tried at regimental courts martial are not held by The National Archives, but may be held at regimental museums.

Some of the records the Regimental court martial (RCM) may survive among the records preserved by individual regiments. Contact individual regiments for more information.

14. Further reading

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

Alphabetical guide to War Office and other military records preserved in The Public Record Office (Public Record Office Lists & Indexes: LIII) [covers 1676-1902 and has a large number of entries relating to courts martial procedure. Available at The National Archives]

B Barton, ‘The secret court martial records of the 1916 Easter Rising’ (The History Press, 2008)

R W Bennet,, ‘Military Law in 1839’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, XLVIII (1970), 225-241

C M Clode, ‘Military forces of the Crown’, 2 vols (BiblioBazaar, 1869)

Y Fitzmaurice, ‘Army deserters from HM Service’ (Fitzmaurice, 1988)

G Oram and J Putkowski, ‘Death sentences passed by the military courts of the British Army, 1914-1924’ (Frances Boutle, 1998)

J Putkowski, ‘British Army mutineers, 1914-1922’ (Frances Boutle, 1998)

J Putkowski and J Sykes, ‘Shot at dawn’ (Pen & Sword, 1998)

G Rubin, ‘Murder, mutiny and the military: British court martial cases 1940-1966’ (Frances Boutle, 2005)

J Stuart-Smith, ‘Military law; its history, administration and practice’, Law Quarterly Review, LXXXV (1969), 478-504

F B Wiener, ‘Civilians under military justice’ (University of Chicago Press, 1967)