British Army Service Records Explained

By | May 30, 2017

Do you have ancestors who were in the British Army? If so then you maybe wondering how do you get these British Army service records and what can I find in them. Here I want to explain to you what options are available for you to find them and what you can expect from them.

British Army Service Records

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Learning all that you can about your ancestors brings you closer to them!

I am very interested to learn every area of my ancestor’s life. That includes when and where they were born, what did they do for a living and what was that like, and also where did they spend the last years of their life.

I like to know about my ancestors from the beginning to the end. Sorry if that sounds a bit morbid.

Not only do I want to know about their lives but also the story behind it. In doing so you get an understanding of what life was like for them and what they had to go through. For me that is the real joy of genealogy research. The story behind it all.

And finding out about your military ancestor is no different. Sure you want to know which regiment they were in and what rank were they. But also where did they fight and what was the story behind these battles.

My military ancestor research!

I am fortunate enough that some military records of one particular ancestor of mine have been passed down through the generations. In these records they detail my second great grandfather’s physical appearance when enlisting, the countries he was deployed and the dates, and when and where he was discharged.

There is a wealth of information here that really brings his story to life. Not only did I know that he was in the army but I also have these records to back it up. And with a little research I found out about the history of these places that he went to and ultimately know why he went there. This by the way was at the turn of the 20th Century.

Before I explain more about these types of service records I first want to highlight options that are available to you to find them. What I must stress to you though is that there are FREE options that are available to you. So pursue these before you go spending any money.

You will need to spend money at some stage, it’s the same with any other hobby. But the ‘skill’ with genealogy is knowing when and where you will need to spend that money. You will ultimately need to pay for something along the way. It will only do your family history research justice if you do so.

Topics discussed in this post:

  1. Ways that you can find your British military ancestor
  2. Pre and post First World War service records
  3. First World War service records
  4. Where to find British Army service records

Ways That You Can Find Your British Military Ancestor

As I have pointed out there are free options that you can use to get your hands on these types of records. But what are they and where do you need to look? Well the answers to these questions is the simple than you think. The answer is YOU!

Military Records Search

Wait … What?!

Yes, you’re probably wondering what I meant by that, right? Well it is simple.

Have you looked around your home? Do you know if you have any family heirlooms that are of military significance?

You may already have medals, ribbons or insignias which can give you a clue as to the campaigns that your ancestor fought in and thus show you where you need to look for their records. Or you may have their uniform, sword or a firearm. All of which are more clues as to which regiment they were in and also the time period that you need to look.

You may even be as fortunate as me and already have their enlistment or discharge papers in your possession. You may not even know that you do indeed have these items so why not have a look around your home?

The next step then to take is to ask your relatives for help. Older family members may have these particular items that will be of great help to you. They may also recite to you old war stories that have been passed onto them. This is one reason that I got interested in my family history because of the many stories that were told to me by my father about my heritage.

–> Check Out The 5 Ways To Conduct A Military Records Search <–

Pre and Post First World War Service Records

Britain did have a regular standing army a state early as 1660. However, there are very few records that have survived since then. There is a better chance of finding your British military ancestors if they served between the 18th to 20th Century.

Military Medals

I feel you know that your ancestor was a private, lance corporal, corporal, sergeant or warrant officer you maybe able to find them through service records, pensions or discharge papers.

These records can be found at The National Archives, Ancestry or Find My Past UK. I would suggest at this stage for you to check out the The National Archives first. You will have to pay for records but at least you won’t need to pay for a subscription, which is what you would have to do with Ancestry and Find My Past.

The GOV.UKwebsite will help you find your military ancestors if they served after 1920. From this site you can request their service record from the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

These post First World War records are held by the Ministry before they are granted access to the Archives. You will have to pay an administration fee and also a death certificate, (unless their death was in service).

For more information on accessing these post First World War records  then check out the Request records of deceased service personnel guide.

First World War Service Records

Unfortunately, approximately half of these service records from the First World War were lost during air raid of September 1940. Bombs hit the War Office repository located in Arnside Street in London destroying a significant number of these ‘Burnt Documents’.

Tips For A Military Records Search

There are about 2.8 million service records that either did survive or were reconstructed from the Ministry of Pensions records.

These ‘Burnt Documents’ can be located in the WO363 series. However, due to their frailness they cannot be handled and can only be viewed by microfilm. This collection has been organized by the soldier’s surname and lists soldiers who served their country during 1914 to 1920.

The service records that did survive the German bombing of 1940, the ‘Unburnt Documents’, are located in the series WO364. These contain as mentioned before records from the Ministry of Pensions.

Most of this collection contains records of soldiers who were discharged between 1914 and 1920 and who received a pension. This pension may have been the result of either being wounded or becoming sick as a result of battle.

What information can you expect from these documents?

The records that you will find within these documents are broken down into a number of areas.

They are broken down into:

  • Attestation Papers – Which will provide the name, address, date of birth and the next of kin of the soldier.
  • Medical Papers – Details regarding their medical history.
  • Discharge Papers – When, where they were discharged and their rank at the time.
  • Army Form B103 – Which gives details about the soldier’s army career.

Household Cavalry and Guards Regiments

Fortunately records pertaining to both the Household Cavalry and the Guards Regiments survive as they were note stored at the War Office in London.

The Household Cavalry collection can be located in the WO400 series. This collection includes the Household Battalion, the Life Guards and the Royal Horse Guards.

Each of the Guards Regiments are housed in their own service records. So each of the Coldstream, Grenadier, Irish, Scottish and Welsh will have their particular records.

Where to Find British Army Service Records

There are obviously other options available to you if you cannot find these records in your home or your relatives cannot help you. But it does depend on your ancestor’s regiment and rank, and also when they saw active duty. And if your ancestor moved between regiments or saw active duty on more than one occasion then these records maybe in more than one place.

Searching For Records

But please DO NOT despair as I will show you where you need to look.

The National Archives UK

The National Archives is a great place for you to start your search. As I have explained above they have a collection of First World War records referred to as ‘Burnt Documents’ and ‘Unburnt Documents’.

What also may be of interest to you is the collection of War Diaries WO95 and WO154 that describes the war from the soldier’s perspective. Although it must be noted that ordinary soldiers are not referred to by name in these accounts.

Rather than view documents online or waiting to receive them you may wish to visit The National Archives in Kew. Not all documents are yet online so it is worth visiting the Archives if you are able to do so.

They are open Tuesday to Saturdays from 9am. They close at 5pm on Wednesdays and Friday, and stay open until 7pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

At the Archives you will also find a museum, bookshop and a restaurant as well so you can just sit back, relax and get a bite to eat. To find The National Archives you can use these directions.


The world’s number one genealogy search site, Ancestry, has its own military database where you may be able to find your ancestors who served in the army. I say ‘may’ because it does take time for information to be uploaded to this site. So if you do not find your military ancestor then you can always try again later.

Of course there is every chance that you will find him or her, but these maybe other kinds of records, such as their birth, marriage or death, or even in a Census record.

Final Thoughts

Finding that you have British military ancestors can be exciting. And this is particularly true if you find their service records and any other types of military records.

If you do want to discover your military ancestors then please first check whether you have any documentation and any heirlooms at home. Then check whether your relatives can help you with this line of research.

Even if they cannot help you with this query you will be surprised as to what you will uncover. They may tell you about relatives that you didn’t know that you had or stories that you have never heard of before.

Once you have exhausted these two options then please try the Archives and GOV.UK to find your British ancestors. It is best to try your free options before you have to pay.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining British Army service records. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

6 thoughts on “British Army Service Records Explained

  1. Samuel Winick

    Awesome post, now I know where to look! I am going to start with my house! Thanks for putting this together, it means a lot.

    1. Owain Post author

      You’re very welcome Samuel. You can will be surprised as to what you find around your home. Also asking your relatives for help will further your genealogy research immensely. All the best.

  2. Isam

    Dear Owain,
    Really I have a question what is the difference between family tree research and genealogy?
    My grandfather was worked with the British army in ww2 How can I find his records?
    With my best wishes

    1. Owain Post author

      Genealogy is more about finding names, dates and building your family tree. Family history research is more to do with the stories behind your ancestors and discovering all about them.

      You will find your grandfather’s WWII records from the GOV UK website.

      All the best with your military research.

  3. Catie

    Military records are great sources for genealogy research. I’ve found several for relatives I had no idea were in the military through Ancestry. That website is a gold mine. Thanks for all the information.

    1. Owain Post author

      You’re quite welcome Catie. I am glad that you have found so much through Ancestry. That site has really been a go-to site for me and has helped me so much.


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