Researching WW1 Soldiers Using Medal Index Cards and Medal Rolls

This article looks at how to research a soldier who served in the British Army during the First World War by looking for their Medal Index Card and Medal Rolls. If a soldier’s service record has not survived, their medal records may be the only surviving records for their First World War service. This guide will explain:

  • What Medal Index Cards and Medal Rolls are and what information they contain
  • How to access Medal Index Cards and Medal Rolls records
  • How to Interpret the Information on Medal Index Cards and Medal Rolls

I also offer a First World War Soldier Research Service.

What are Medal Index Cards?

Medal Index Cards were created by the Army Records Office to record the medal entitlement of each soldier who qualified for campaign medals during the First World War and contained the information which would be impressed on their medals. Medal Index Cards were also used to look up a soldier’s Medal Roll and this information was recorded on a card.

What Information does a Medal Index Card Record?

A Medal Index Card will record a soldier’s medal entitlement and will contain the following information:

  • Surname and forename(s) or initial(s)
  • Regimental number(s)
  • Rank(s)
  • Regiment(s)/Corps
  • Medal entitlement
  • A reference to their Medal Roll

It may also contain some of the following information:

  • Their qualifying date for the 1914 or 1914/15 Star.
  • If they have a qualifying date, there will usually be a letter and number denoting which theatre they served in. A full list can be found on my guide to the 1914/15 Star.
  • If they were an officer, there will usually be a date of entry, even if they served overseas after 1915. This can vary from the exact date to only the month and year.
  • If they were entitled to the Silver War Badge– This was usually recorded as “SWB/List” followed by a series of letters and numbers.
  • If they had been killed, died, or awarded any gallantry medals.
  • Who had been claimed the medals if they had been issued to the next-of-kin.
  • Date the medals were issued.
  • Officers had to apply for their own medals and their Medal Index Cards often contain the address the medals were sent to.

This is just a partial list of the additional information that can be found on a Medal Index Card.

Important Tip for Searching Medal Index Cards

It is often easier to use the National Archive’s search facility to locate a soldier’s Medal Index Card and then, once you have the exact details, use these to find his card on Ancestry. This is due to the National Archives having a much better search facility than Ancestry.

National Archives Medal Index Card Search

What are a WW1 Medal Rolls?

Medal Rolls were created to show the campaign medal entitlement of each soldier who served in the First World War and are held in over 3,000 volumes at the National Archives. Each Medal Index Card had the corresponding Medal Roll volume and page number recorded on it, allowing a clerk to quickly look up a soldier’s Medal Roll.

What Information does a WW1 Medal Roll Record?

Medal Rolls provide a vital piece of information that is not usually found on the Medal Index Card: the exact unit or units a soldier served with abroad. This is a very important piece of information as a Medal Index Card will usually only record a soldier’s regiment. For example, if you are researching 2727 Private John Ponsonby then the following information is recorded:

  • Medal Index Card: Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
  • Medal Roll entry: 1/5th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and then 12th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

You now have the exact battalions which John Ponsonby served abroad with so can turn to the war diaries of the 1/5th and 12th Battalions to find out more. I have written a Guide to Finding WW1 War Diaries. Unfortunately, if a soldier served in a corps of the British Army, Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, etc. then their unit is not usually given. There is a great variety in the type of information you will come across in a Medal Roll but it will include:

  • Surname and forename(s) or initial(s)
  • Regimental number(s)
  • Rank
  • Regiment(s)/Corps, including exact unit if they were not serving in a corps of the British Army
  • Medal entitlement

The Medal Roll may also contain some of the following information:

  • Where the medal(s) were sent
  • When the medal(s) were claimed
  • If they became non-effective, there is a column which may contain information regarding their fate, killed, died of wounds, drowned, deserted, suicide, etc.
  • Date of disembarkation
  • Occasionally, the units a soldier served with in Britain or Ireland

A soldier who qualified for the 1914 or 1914/15 Star will appear in two different Medal Roll volumes. One for the star and the other for the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

Searching First World War Medal Records

At the time of writing, September 2017, Medal Index Cards were available to view for free on Ancestry. They can also be downloaded for a small fee from the National Archives website. However, Medal Index Cards from the National Archives are black and white and do not show the reverse, which may contain an address and additional information. I would highly recommend using Ancestry to view the cards.

Once you have located the correct Medal Index Card, your next step is to find the Medal Roll entry. Remember, there will be two medal rolls if a soldier was awarded the 1914 or 1914-15 Star, one for the star and one for the British War Medal and Victory Medal. Ancestry has digitzed the Medal Rolls but unlike the Medal Index Cards, they are not free to view. However, Ancestry usually has a free 14-day trial so I recommend viewing them on that. The link below will take you to Ancestry.

How to Interpret Medal Index Cards

Medal Index Cards can be quite difficult to interpret as they are full of military jargon so you will need to look at my First World War Abbreviations and Acronyms page. There are four standard types of Medal Index Cards so not all the following tips will apply:

  • Corps: This will record the soldier’s unit or units. If there is more than one unit listed, then the unit at the top will be the first one the soldier served with. The one underneath the second and so on.
  • A Medal Index Card usually doesn’t record the exact unit a soldier served with just the Corps e.g. Y & L R (York and Lancaster Regiment) would be recorded but not the battalion.
  • Theatre of War first served in: This will be a date between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915 when a soldier first entered a theatre of war thus qualifying them for the 1914 or 1914-15 Star. Sometimes, an officer’s date of entry after 1915 will be recorded.
  • The Medal Rolls which contain the entries for the British War Medal and Victory Medal, 1914 or 1914-15 Star will be shown if a soldier qualified for these medals.
  • If a soldier qualified for a 1914-15 Star then a code (1, 2B etc) will be recorded by the theatre of war first served in. Check out my 1914-15 Star page which lists all the codes.
  • If there is a SWB LIST then the soldier was awarded a Silver War Badge.

If you are researching a soldier who served in the First World War click on the photograph below to learn more about the research service I offer.ww1-research-service

Guides to Researching Soldiers who Served in the British Army

Guides to Researching Soldiers who Served in the Indian Army




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