This article will help you find a British officer’s First World War service record and is one of a series of guides to help you research those who served in the war. In general terms, you can usually find a lot more information about an officer’s service than for a man who served in the ranks.
British Officer’s First World War Service Records
The surviving service records for British officers who served in the First World War are held either by the National Archives in London or Ministry of Defence. If an officer finished his service prior to April 1922 and did not serve after this period, then as long as a service record has survived it will be held at the National Archives. This guide will help you find out if your officer’s service record has survived, what it is likely to contain and how you can view it. I have also created another guide to finding British Indian Army Officers‘ service records.
If you are researching a British officer who served after April 1922 then their service record should still be held at the Ministry of Defence. I have written a separate article on ordering these files on my other website Researching WW2: How to Order a Service Record from the Ministry of Defence. The easiest way to check whether an officer’s service record is still held by the MOD for those born prior to 1901 is by searching the UK, Military Discharge Indexes, 1920-1971 on Ancestry.
Only initials are shown in the index but so is the date of birth. Officers didn’t have personal numbers during the First World War so the numbers listed date from an officer’s later service. You can also search the London Gazette or look at Army Lists to see if they served post-April 1922 or download the eight files which Ancestry have combined here: Spreadsheets Ancestry have Combined for their Military Discharge Index. If you have multiple possible officers, search their personal numbers on the London Gazette where their full name is often recorded. The lists are by no means complete and I have found that dates of birth cannot be relied on as accurate. Files held by the Ministry of Defence tend to contain fewer documents than those held by the National Archives.
Officers’ service files held at the National Archives were part of a supplementary series of records. The main series was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940 when the warehouse containing them was hit. Not all service files for officers who left the army prior to April 1922 survived past the 1930s, as many were destroyed during a weeding process to free up storage space. I have found that officers who were killed in the first year of the war are less likely to have surviving records. Despite this, the chances of an officer’s service record surviving are high. To look for an officer’s file at the National Archives, you will need to search two parts of their catalogue with the WO standing for War Office:
- WO 339 – Contains the service records of officers who finished serving before 31 March 1922.
- WO 374- Contains the service records of officers given a Territorial Force commission.
The link below will take you to a search set up to contain both the WO 339 and WO 374 records. to conduct your search:
How to Search for a British Officer
The National Archives have recatalogued their officer service records so nearly all officers have their names in full. Previously, many officers only had initials and a surname provided which made it very difficult if you were searching for a common surname. When searching for an officer’s service record I use the following steps to ensure that my search is thorough and to guard against catalogue errors:
- Search the officer’s full name
- Search officer’s first name and surname only
- Search their first name and middle name
- Search just their surname which is only practical if they have an uncommon name
- If you have a common surname then search their surname with the unit they served with e.g. Smith Suffolk Regiment.
If you still have no results, it is probable that their service record has not survived, or is still with the Ministry of Defence. However, there is a chance that their record has been incorrectly catalogued. I have found transcription errors in the National Archives’ online catalogue for officers I have been searching. If you have a surname which has a slight variation try searching for both: e.g. Fleming and Flemming. If you do come across an error, remember to report it to the National Archives so they can update their catalogue.
Important Tip Regarding Ranks
If you have an officer’s medals and his rank is Lieutenant on the rim of his Victory Medal and British War Medal, make sure you don’t exclude officers with the same name but a higher rank in your search results. The rank impressed on both medals is the highest rank held by a soldier up until the 11 November 1918. However, many officers would continue to serve in the army for years afterwards and were promoted.
Information found in an Officer’s First World War Service Record
The information contained in a service record can vary greatly but it will usually be the most important resource to begin your research into an officer. Some of the records I have photographed have contained over two-hundred pages, while others barely ten. Even if the file is small, it can still contain a wealth of information which usually can’t be found elsewhere. A mixture of the following will be found:
- Biographical details including date of birth, where they were educated, next-of-kin address
- Application for a commission
- A copy of their birth certificate
- If an officer was commissioned from the ranks, his earlier service papers are often found in the file
- Information on any wounds or illnesses and medical board reports
- Court martial records
- If an officer was reported missing in action, there is the possibility of an eyewitness account of his last moments
- If an officer was taken prisoner then a report of his capture
- Pension reports
- Copies of telegrams sent reporting death, wounds, or illnesses
This is just a partial list of the type of material which can be found by consulting an officer’s service file. Lieutenant Richard Herbert Phayre, Green Howards (Yorkshire Regiment) who was killed in action at during the First Battle of Ypres on 20 October 1914. There is a service record for Phayre at the National Archives: WO 339/7491. If an officer died during the war there’s a very good chance there will be a service record at the National Archives.
Viewing an Officer’s Service Record
The service records for First Word War officers haven’t been digitized and are only available to view at the National Archives. You will need a reader’s ticket to view the file.