This guide will help you to find a soldier’s First World War service record by explaining what has survived and where you can access them. This guide is for the service records of those who served in the ranks and not as officers. It will also show you how to search for the records to maximize your chances of finding surviving documents as well as other sources of information to look for if a service record hasn’t survived. I have also written another guide to finding British officer service records and a series of research guides on a variety of topics:
I also offer a First World War Soldier Research Service.
British Army First World War Service Records
Every soldier who served in the British Army had a service record which is the most important document to find if you want to learn more about their First World War service. Unfortunately, around 60% of First World War service records to those who had served in the ranks (not as officers) and left the army prior to January 1921 were destroyed during the Blitz in September 1940 when the warehouse storing the files caught fire. The records were stored by corps and regiment, so you’ll find that while some regiments have large numbers of surviving records, others only have a handful. Even if a service record managed to survive the Blitz, many pages would have been lost beforehand in the 1930s due to weeding to save storage space.
Fortunately, not all service records were stored in the War Office warehouse. The service records for soldiers who served in the Household Cavalry and Guards Regiments were housed separately and have mostly survived. Also, if you are researching a soldier who served past January 1921 then their service record should still be with the Ministry of Defence. I have written a guide on my other website Researching WW2 which will help you to order their file:
The easiest way to check whether a soldier’s service record is still held by the MOD if they were born prior to 1901 is by searching the UK, Military Discharge Indexes, 1920-1971 on Ancestry. This catalogue is not complete and I have ordered a number of service records to soldiers who should appear in the database but do not. Only initials are shown along with a soldier’s date of birth. I have also found multiple errors with the date of birth in the database. Despite these problems, it is still a useful.
A soldier’s army number will be recorded which will be different from a soldier’s regimental number/s they had during the First World War. This is because due to the British Army renumbering its soldiers in 1920 to give each one a unique number. If you don’t want to use Ancestry you can download and search the eight files which they combined for free: Spreadsheets Ancestry have Combined for their Military Discharge Index.
WO 363 Service Records
The service records which survived the Arnside Street fire became known as the “burnt documents” due to their poor condition and in many cases noticeable fire and water damage. They are held at the National Archives in both their original format and on microfilm. You will not be able to view the original documents at the National Archives due to their poor condition. Their catalogue reference is WO 363 and they are available to search on FindmyPast and Ancestry,
WO 364 Service Records
If a soldier who left the army prior to January 1921 made a pension claim due to a disability arising from their service during the war then there’s a very good chance they have part of their service record in the WO 364 series. In order to process disability claims, the Ministry of Pensions was sent documents from a soldier’s service record and most of these documents will be of a medical nature. You can sometimes find soldiers with service records in both WO 363 and WO 364. These records are also available on Ancestry and FindmyPast.
PIN 26 Service Records
There are service records to nearly 23,000 soldiers concerning the award of a disability pension held at the National Archives in PIN 26. These records haven’t been digitized and are only available to view at the National Archives. The likelihood of finding your soldier is very small and the documents are mostly medical in nature.
How to Search for a First World War Service Record
If you know a soldier’s regimental number, then search the number and their surname on Ancestry and FindmyPast. I have found that the search engine on Ancestry is very poor when compared to FindmyPast, however, not all service records show up on both sites when they exist and sometimes pages are missing. I’d recommend searching both sites to make sure. If you don’t have a regimental number, then its best to gather as much information as possible to make sure you can identify the correct service record if one exists. I’d recommend trying to find out as much of the following information as possible:
- Full name – middle names weren’t always recorded and I’ve come across a number of men who didn’t use their first name but another which they were known by. Also, spelling was more arbitrary during this period so a man may spell his name Sydney one day and Sidney the next
- Date and place of birth
- Their next of kin which if they are single will usually be either their father or mother
- Addresses they lived in during this period. The 1911 Census is often a key document but a marriage certificate and birth certificates will also record this information
- The regiment or corps they served in. However, many soldiers repeatedly changed regiments and sometimes so much documentation is lost in a file that not all were recorded
It is vital to know a combination of these details to stand a chance of finding the correct soldier, due to the possibility of a large number of service files surviving to men with the same name. The pension ledgers recently digitized by Fold3 from the collection held by the Western Front Association may help you find a correct soldier as they include addresses. However, if you are searching for a soldier with an unusual name then you should be fine just searching that name. If you have no information about their military service you can still look through all the search results to see if you can find a likely candidate based on their date of birth, family and where they were living.
First World War service records are available to view online on the subscription websites Ancestry and Findmypast and both sites usually have a free trial period. I would recommend using both FindmyPast and Ancestry as I have found a record on one site and not the other before. FindmyPast has a much better search engine and has also indexed all the service records so if a soldier appears in another man’s record this will be shown in the search results.
Alternatively, the records available on Ancestry and FindmyPast can be viewed and downloaded for free at the National Archives. Due to their poor condition, it is not possible to view the original documents. Many local libraries also have free access to the sites.
Information found in First World War Service Records
The information found in a soldier’s service record can vary dramatically but should include some of the following:
- Attestation form which records when and where a soldier joined
- Description of a soldier on enlistment recording a soldier’s height, weight etc.
- Their next-of-kin, children address etc.
- Any wounds or illnesses including where they were treated
- Information about which battalion or unit a soldier served with. This is key when it comes to working out where a soldier served if he was in one of the corps of the British Army e.g. Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers.
- Any disciplinary actions
- Receipts for their medals
- Documents relating to their demobilization are often encountered
What to do if you can’t find a First World War Service Record
If you can’t find a service record then you’ll be at a great disadvantage in trying to uncover more information. However, all is not lost and there are other resources to consult. My following guides will be of most use to you and I would recommend starting with my guide to Medal Records:
- First World War medal records
- First World War casualty lists
- Using local newspaper reports
- How to find a unit’s war diaries
- Silver War Badge records
- How to Interpret photographs of First World War Soldiers