UK Military Records

Looking for your ancestors’ UK military records?

As we all are aware, the UK played a major role in world affairs for at least 200 years. It established colonies all over the world, and had a great deal of influence in other parts of the globe.

That dominant position did not come at a small price. The UK has been involved in various wars and military expeditions over the centuries, both offensive and defensive.

Along with other things, military exercises result in the generation of documentation.

Some documentation – mostly army service records of enlisted men, as well as two of the three parts of the army officers’ records, from World War I - was lost in September of 1940, when the location where the records were stored was bombed.

However, the majority of the UK military records from campaigns and expeditions from the prior years are on file, either with the National Archives, or with the Veterans’ Administration.

1. UK Military Records at the National Archives

The National Archives has a large number of databases containing UK military records, which are online and searchable. Obtaining copies of the actual images requires the payment of a fee (which varies according to the size and length of the document), following which the record is dispatched to your e-mail address.

It also has many more UK military records which are not online. Examples include Officers’ Commissions from 1660 – 1913, and military pension records and widow’s pensions.

Some of these documents may prove particularly useful to the genealogist, as they often provide the names of the officer’s wife (including maiden name), and of any children.

For example, to become an officer, a baptismal certificate had to be provided, as membership in the Anglican Church (from which loyalty to the Crown was inferred) was required. Other documentation may include marriage and death records, as well as the dates of promotion and decommissioning. From the early 1800s, addresses also were recorded.

UK Military Medal and Identity Tags.
Wikimedia Commons
UK Military Medal & ID Tags

(a) UK Military Records: The Army

As noted above, many of the records for World War I enlisted men were lost in a bombing raid in September of 1940. Between 20 and 25% of those UK military records did survive. Another 15% or so were reconstructed from pension records.

Records in this category, which are online and searchable at Ancestry UK with a subscription, include individuals who served in World War I and left the military during the War, for one of the following reasons:

  • discharge;
  • killed in action;
  • died of wounds prior to being pensioned; or
  • demobilization at the end of the War.

Those who continued serving in the UK military after the War are not included.

The following databases are online and searchable, with respect to the Army:

  • World War I:
    • Campaign Medal Index Cards, First World War (WO 372)
    • British Army Officers, World War I (see Research guides - British Army Officers - 1914 - 1918 for a detailed guide to finding the records)
    • Women's (later Queen Mary's) Army Auxiliary Corps service records – 1917 - 1920 (WO 398)
    • Nursing Service Records, First World War (WO 399)
    • Selected First World War and Army of Occupation War Diaries (WO 95)
    • Selected War Diaries of British and colonial units serving in theatres of operations between 1914- 22.
    • Prisoner of War interviews and reports, First World War (WO 161)

  • Records Pre- and Post-World War I:
    • Royal Hospital Chelsea (and Kilmainham): Selected Soldiers’ Service Records – 1843 - 1913 (WO 97)
    • The Victoria Cross Registers – 1856 and on (WO 98)
    • Recommendations for Honours and Awards – 1935 – 1990 (WO 373)

Although the above records are indexed separately, one convenient search function includes all of the databases.

(b) UK Military Records: Royal Navy and Marines

Navy records at the National Archives include the following databases:

  • World War I:
    • Royal Naval Division service records, 1914 - 1919 (ADM 339)
    • RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) service records from WW1 (ADM 337)
    • Campaign medals issued to Merchant Seamen, First World War (BT 351)
    • Cards recording the issue of First World War campaign medals, 1914 – 1925
    • WRNS: Women's Royal Naval Service, 1917 - 1919 (ADM 318, ADM 336)

  • Records Pre- and Post-World War I (which may include some WWI Records, also):
    • Royal Naval Officers' Service Records, 1756 - 1917 (ADM 196)
    • Wills of Royal Naval Seamen, 1786 - 1882(ADM 48)
    • French Muster Rolls from the Battle of Trafalgar – seized from 4 French ships after the battle(HCA 32)
    • Royal Marines Service Records, 1842 - 1936 (ADM 159)
    • Registers of Seamen's Services, 1853 - 1923 (ADM 139, ADM 188)
    • The Victoria Cross Registers from 1856 (WO 98)
    • Naval Officers’ Service Record Cards and Files (Royal Navy, Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and Women’s Royal Naval Service), 1880 - 1960 (ADM 340)
    • Royal Naval Reserve Service Records (BT 164)
    • Medals issued to Merchant Seamen, Second World War, 1946 - 2002 (BT 395)
    • Recommendations for Honours and Awards, 1935 - 1990 (WO 373)
    • Second World War Merchant Shipping Movement Cards (BT 389)
    • Logs and Journals of Ships on Exploration (ADM 55)

Again, these records can be searched all at once, at Online Documents

RAF Squadron 88, at Attlebridge, Norfolk, about 1941.
Public Domain.
RAF Squadron 88 at Allebridge, Norfolk, about 1941

(c) UK Military Records: The Royal Air Force

Records with respect to the Air Force, of necessity, begin with World War I, as aviation did not exist prior to early in the 20th century.

The National Archives has the following databases available:

  • World War I
    • Royal Air Force Officers’ Service Records (AIR 76)
    • Service records of officers who served in the RAF during the First World War
    • Service records of women who joined the WRAF, 1914-1919
    • Campaign Medal Index Cards, First World War (WO 372)

  • Post-WWI:

    • Air combat reports, Second World War (AIR 50)
    • Air Ministry Combat Reports, 1939-1945
    • Recommendations for Honours and Awards – British and dominion army personnel – 1935 - 1990 (WO 373)

As with the Army and Navy documents, these records can be searched all at once, at Online Documents

2. UK Military Records at the Ministry of Defence

More recent UK military records, which are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (including the majority of World War II records), are located at the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Once they are no longer subject to that Act (generally after 75 years), they are released to the National Archives.

A serviceman or woman can apply for a copy their own service record.

The next-of-kin of a deceased serviceperson can apply for a copy of the deceased’s service record. The GBP30 fee is waived for a spouse, cohabiting partner, or, if there was neither, the parent(s) of the deceased. If the individual died after discharge from the service, a death certificate must be provided with the request.

The next-of-kin can also provide their consent to the release of the records to a named third party.

In either case, all information in the file can be provided upon the applicant’s supply of proof of death, and, except for next-of-kin, payment of the GBP30 fee.

For those applying without the consent of the next-of-kin, the information supplied depends on when the request is made. It is recognized that a large amount of the information in the record may be obtained elsewhere, and is a matter of public record; it therefore is artificial to ‘protect’ it from the public.

If the request is within 25 years of the serviceperson’s date of death, the National Archives will provide the following information:

  • name, rank, service number, and regiment or corps;
  • date and place of birth;
  • date of joining and of leaving the service;
  • if the individual died while in the service, the date of death;
  • and

  • any medals awarded, including good conduct, and decorations of valour.

If the request is more than 25 years after the deceased’s death, the following additional information will be provided:

  • in addition to the regiment or corps in which he served,
    • the units in which he/she served;
    • where those units were located; and
    • the dates of service ;
  • what his rank was at all relevant times (i.e., promotions and/or demotions); and
  • details of WWII campaign medals.

How to obtain service records

To order a service record, you must download the appropriate forms from the Defence Ministry website, complete them, and mail them to the address on the Form 2 (the address is different for each of the three branches of the military).

The application should also include proof of death (if the person died while not in the service), and a cheque for GBP30, if applicable.

The following forms must be completed:

  • all applicants – the Application Part 2 form for the appropriate Service (Royal Navy, Army or Air Force) ; and
  • if applying with consent of next-of-kin, or as next-of-kin: Part 1 (Next-of-kin form), or
  • if applying without consent of next-of-kin: Part 1 (General Inquirer’s form)

All of these forms are available on the Ministry of Defence webpage.

Graves of Five Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Killed in Action about 1940, Belgium.
Graves Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Public Domain.
Graves of 5

3. Other Sources of UK Military Records

A number of other sources will provide at least partial information regarding an ancestor’s UK military records, especially with respect to the two World Wars and more recent casualties while in the service. A few of these sources are the following:

  • The Armed Forces Memorial Roll of Honour has a database listing all Armed Forces servicemen who have died in service or as a result of terrorist activity since World War II.

    A search of the database yields the serviceman’s name, rank, what service he was in (army, navy/marines, air force), his service number, Regiment, or corps, dates of birth and death, name and address of the cemetery where s/he is buried, grave row, and grave number; and whether or not s/he is included on the Armed Forces Memorial, and/or the Roll of Honour.

    This is a free search, and you have the option of printing the information in certificate form, again, free of charge.

  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Debt of Honour database is another free resource. As the name implies, this Commission marks and maintains the graves of Commonwealth soldiers from the two World Wars.

    A preliminary search provides all UK military records in the database which match your search criteria, listing the name, rank, service number, date of death, age at death, regiment and service, nationality, grave reference, and name of cemetery.

    Clicking on the name in a particular record provides further information, including the address and names of the serviceman's parents, and the unit number in which he served.

    In the small sample I browsed through, the majority of the records were from the United Kingdom, but I also found Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand graves listed.

    This website also gives the option of printing a certificate containing all of this information, at no cost.

  • The Forces War Records database contains UK military records dating back to the 1300s.

    Although a subscription is required, the database has specific databases on its websites available for free searching from time to time. At the present time (January of 2012), the records relating to the Hundred-Year War are free to search.

  • With respect to military officers, The Sandhurst Collection, from the Sandhurst Military Academy, is an online, searchable database of all cadets who have attended this Academy (from 1947 on), the Royal Military College Sandhurst (1799-1939), and the Royal Military Academy Woolwich (1741-1939).

    Information such as date of birth, father’s occupation, regiment, education, religion, nationality, and personnel number may be included in each record, and thus they are valuable resources for family historians.

  • The London Gazette, Edinburgh Gazette, and the Belfast Gazette are the official Crown publications for the United Kingdom. They are the government publications by which government news of national importance, such as changes to a statute, is published.

    These publications also include Soldiers’ Memorials, lists of officers who died in various campaigns, medal awards, military commissions and promotions, and many other such military announcements. The website is searchable, and contains military casualties from the 18th century on, including all Gazettes from both World Wars.

I trust you will find this information of assistance in your research.

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