Guide to Military Research

Through my contact pages, I receive several requests from individuals to assist in researching an ancestor or relative who served in the British Army or The British Indian Army.

Before

How much information do you have to start with?
Is it sufficient to begin reasonable research?
What do you want to find out and why?
How much time and money do you have available?

During

Do not assume – if you don’t know, say so;
Do not assume a fact is correct as stated, check and check again;
If you find contradictory statements, explain that openly;
Check the provenance of websites;
Compare different sources – Check & Confirm;
Corroboration strengthens evidence;
Use primary sources were possible;
With secondary sources – view the Bibliography;
Handwritten documents may be difficult to read;
You will not find everything you want to;
Some conflicts will not be resolved (at least with reasonable effort).

After

What are you going to do with your finished product?
If you intend to publish, who is your intended market?
Who else may be interested?
Remember what you find interesting others may not;
It is great fun;
It can be frustrating, time consuming and expensive if you let it;
Often one thing leads to another and the need to find out more;

However, it can be very rewarding;
You will learn more and be better informed;
Understanding our history is important to who we are today.

Good luck!

Where to Begin?

Before You Begin – Do you have?

Full Name;
Date of Birth;
Royal Navy/Army and Royal Air Force – Ship, Regiment/Corps, Squadron;
Service Number;
Ranks held;
Where and when did he or she serve – any family anecdotes, letters, etc?

The more information you have, the better your chances of success.

Take account of different spellings of names, and use of shortened names, alternative forenames, nicknames or aliases.  Likewise, the person may not have given their correct date of birth, or it may have been recorded inaccurately.

What do you wish to find out and why?  If you are researching an individual person, what was the extent of their influence and responsibility?  The wider this is, the wider your research should be to understand fully their life in their context.  What parameters do you have in terms of time and money?

Decide on the context you wish to learn about.  For example, my great-uncle died at Gallipoli in 1915 with the Herefordshire Regiment, but why was he serving with the Herefordshire Regiment, what was it like to be a private in this regiment, where did they serve, when did he enlist and when did they move overseas, why did the regiment go to Gallipoli and what was the context of that campaign, how did he die?

What would people have known at the time?  We now have the benefit of history, but at the time, what would an individual known and how would they have interpreted it?  You can consider the level of your research by using:

Political Strategic – War Cabinet & Parliament;
Military Strategic – Chiefs of Staff, Senior Commanders;
Operational – Corps/Divisions/Brigades;
Tactical – Battalion/Company/Platoon

Remember Kipling’s 5 W – H: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?

General Military Research Primary Sources

First World War – The Long, Long Trail

My recommendation is to read the section on The Long, Long Trail – Researching A Soldier.  In my view, it is the best available and is on-line at:
http://www.1914-1918.net/soldiers/research.html

First World War – Western Front Association

Formed in 1980, this association has the aim of furthering interest in The Great War.  Its website is found at:
http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/

There is an interesting commentary available at:
http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/all-about-the-wfa/wfa-news-events/wfa-latest-news-releases/3858-2014-hello-to-all-that-the-wfa-in-conversation-with-prof-gary-sheffield.html#sthash.OHV6aOvz.dpbs
Enter 'Gary Sheffield Conversation' in the search field.

The Oxford University Lectures are worth watching, and are available at:
http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/oh-what-lovely-war-first-world-war-anniversary-lectures

Second World War – British Military History

Please have a look at my website at:
www.BritishMilitaryHistory.co.uk

It is not as complete as The Long, Long Trail (see above), but is intended to replicate that website for the Second World War from a British perspective.

Individual Service Records

Those service records post 1940 are more readily available, but if the subject is alive, they have to apply for their own; and if deceased, by next-of-kin with proof of identification and link to deceased person.

For application process, please see:
https://www.gov.uk/requests-for-personal-data-and-service-records

Other information for Veterans of the U.K. Armed Forces can be found at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/veterans-uk

Non-British Army Personnel

For men and women who served in armed forces other than the British Army, the availability of information varies.  For those who served in the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, applications can be made to the Ministry of Defence as above.

For those who served with the Australian Armed Forces, a very good and informative website is available at:
https://www.awm.gov.au/

The Australians (in my humble opinion) lead the field in this respect, as many of the service records are now available, free at the point of use, on the internet.  Their policy of digitalisation of relevant service records and other documentation is to be recommended.

Information on men who served in the Royal Australian Air Force can be found at:
http://www.raafdb.com/index.asp

An example of the information available can be found with one person I have been researching with colleagues; namely Flight Sergeant Norman Neville DUNN.  See:
http://www.raafdb.com/view_casualty.asp?id=9727

Canada is just as advanced as Australia, with an excellent website at:
http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/second-world-war/Pages/introduction.aspx

Again, there is a wealth of information available already, and a farsighted policy of digitalisation of records.

New Zealand equals Australia and Canada.  Their main website is at:
http://archives.govt.nz/research/guides/war

For service personnel, the link is:
http://www.nzdf.mil.nz/personnel-records/nzdf-archives/

Sadly, researching men or women who served in other related armed forces, such as the British Indian Army, or the West and East African elements of the British Army, information is more difficult to obtain.  Most of the records of men who served in the British Indian Army were retained at the Regimental Centres when British India partitioned in August 1947.  They are, therefore, to be found in modern day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.  Individual Regimental Centres are very keen to help if they can, but locating an individual person is very difficult.

Some of the records of British officers in the British Indian Army can be found at the British Library in London (see below).

Information about African service personnel of the British Army is very scant, in part a legacy of the lack of information recorded when a man ‘signed up’ for the British Army.  Those who died are recorded on the C.W.G.C. website (see below)

Veterans Agency

A Soldier’s Service Record is the best document that details the service of officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks, however, they vary in quality and legibility (almost all were hand written).  They commence prior to The Great War, but the building in London in which they were housed was badly damaged by fire after a bombing raid in 1940, and only about 30% of those pre-dating 1940 survived.

WO/363 relates to those men who left the Army between 1914 and 1921, and again only between 20 – 30% survive.

Those service records post 1940 are more readily available, but if the subject is alive, they have to apply for their own; and if deceased, by next-of-kin with proof of identification and link to deceased person.

For application process, please see:

https://www.gov.uk/requests-for-personal-data-and-service-records

The National Archives

Located at Kew in South-West London.  Good on-line facility at:

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/

Soldiers' Records (1914-1920)

Military records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks are available from the National Archives, or on some subscription websites (see later). These include service records (WO 363) and pension records (WO 364), and cover regular soldiers who may have enlisted as early as 1892 for 22 years' service as well as a small number of stray service records of pre-war soldiers who did not serve from 1914-1920.

Household Cavalry service records (1799-1920)

WO/400 contains service records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks that served in the Household Cavalry regiments (Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards)

Medal Cards (1914 – 1920)

WO/372 is the collection of the First World War Army medal cards in respect of a soldier who received a gallantry medal and/or campaign medal.  Information is often limited to what medals a soldier was entitled to and when they were awarded.

Silver War Badge rolls (1914-1920)

A Silver War Badge was issued to all personnel discharged after service in the Great War due to wounds or illness.  These are available as well on some subscription websites.

Recommendations for Military Honours and Awards (1935 – 1990)

WO/373 contains recommendations or citations for military honours and awards.

Additional information is available at the National Archives at Kew.  These include Campaign Medal Rolls, Pension Case Files (only a few exist).

For those records available on-line, there is a charge of £3.30 to download.

Brigade of Guards

The regiments of the Brigade of Guards: Household Cavalry, Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards and Welsh Guards, maintain their own records which are held by the regiments concerned.  Contact them in writing:

The Regimental Archivist of the (Insert Appropriate Regiment) Guards,
Wellington Barracks,
Birdcage Walk,
LONDON.  SW1E 6HQ

They will send you a form to complete and require payment for a search of and supply of appropriate service records.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (C.W.G.C.)

Established shortly after the Great War to manage and maintain the British War Cemeteries, the C.W.G.C. updated its website recently.  They cover the two World Wars, only.  Their website at:
http://www.cwgc.org/

This website lists the war dead, no matter how or where they died.  Therefore, the list includes those who died of natural causes, illness and accidents as well as those killed in action.  In addition, the website has a useful section on the First World War available at:
http://www.cwgc.org/discover1418

The London Gazette

This site contains commissions and promotions of officers of the British and British Indian Army, and most citations for gallantry medals.  Searches need to explore variations, such as JohnLawrence Maxwell and John Lawrence Maxwell.  Use “ at both ends to enable specific searches.  The address of the website is:
https://www.thegazette.co.uk/all-notices

National Library of Scotland

The Library has digitalised several Navy, Army and Air Force Lists, see:
http://digital.nls.uk/british-military-lists/pageturner.cfm?id=97343435

Military Museums

Imperial War Museum

Located in South London, please see :
http://www.iwm.org.uk/

The National Museum of the Royal Navy

A recent innovation is the formation of an umbrella organisation for:
H.M.S Victory at Portsmouth;
Royal Navy Museum at Portsmouth;
Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton;
Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport;
Royal Marines Museum at Southsea;
Explosion, the Museum of Naval Firepower at Gosport.

Details of all six museums can be found at:
http://www.nmrn.org.uk/

National Army Museum

The museum, based in Chelsea, London, has a useful website at:
http://www.nam.ac.uk/

Army Museums

Details of Army museums across the United Kingdom can be found at:
http://www.armymuseums.org.uk/

The Army Museums Ogilby Trust administers this site.  It is the only national organisation that represents, supports and promotes the regimental and corps museums of the British Army.  As an independent private charity it relies entirely on its own resources and the generosity of others to fund its work.  A selection of museums include:

Royal Artillery:       http://firepower.org.uk/
Royal Engineers:       http://www.re-museum.co.uk/
Royal Signals:         http://royalsignalsmuseum.co.uk/WebSite/

I have to mention the Kohima Museum in York, of which I am a Trustee, as it is the only museum in the U.K. focusing on a specific battle and campaign; see:
http://www.kohimamuseum.com/ 

R.A.F. Museum

The R.A.F. Museum has two locations, one in London and the other at Cosford in Shropshire.  The R.A.F. Museum holds First World War Royal Flying Corps casualty cards in the Department of Research.

If anyone is researching Second World War R.A.F. relatives or former Cranwell Flight Cadets, the museum has the Flight Cadet records from 1920 to 1975.  R.A.F. Records of Service can be obtained from R.A.F. Disclosures at Cranwell.  However, the serviceman/woman themselves must ask for the record if they are alive.  If deceased, relatives can request the record with proof that they are the surviving next of kin, and upon payment of a fee of £30. For further information see:
http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/

The British Library

The British Library is located at St. Pancras in London.  It contains the records of the former India Office, including the service records of some British officers who served in the British Indian Army. See:
http://www.bl.uk/

Commercial Family History Sites

Commercial Family History websites

Several commercial websites offer information and services in relation to family and military history. They require some form of payment and subscription in order to be able to access the information they have available. These companies either purchase or obtain by some method various databases, sometimes in conjunction with the National Archives, which they make available to clients.

Please note: I offer no endorsement for any of the websites listed below.  A decision to sign up to any subscription is at your own risk. The list of databases is current as of 1 October 2014 – but will change so you must check yourself to see if that database is still provided or if additional ones have been added.

Ancestry – www.Ancestry.co.uk

This site has some of the digitised collections available in partnership with the National Archives, including:

British Army Service Records 1914 – 1920 (WO363);
British Army Pension Records 1914 – 1920;
British Army First World War Medal Index Cards 1914 – 1920;
U.K. Silver War Badges Records 1914 – 1920;
U.K. Naval Medal and Award Rolls 1793 – 1972
U.K. Naval Officer and Rating Service Records 1802 – 1919.

Other databases include:

U.K. Naval Officers Service Records Card and Files Index 1880’s – 1950’s;
U.K. Royal Naval Division Service Records Index 1914 – 1919;
U.K. Royal Naval Division Casualties 1914 – 1924;
U.K. Royal Naval Reserve Service Records Index 1860 – 1955;
U.K. Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Service Records Index 1903 – 1922;
U.K. Royal Marines Registers of Service 1842 – 1925;
U.K. Campaign Medals Awarded to Merchant Seamen 1914 – 1925;
U.K. Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914 – 1919;
U.K. England, The National Roll of Honour 1914 – 1918;
U.K. De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914 – 1919;
U.K. Outward Passenger List 1890 – 1960.

Ancestry also offer a service called their ‘family tree resource. This can be found at:
http://trees.ancestry.co.uk/

Find My Past – http://www.findmypast.co.uk/

British Army Service Records 1914 – 1920 (WO363);
British Army First World War Medal Index Cards 1914 – 1920;
U.K. Silver War Badges Records 1914 – 1920;
Royal Navy 1914 Star Medal Rolls 1914 – 1920;
Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Medal Rolls 1914 – 1920;
Royal Marine Medal Roll 1914 – 1920;
Royal Navy Seaman Service Records 1899 – 1919;
Royal Navy Officers Service Records 1899 – 1919;
Royal Marines Service Records 1899 – 1919;
Royal Naval Division Service Records 1914 – 1920;
First World War Ships Lost at Sea 1914 – 1919;
Royal Air Force Airmans’ Service Records 1912 – 1939;
Royal Air Force Officers’ Service Records 1912 – 1920;
Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914 – 1919;
The National Roll of the Great War 1914 – 1918;
U.K. De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914 – 1919;
Plymouth Rolls of Honour 1914 – 1919;
Some Medal Citations from the Great War;
Royal Air Force Muster Roll 1918;
Military Nurses 1856 – 1994;
Military Nurses – Red Cross Register;
British Officers Taken Prisoner of War 1914 – 1918;

Plus other databases such as some baptism, marriage and burial registers and census records.

Genes Reunited - http://www.genesreunited.co.uk/

Check the website for current information available.

The Genealogist – http://www.thegenealogist.co.uk

Check the website for current information available.

Forces War Records – http://www.forces-war-records.co.uk

A subscription site that developed from Forces Reunited.  Again, check the website for current information available.

Family History Associations

It is worth checking to see if you have a local history group or family history group.  They can offer effective support and encouragement.  As an example, please see:
http://www.devonfhs.org.uk/links.htm