How to find an officer’s service reord

Background

  • Every officer had a service record and there is a very good chance that part of it has survived.
  • If he was commissioned as an officer having previously served in the ranks, the papers from the earlier period are likely to be in his record, although it is also worth searching for him in the “other ranks” records. I often find papers in both.
  • A service record consists of a number of different army forms and correspondence used to record information about the officer during his military career. The numbers and types of forms in a man’s record vary greatly from soldier to soldier, as does the quality and legibility of the information they contain. Service records often also contain private correspondence: for example if a man was enquiring with regard to his medals or if a widow was enquiring about a pension.
  • The records were thinned out before going into storage, by disposal of many documents. This has badly affected the officers’ records. The key documents were junked (and many burned in the 1940 fire which also destroyed so many rankers’ records) leaving only a “miscellaneous” file, but even so this is usually informative.
  • An army service record is the only military source likely to give the officer’s family, age, birthplace and trade information although an address can usually be found on his campaign medal index card.
  • The records of very senior officers (of the rank of General) do not appear to have been released to the public.
  • There are two separate collections of records to search, depending on circumstances.

What do they look like?

The extent and quality of information found in a service record varies greatly. Figure below: this is part of one of the most useful documents – Army Form MT393A, which was the application for a commission in the regular army.  This example, of which only the top part is displayed, was found in WO339. It gives most useful personal and military details.

Extract from the service record of Reginald William Cook MC. National Archives WO339/168141. Crown copyright.

Extract from the service record of Reginald William Cook MC. National Archives WO339/168141. Crown copyright.

Collections of records and how to find them

Collection WO339

This is the main collection of army service records to men who served as officers of the regular army (including those on temporary commissions for the war) and who left the army before 1923. The collection is incomplete, with senior officers being notably absent, but your chances of success are high.

  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives

Collection WO374

This is the main collection of army service records to men who served as officers of the Territorial Force and who left the army before 1923.

  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives

The Ministry of Defence

If the officer continued in service to 1922 or later or if he returned to serve in the army in WW2, his record will not yet be public. It may be obtained – on payment of a fee and demonstration of evidence of kinship – from the Veteran’s Agency. Link to their website

Additional aids to tracing an officer’s service

The Army List

A monthly and quarterly War Office publication that listed officers by regiment, rank and seniority. Also included Warrant Officers Class 1. A vital source for tracking an officer’s career. The National Archives library has an extensive if incomplete collection. There is also an Indian Army List and equivalents for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The service provider TheGenealogist has digitised certain volumes of the Army List.

The London Gazette

Officers’ commissions, promotions and appointments were published in the London Gazette and followed a day or two later by republication in the “Times”. The online searchable version of the London Gazette.