Millions of men served in the army. You need to do everything you can to make sure that you can spot your man from among others. If he has a common surname this is vital, for you could be looking at hundreds or even thousands of men with the same name. So what kind of information helps?
His full name. From family knowledge, a birth, marriage or death certificate. While it was not necessary for a man to enlist using his full name or provide any evidence of it, it obviously helps if you know it.
His regiment and/or number. If you do not know this, your life is going to be rather harder. It does not stop you – but it may be difficult to decide which man is yours from others of the same name. Useful clues can be gained before you really start from * medals (look for his regiment and number stamped on the rim) * photographs (look for cap badges or other insignia) * discharge certificates or other documents * 1901 and 1911 census information if he was in the army before the Great War * local newspaper cuttings *Absent Voters Lists
His background. Where he came from, his date of birth and the name of his next of kin are all pieces of information that can help you pick out one man from others of the same name. The many sources of birth, marriage and census information will help you piece this together.
Where he served or what he did. Family stories of the soldier being at a particular place or having a particular role or being wounded can all help in finding documentary evidence and interpreting what you find.
But don’t start this way …
In my experience it is not a good idea to begin by contacting a regimental museum. They do not hold the service records of soldiers, although some do have some useful lists*. Some of the museums are excellent, friendly and helpful. Some wish to charge for research. Others are under-staffed and unable to devote much time to your project. You may however find the museum very useful once you have discovered the basics of a soldier’s career.
*The exceptions are the Guards and Household regiments, which do have records of their troops.
Many men are mentioned by name in published sources, although if you are just starting out this might be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Local newspapers carried stories of men enlisting (at least in the early days), mentions when they were wounded or killed, and even letters from the soldiers to the Editor. Post-war, many books were published that gave rolls of honour or even whole lists of men who joined up – but only for a relatively few units. Modern researchers have produced great work on, for example, the Pals battalions, local war memorials, etc – but again for only a relatively few units and places. This is an exercise best left until you are much further down the road and in possession of good information about units and dates that were important to your soldier.
Ok. Preparation done. What next?
Start working you way down the list of things to do at How to research a soldier