How to find a soldier’s number

Extract from the war diary of the 9th (Service) Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps. Crown Copyright.

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. Certainly you can begin to look for his military records without it, but your chances will be much greater if you do know his regiment and number. If he has a common surname it will probably be vital, for you could be looking at hundreds or even thousands of men with the same name. Perhaps the most important piece of information of all is the soldier’s number. This article will help you find it.

What is the soldier’s number and why is it important?

Each man was assigned a number which identified him from the other men. It was used on all of his paperwork, so all of his records carry it. Many of the records can only be found with any certainty if you know the number, unless the man had an uncommon name.

In 1920, the way the army issued numbers changed. From that point on to this day, the number was given to the man when he joined the army and it stayed his personal number regardless of what happened to him after that. This was not the case in WW1. At that time each regiment issued its own numbers, and if a man was moved from one to another, he was renumbered. It was even more complex in some regiments as each unit issued its own numbers, and if he was a Territorial he would also have been renumbered in spring 1917. This is why a man might have more than one number and you may need to know them all.

Officers

Commissioned officers did not have searchable personal numbers until after the Great War.

The easiest sources

If you have or can see the man’s campaign medals, his number will be stamped around the rim (or on the back if it is a Star). See campaign medals

If you have his discharge certificate or any other paperwork, it will give his number.

1918 Absent Voters List

If all other sources are a dead-end for you, and if your soldier was aged 21 or over and was alive in 1918, it would be worth trying the Absent Voters List for the area in which he had his home address. The AVL often gives his regiment and number. See Absent Voters Lists

If he won a gallantry medal or some other special award

Gallantry awards, foreign decorations and certain other awards were published in the London Gazette. The entry almost always carried the name of the man’s place of residence in brackets after his own details. It would be worth searching for a combination of his surname and place name. The Gazette is online, free and searchable. See gallantry awards

If he died (any time in the war) or was wounded (up to 1916)

The obvious place to start for a men who lost his life is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but you may run into the problem of not being able to tell which man you want if you do not have his number. The casualty lists published in the “Times” newspaper from 1916 onwards almost always carried the name of the man’s place of residence in brackets after his own details. It would be worth searching for a combination of his surname and place name. The Times Digital Archive is online and searchable but requires particular access. Many UK libraries have arranged this access, either on their own premises or online for those with a reader’s ticket. Local newspapers, many of which are now searchable via the British Newspaper Archive (fee) and Welsh Newspapers Online (free), also carried the lists. The service provider TheGenealogist (fee) also carries a combination of the official war Office lists and “Times” reprints.

Finally, if you have not already followed it you would benefit from the advice given in the researching a soldier section of this site.

Other useful resources

Paul Nixon’s blog on army service numbers