Interpreting service records – clues from attestation

If you are lucky enough to find the service record of a man you are researching, it is likely to include his attestation form. This will provide excellent clues regarding the nature of his service.

Look out in particular for the terms of his engagement. This will appear at the top of the attestation form.

Pre-war and 1914-1915 attestations

“X years with the colours and Y years in the reserve”

If it reads “X years with the colours and Y years in the reserve”, then the man was enlisting into the regular army. The normal engagement was for a total of twelve years, so now look down at the date of his signature or that of the person approving it. If you add twelve years to the attestation date and that takes you out to beyond 1922, and if the man survived the war and you do not know that he was discharged early, it may imply that his record still exists and is available from the Ministry of Defence Veterans Agency.

The most often seen patterns are “Seven plus five”, “Three plus nine” (as shown below) and “Nine plus three”.

“Three plus nine” years enlistment in to the regular army.

Men joining the artillery would usually agree to a “six plus six” pattern.

“Six plus six” years enlistment in to the regular artillery

Horse transport drivers enlisting into the Royal Engineers or Army Service Corps could enter on a “two plus ten” pattern.

“Two years plus ten” years enlistment, in this case into the Army Service Corps.

Here’s a tip.

If you find your soldier in one of these types of pre-war regular enlistment, work out whether he would have still been in his full-time service at the time of the census of 2 April 1911. If so, you should be able to find him listed at his army station rather than at home. So for example, if he was on a “seven plus five” and he enlisted in 1907, it should be possible to find him in the army at the time of the census.

By a similar calculation, you should be able to determine whether he was still in full-time service when the army was mobilised on 5 August 1914. If not, he would have been called up from reserve.

Chris Baker

Less usual was the engagement as a boy (that is, below the usual miniumum of 18 years of age). The boy would agree to serve for twelve years of full time service in the regular army.

Special reservists

A man would normally join the Special Reserve for six years although experienced men could enlist for just one year. Service was part time unless the army was mobilised. See reserves and reservists


Territorial Force

A man would normally join a unit of the Territorial Force for four years although it was also possible to engage for one or two.

Service was part time unless the man and his unit were “embodied”. See Territorial Force

A typical four-year commitment to service in a unit of the Territorial Force: in this case, the Bedfordshire Yeomanry.

War time volunteers 1914-1915

men could continue to enlist into the regular army, Special Reserve and units of the Territorial Force as above, but from August 1914 they could also enlist into the regular army for war service only. This is typically signified by an attestation form that may say “three years with the colours” or “the duration of the war”.

A typical attestation form from the peak time of voluntary recruitment in the campaign of expansion promoted by Lord Kitchener. The detail in the form asked the man to commit for three years or the duration of war, whichever proved the longer, but with assurances that he would be discharged at the earliest opportunity.

Group System (Derby Scheme) volunteers

For full details, see Group System. From mid-October 1915, a man could attest and request that teh start of his service be deferred to a later date. The attestation form looks smilar to those used before but there are two clues to look for that confirm he attested this way.

The printed box saying “Card No.” is the first indicator …
… and the second is (a) an attestation date in the range mid-October 1915 to early March 1916 (for exceptions see detailed article), and (b) a call-up date some time later. The details of my example are typically hard to read but say October 1915 and January 1916, which screams “Group System recruit”!

Conscripted men

For details of the Military Service Act and conscription see this article. Although the old versions of the attestation forms continued to be used up (the dates of enlistment are the giveaway), a new “enrolment form” also began to appear. Cinscripted men were committed to serve for the duration of the war but could technically be enlisted into the regular army or Territorial Force.


A soldier’s life


Group System

Military Service Act and conscription

Re-enlisting in 1919