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Online information service providers for researching British soldiers – which is best?

Online research

Many British military records relating to soldiers and the army of 1914-1918 have been digitised in recent years. There is no doubt that it has made finding information very much easier and quicker than before. But the provision of information to end users has, in the main, been handed to commercial businesses and we now have a bewildering, incoherent array of providers. Chris Baker surveys the latest state of play.


The National Archives (paid)

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The United Kingdom’s national repository of government information, the National Archives holds the original copies of the key records: soldier’s service records, campaign medal records, unit war diaries and much more. For several years a steady programme of digitisation has been running, but most of this is has been in partnership with third party providers (below) and those records are now not digitally available direct from the National Archives. The list below is only of records that are available as a download via the Discovery search engine. There is a small, reasonable fee for each download.

  • Campaign medal index cards (National Archives WO372  but only one side and only in black and white);
  • Prisoner of war interview records (WO161);
  • Unit war diaries (WO95 but only for France and Flanders, Mesopotamia and East and West Africa)

Go to National Archives


Ancestry (paid)

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The first to move into this particular field, Ancestry gained the first National Archives contract for the digitisation of soldier’s service records. Ancestry offers a very wide array of family history records of which military is only one category. Its availability and service level is generally good, although it returns error pages far too often for my liking. Ancestry offers the following (this is not a complete listing of the holdings):

  • Army Service records (from National Archives WO363, WO364 and PIN26);
  • Campaign medal index cards and medal rolls (National Archives WO372 and WO329 – Great War). Ancestry is the only provider with the medal rolls: a vital and in some cases the only remaining record of service;
  • Silver War Badge rolls (WO329);
  • Campaign medal rolls (National Archives WO100 – including Boer War and India post 1918);
  • Unit war diaries (National Archives WO95 but only for France and Flanders and Gallipoli and only up to divisional level; indexing is atrocious and the correct diary can be nigh-on impossible to locate) (see also Fold3, below);
  • Financial effects register (of those who died);
  • Pension records (see Fold3 and the Western Front Association, below) but only an index with a link to Fold3, not the complete record;
  • Absent voters lists and electoral registers for 1918-1919, but only a small sample of the former

Records located at Ancestry can be tagged to the individual’s life story when using the on-site family tree builder.

Go to Ancestry UK


Findmypast (paid)

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Findmypast also offers a very wide array of family history records of which military is only one category. I find its indexing and search more reliable than Ancestry’s and generally its images of documents are clearer. The service up-time of the site has been problematic at times for me, notably when they offer free weekends and similar offers for non-paying users. I cannot comment on their customer service as  have never been called upon to contact them. The range of content for studying the British armed forces of the Great War is now broader than Ancestry’s and as such they are my provider of choice, but they have one significant omission in that they do not have the medal rolls.

At time of writing Findmypast offers the following (this is not a complete listing of the holdings):

  • Army Service records (from National Archives WO363, WO364 and PIN26 – in black and white);
  • Army Service Records (from National Archives WO96 and WO97 – pre 1914 records – in colour);
  • Transcript of key details from campaign medal index cards (National Archives WO372);
  • Medical unit admission registers (National Archives MH106: some);
  • Biographies from National Roll of Honour, De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour and Bond of Sacrifice;
  • Transcript of details from Commonwealth War Graves Commission registers;
  • Transcript of index details from Red Cross POW records;
  • Absent Voters lists and electoral rolls for 1918 and 1919 (far from complete by by far the best single online collection of these records);
  • Local and national newspapers (the same company operates the British Newspaper Archive, which I find much more thorough and easier to search than relying on Findmypast’s access to the newspapers)

When looking for a man’s service record I always search both Ancestry and Findmypast, and can say without doubt that I find more of them via Findmypast. This is in part as they have tagged the names, numbers and regiments of men mentioned in orphaned and fragmentary documents found in other men’s records. Ancestry have not done this. Findmypast’s indexing is also more reliable.

Go to Findmypast UK


Forces War Records (paid)

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Owned by Clever Digit Media Ltd and bills itself as “the leading UK military genealogy specialist website”. It links to Forces Reunited and in 2013 acquired the British Genealogy Forum which remains free to use. Some content presented on its pages about regiments has clearly been copied and pasted from the Long, Long Trail without permission or acknowledgement. I cannot comment on its content outside the Great War period as I do not use it for that. The Great War content is at present:

  • Transcript of details from medical unit admission registers (National Archives MH106: some; not the same ones as Findmypast and the only feature that I find occasionally provides something I do not locate elsewhere);
  • Transcript of key details from campaign medal index cards (National Archives WO372);
  • Transcript of key details from War Office casualty lists;
  • Transcript of details from Commonwealth War Graves Commission registers;
  • Transcript of details from “Soldiers Died in the Great War”;
  • Transcript of details from the London Gazette (see below);
  • Transcription of 1916 Army List;
  • Transcript of Territorial Force Nursing Service medal rolls;
  • Jewry Book of Honour, London County Council Record of War Service, Prudential Insurance Roll of Honour and others;
  • Transcripts from unit war diaries linked to geographic mapping (a feature which I see but have never found the need to use, so cannot comment on its value)

Thegenealogist (paid)

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This service is provided by Genealogy Supplies (Jersey) Ltd which some family historians may recognise as S&N Genealogy. They have an interesting and diverse business in providing family tree software, stationery and other useful products for family historians, a family history magazine and online content. The range of military records is narrow when compared with Ancestry and Findmypast but includes some forms of information not found anywhere else online. A very useful and friendly niche provider. I work with them in providing talks at their family history shows. Their website is easy to use; I find the quality of indexing to be amongst the best and the images provided also very good.

  • Campaign medal index cards (National Archives WO372 but only one side and only in black and white);
  • Casualty lists (digitised from the Times and from War Office originals);
  • Transcript of details from “Soldiers Died in the Great War”;
  • Army Lists;
  • Various regimental histories, rolls of honour and similar works

Go to Thegenealogist


Fold3 (paid)

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A disappointing recent trend from Ancestry has been to place British content into its subsidiary Fold3, which is primarily aimed at the United States market. I can only think this is a money-making arrangement as it is necessary to separately subscribe to both. I quite like Fold3, though: the search engine is friendly and effective. More sets of records are appearing in both and it is beginning to reach the point where Fold3 will overtake Ancestry in my preferences. The British records at present include:

  • The pension records from the Western Front Association (below);
  • Army Service records (from National Archives WO363, WO364 and PIN26; indexing and presentation is better than at Ancestry);
  • Army Service Records (from National Archives WO96 and WO97 – pre 1914 records – in colour);
  • Financial effects register (of those who died);
  • Army List;
  • Various rolls of honour;
  • Unit war diaries (National Archives WO95 but only for France and Flanders and Gallipoli and only up to divisional level; indexing and presentation is better than at Ancestry)

Go to Fold3


Commonwealth War Graves Commission (free of charge)

Established by Royal Charter in 1917, CWGC cares for the British and Commonwealth cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories, and manages the official casualty database archives for its member nations. The database is free to use,

Go to Commonwealth War Graves Commission


International Committee of the Red Cross (free of charge)

The Red Cross holds records of prisoners of war. Its database is free to use and most informative, but its indexing is peculiar and requires care in its use.

Go to POW records at the Red Cross

The Long, Long Trail’s tutorial video on how to search these records


London Gazette (free of charge)

The London Gazette includes announcements of honours and awards, officer appointments and promotions (and much ore than it not military information). Its database is free to use , but its indexing requires care in its use.

Go to the London Gazette


Familysearch (free of charge)

This service from the Church of Latter Day Saints offers a very wide array of family history records of which military is only one (and a relatively undeveloped) category.

It locates records held by Findmypast and provides a link to them, but does not seem to hold any other relevant records in its own database.

Go to Familysearch


Summary

Sadly, to thoroughly research a soldier you need access to all of the above (except for CWGC if the man survived and ICRC if completely certain that he was not a POW). Subscription fees can total a considerable amount of money: OK if you research many soldiers but not an attractive prospect for looking for one or a few men. Most of the providers offer periods when the normal fees are heavily discounted; Ancestry and Findmypast often offer periods when records are free to search (although often restricted in what can be searched or downloaded). You may also be able to obtain free access at your local library and can also do so at the National Archives.


Finally, and not an online provider in the sense that those above are,

The Western Front Association (paid)

A Great War membership group that produces a historical journal, holds lecture meetings and runs battlefield tours in partnership with specialist firms. It took possession of collections of pension records and the original campaign medal index cards when they appeared to be threatened with destruction by the Ministry of Defence. By working in partnership with Ancestry, purchase of WFA membership now includes free access to the digitised pension records. I do not use this service and cannot comment on its functionality, but I understand that members are essentially given a window into Fold3 .

  • Pension records (see Fold3 and Ancestry, above)

Go to the Western Front Association