How to find a soldier’s service record

Background

  • Every soldier had a service record, although only some 30% or so now exist.
  • A service record consisted of a number of different army forms used to record information about a soldier 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 in the 1930s, by disposal of many documents.
  • The majority were destroyed by fire at the Army Records Office on Arnside Street in Walworth, London, resulting from an air raid in 1940. Article: what was lost in the fire?
  • An army service record is the only military source likely to give family, age, birthplace and trade information.
  • There are several 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 B103, the rather misleadingly-named “Casualty Form Active Service” on which was recorded the man’s movements between units.  This example, of which only the top part is displayed, is actually from the record of a man who later became an officer and is typical in that it gives the man’s number, rank, regiment, units, dates, etc.

Casult Form Active Service from service record of Anthony Edersheim Overton. National Archives WO339/62546. Crown copyright.

Casult Form Active Service from service record of Anthony Edersheim Overton. National Archives WO339/62546. Crown copyright.

Collections of records and how to find them

Collection WO363, also known as the Burnt Records

This is the main collection of army service records to men who left the army between 1914 and 1921 inclusive, including those who died in service. The records were affected by a fire in the building where they stored in 1940: the 20-30% that survived the fire are in this collection, but many are only fragments or have suffered damage. They are in the hands of the National Archives and WO363 is the series number that relates to these records.                  

  • These records are now online at Ancestry
  • And at Findmypast
  • They are also available on microfilm at the National Archives although staff there will insist that you use the digital sources first
  • The originals are no longer accessible to the public.

Collection WO364, also known as the Unburnt Records.

It is also often referred to (incorrectly) as the Pension Records. Some records or parts of records appear to have been removed from the building that burned as they were later found at the Ministry of Pensions. These records are usually a relatively small subset of what would have been the man’s record. They are in the hands of the National Archives and WO364 is the series number that relates to these records.  It is possible to find a record in both WO363 and WO364.

  • These records are now online at Ancestry
  • And at Findmypast
  • They are also available on microfilm at the National Archives although staff there will insist that you use the digital sources first
  • The originals are no longer accessible to the public.

Collection PIN26.

Also found at the Ministry of Pensions, this is a very small but often overlooked collection of parts of service records. They are in the hands of the National Archives and PIN26 is the series number that relates to these records.

  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives and can be searched by name through the archives website catalogue

Collection WO97.

This is the main collection of army service records to men who left the army up to 1914. If a man re-enlisted for the war then it is worth searching here. They are in the hands of the National Archives and WO97 is the series number that relates to these records.         

  • These records are now online at Findmypast
  • They are also available in original form at the National Archives although again the staff will insist that you try digital sources first

Collection WO96.

This is the collection of service records to men who served in the Militia, which was abolished in 1908. They are in the hands of the National Archives and WO96 is the series number that relates to these records. If a man re-enlisted for the war then it is worth searching here.

  • These records are now online at Findmypast
  • They are also available in original form at the National Archives although again the staff will insist that you try digital sources first.

Collection WO400.

This is a collection of army service records to men who served with the regiments of the Household Cavalry. They are in the hands of the National Archives and WO400 is the series number that relates to these records.         

  • These records are not online: they are held in original format at the National Archives
  • The collection is not complete and appears in the main to be of records of men who became casualties
  • The Household Cavalry Museum, Combermere Barracks, Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 3DN, also has a set. Written enquiries are welcomed but enquirers are recommended to contact the museum for access conditions before visiting in person.

Guards regimental collections.

The Guards regiments maintained a separate set of records. With the exception of those of the Scots Guards they have now been passed to the Veterans Agency at the Ministry of Defence. Application may be made. Details of how to apply can be found at https://www.gov.uk/get-copy-military-service-records/apply-for-someone-elses-records

For records of men of the Scots Guards, telephone 020 7414 3419 (from outside UK use +44 20 7414 3419).

It may also be worth searching the WO363 and 364 records as described above. I have found plenty of parts of Guards records in WO364;  fewer in WO363.

The Ministry of Defence.

If the soldier continued in service to 1921 or later (and the possibility of his re-enlisting in 1919 for just one or a few years service should not be ignored: thousands did so) or if he returned to serve in the army in WW2, his record will not yet be public. It can be obtained – on payment of a fee and demonstration of evidence of kinship – from the Veteran’s Agency: link to their website

Professional help

If you feel the task of finding a record is rather daunting, I would be delighted to help. Please visit my website at www.fourteeneighteen.co.uk for more details.