When a soldier lost his life (or presumed to have done so) his death was officially registered and the process of settling his affairs commenced.
The National Army Museum holds a register of the War Office’s register of financial effects. This has been digitised but is available only through Ancestry.
This is the entry for a relative of mine, Pte Albert Baker of the 7th South Staffordshire Regiment.
Tip: if you are struggling to find a man’s entry in the register at Ancestry, it may be due to mis-transcription of his name. I advise trying it this way. Go to the home page > select Search > select “Card Catalogue” from the drop-down menu > in the “Title” box, enter just the word “effects” > click on the link titled “UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929” > try searching by the man’s number or by the date of his death.
Albert Baker’s entry is typical of most. Reading across the page it confirms his name, rank, number, regiment and unit; date of death; and the army pay office that dealt with the financial effects (in this case, Lichfield).
The record shows three entries of payments to Albert’s next of kin, first his mother Ada and then his father Charles. The entries written in blue were the sum paid after calculating that the War Office owed him money (usually mainly wages). It was paid in two tranches in June 1917 and February 1918. The entry in red is a “war gratuity”, paid much later and typically in late 1919.
The war gratuity was a calculated figure based on the man’s rank and length of service. It is a good indicator of when he enlisted. There is an online calculator tool but it is behind a paywall.
If, for some reason, the financial effects balance could not be transferred (for example, if the next of kin had died or could not be traced), the details would be advertised in the “London Gazette”.
The register includes officers’ effects but the service records of officers held in National Archives collections WO339 and WO374 usually have much documentation on this subject.
The financial effects register can be very valuable in the case of those men who died at a hospital, for the exact hospital is often identified.
Efforts would be made to return the soldier’s physical effects to his next of kin. These would typically be small personal items such as letters, photographs, pens, charms and watches. If the circumstances permitted it, they would be recovered from the man’s uniform and pack; if not, it may only have been from kit he had left with the unit quartermaster being going into action. Soldier’s service records often include the sad details of the effects that were recovered.