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National Army Museum
  • CLOSED
  • FREE
  • Chelsea, London

How to research a former soldier

Family history

The National Army Museum is not a repository for soldiers’ service papers. It is, therefore, unlikely that anything in our collections can give you definitive answers regarding the service of an individual soldier.

Unless we happen to hold personal items relating to that soldier within our collections - which you can check by using our Online Inventory - your best starting point is to search for a surviving service record. The guidance below outlines the most appropriate places to look. 

British soldiers until 1920

In order to trace the service of soldiers from the First World War (or earlier), you must first determine whether or not their service record survives. 

Regrettably, more than half of the service records were damaged or destroyed in September 1940, when a German bombing raid struck the War Office repository in Arnside Street, London. An estimated 2.8 million service records survived the bombing or were reconstructed from the records of the Ministry of Pensions (roughly 40 per cent of the total).

If it does survive, the service record will now be kept at the National Archives at Kew. They give advice for the pre-1913 service, and post-1913 service. The damaged records are referred to as the Burnt Records, and are held under TNA reference WO 363, and undamaged records from the same period exist in WO 364. These records have been digitised, and can be searched online

Widows' pension, half pay and disability pensions (1755-1938) are kept in WO 25/3995 and WO 25/3069-3072. Records for men receiving pensions from the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the Royal Hospital Kilmainham are in WO 97.

Although they rarely mention ordinary soldiers by name, official war diaries (WO 95 and WO 154) contain daily records for the units in which they served. These can give you an idea of where an individual served and any notable events they were involved in. 

The Ministry of Pensions files in PIN26, similar in content to those preserved in WO 364, contain a small number of further pension records for those discharged on medical grounds during the war.

For any soldiers who were taken prisoner during the First World War, there is likely to be an International Red Cross index card entry. All of these have now been digitised and can be searched via their website.

If you know which regiment or corps the soldier served with, we also recommend checking for any records held by the relevant regimental or corps museum. Their contact details can be found using the Army Museums Ogilby Trust website.

British soldiers since 1920

Records for the post-1920 period are still considered official records and are held by the Ministry of Defence at the Personnel Centre in Glasgow.

For soldiers who are now deceased, next of kin are entitled to request historic disclosures of service records, but there is often a few months’ wait and there is a small access fee involved (about £30 at time of last checking). The whole application process can now be completed online

It may also be worth contacting the Army Medals Office, who keep records concerning entitlement to service and campaign medals in the Second World War.

The Red Cross holds records of prisoners taken during the Second World War. Details on how to enquire about these records can be found online.

If you know the regiment or corps the soldier served with, we also recommend checking for any records held by the relevant regimental or corps museum. Their contact details can be found using the Army Museums Ogilby Trust website.

Commonwealth soldiers who died in the World Wars

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) maintains records of the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth who died in the World Wars, and also maintains cemeteries and memorials for them. The CWGC website contains a searchable database of those recorded as lost.

British soldiers' effects, 1901-60

The National Army Museum holds the soldiers’ effects ledgers that were created by the War Office to record the monies owing to those who died while serving in the British Army. These records run from 1901 to 1960, covering the latter stages of the Boer War and, of course, both World Wars.

Typically, they contain the following details: name, rank, regiment, service number, date (and sometimes place) of death, name of the next of kin, and how much they received. They do not list any personal items, addresses or pension details. You can search the records for 1901-29 online.

Soldiers in Irish regiments, 1920-22

The National Army Museum also holds the enlistment books of five Irish units of the British Army which were disbanded following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.

They contain records of soldiers serving in the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Regiment and the Royal Munster Fusiliers between 1920 and 1922. You can search these records online.

Empire and Commonwealth soldiers

The National Archives' Colonial Office (CO) holdings contain some material on soldiers who fought in the British Army in Africa during the war, either in the King's African Rifles (CO 534) or in the West African Frontier Force (CO 445).

Some information about men who fought in the British West Indies Regiment can be found in CO 318, and some records for soldiers of the British West Indies Regiment and the West India Regiment may be found in WO 364 (for soldiers discharged to pension). There is further advice on researching Colonial Office records online. 

If service records survive for men from these regiments and from the Indian Army, they are most likely to be in the relevant national archives. Most of the records for soldiers in the Indian Army can be found at the British Library in London.

Service records for soldiers in the Dominion forces of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa can be found in their respective national archives, and in the case of Australia, further records are held at the Australian War Memorial.

British officers

If the person you are researching was an officer, the details of their career advancements will be contained in the Army Lists, which can be accessed at the Templer Study Centre

Further details can be found via the National Archives who hold Officer’s Commissions (1793-1949) in series WO 25 and WO 31, Officer’s Service Records (1764-1913) in series WO 25, WO 54 and WO 76, and campaign information can be found through Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, WO 100. 

Registers of cadets who trained at the Royal Military Academy (1790-1939), Woolwich (WO 149) and the Royal Military Academy (1806-1946), Sandhurst (WO 151), and the Sandhurst Registers (1783-1964) are a register of cadets that attended Sandhurst, often with personal background information, which can be accessed via the Sandhurst Collection

It is also worth directing your research to the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, which holds the personal and semi-personal papers of nearly 800 senior British defence personnel, including several senior Army figures.

How to submit an enquiry

If you have read through the above advice and haven’t found an answer to your question, you can submit an enquiry through our contact form, by sending an email to info@nam.ac.uk, or by writing to: 

Collections Enquiries
National Army Museum
Royal Hospital Road
London SW3 4HT

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