Our Military Genealogist, Simon Pearce, shows you how to start researching British WW1 ancestors.
Researching your WW1 ancestors’ military service is a rewarding and exciting part of family history. Knowing where to begin, however, can be challenging. To help you kick-start your research, we’ve provided some hints and tips, from speaking to family to using service and pension records. There’s no better time to start your research journey with Forces War Records (FWR).
Speaking to family members is a great starting point. The smallest
nugget of information may help to start your research or point you in the direction of particular records.
FWR Tip: While many of us may be researching a parent or grandparent’s involvement in WW1, remember to search for your aunts and uncles too. You never know what you might uncover.
Check family albums and collections; if you are lucky enough to have a photograph of a family member who served during WW1, spend time studying the photo and look out for any potential clues. Their uniform, cap badges, rank patches, medal ribbons, wound stripes, or overseas service chevrons can help narrow your searches or target specific records.
Beginning your search: Service Records
Service and pension records are some of the most valuable sources for researching British WW1 ancestors and represent a logical starting point for your research. They indicate when and where a person enlisted, who they served with, where they served, if they were wounded or hospitalised and if they claimed a pension, amongst other fascinating details.
FWR members have access to the WW1 British Army service and pension records; if you find your ancestor in these collections, you can build a detailed timeline of their military service.
FWR Tip: Can’t find your ancestor’s service record? Around 60% of British Army service records were destroyed or badly damaged during a German bombing raid in September 1940. We’ll guide you through other WW1 records available on FWR, to help you fill in the gaps.
There are other reasons why you may not be able to find your ancestor’s service record. WW1 British Army officer’s records, for example, are not available online and have to be viewed at The National Archives (TNA). Your ancestor’s British Army service record may be held by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) if:
- Their service ended after January 1921
- They were an officer, and their service ended after April 1922.
Some service records are currently in the process of being transferred to TNA.
What if your ancestors served with the navy or air force during WW1? Our subscribers have access to WW1 service records for the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and the Women’s Royal Air Force. Each record differs in scope and content, but the unique details held within can help you gain a greater insight into your ancestors’ wartime service.
In addition to service records, many other collections are available to help you research your British WW1 ancestors’ military service; they are particularly valuable if your ancestor’s service record was destroyed.
Medal records can be a vital source for family historians, offering useful military and genealogical information. The details held within, like an army number, enlistment date, or unit, can also help you target other military records.
Our British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards are an excellent source for researching your WW1 ancestors. Highlighting the medals your ancestor was entitled to, the cards often contain annotations indicating if a soldier was killed in action or discharged from the forces. Sometimes, the cards detail your ancestor’s first theatre of war and the date they entered it. This adds further detail to their wartime story, particularly in the absence of a service record.
FWR Tip: Theatres of war are generally represented by a code. See The National Archives guide to WW1 medal cards for a list of the different codes.
Many of us have ancestors who lost their lives during WW1; over 880,000 British forces died during the conflict. Casualty records are a poignant reminder of our forces’ sacrifices and can provide vital clues when researching British WW1 ancestors.
If you are researching a WW1 casualty, take a look at our Commonwealth War Graves Commission Death Registers. Entries for casualties include the person’s rank, service number, regiment and battalion/unit; useful clues to help you search other military records. The individual’s next of kin and address are often recorded, along with their age. This information is of particular importance if you are researching an ancestor with a common name or if you don’t know your ancestor’s exact military details. Matching their next of kin or recognising their address can help you break down a brick wall.
FWR Tip: Try searching our Soldiers Died in the Great War database for further clues relating to casualties. Enlistment place is often recorded (noted as ‘Resided Town’), adding further detail to your ancestor’s wartime story.
There are many collections available on Forces War Records to help you research your ancestors’ military service. You can view all our records via the Browse tab, with options available to narrow the collections by country, theatre of war or service branch.
We’re always here for you if you need help or advice with your research. Why not follow us on Facebook and submit a question to one of our monthly military genealogy Q&As? You can also send a query via the Document Expert section of our website.
Stay tuned for part II, where we’ll delve deeper into the records, spotlighting additional casualty and pension collections, and explore WW1 war diaries.