During the 18th and 19th centuries, life in the army was seen as a career. Men joined up in the ranks for set periods of service, usually around 14 years.
On retirement, either through disability in the line of duty or after the expiration of service, many men were granted pensions. The surviving pension records, deposited at the National Archives, give many biographical details for each soldier, such as when and where they were born.
In addition there are musters and pay lists, description books, registers of regimental baptisms, marriages and burials and other material that allow you to trace each mans career, often beyond British shores and into famous campaigns and battles.
There are similar sources available for commissioned officers, as well as printed Army Lists that can be used to compile an outline of service and dates of promotion. Indeed there are many printed regimental histories available, as well as museums that can held place your relative’s career in its proper historical context.
However, most people look for the military records of a soldier who fought in the Great War. Unfortunately a large proportion of records were destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War, but in addition to the surviving documents there are unit war diaries, trench maps and an index to campaign medal entitlement, the closest thing to a union name index for serving soldiers.
For those who died in the conflict, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a good place to start your research to fill your family history tree; Don’t forget that many people served in the support services, such as the Royal Army Medical Corps or Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service Reserve.
The National Archives
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Imperial War Museum
Imperial War Museum, Duxford
National Army Museum
National Maritime Museum