Military Ancestors Research

We’ve all heard stories told to us by parents, uncles, aunts or grandparents that began ‘did you know that your ….. was in the war

The course of the twentieth century has been shaped by the two world wars, and in particular by the changes to society that followed the Great War of 1914-1918, where millons of soldiers died.
Most families would have been touched in some way by the conflict, either directly through active service in the Army, the Royal or Merchant Navy, or the newly created Royal Air Force; or at work on the home front in munitions factories or on the land. Although most of this generation have passed on, the memories of this traumatic period in British history survive in oral accounts, handed down to children and grandchildren who are still alive.

In most communities there is at least one war memorial that commemorates the names of local men and women who fell during the conflicts. There are also more personal and tangible pieces of evidence – medals, photographs, letters and postcards sent back from the Front Line, and remnants of military uniform such as regimental cap badges. These clues, passed down through a family as heirlooms, or often still hidden in boxes waiting to be discovered in attics and cellars, will provide a gateway into the world of the professional and conscripted soldier.

With the recent release of service papers from the First World War, you can now obtain crucial biographical information, as well as piece together their movements on the front line.

This article serves as a basic introduction to the sources available for tracing a military ancestor, and explains how you can use this memorabilia, along with family tradition or census data, to investigate their life and times. The first and most obvious step is to work out which of the services your ancestor was enrolled in and this is where you need to interpret the clues carefully.

Then, if you want to look for service papers, you have to decide whether they were a commissioned officer, or a non-commissioned officer or other rank this is how most service records are arranged.

There are further divisions that you have to consider. For example, if your ancestor was a seafarer, he may have served with the merchant navy instead of the Royal Navy, or was a Marine or reservist.

Many records of army service are organised by regiment (Grenadier Guards / Sherwood Foresters . etc); without this information your search for information could be lengthy. It might be possible to get a positive identification from a cap badge, and most people enlisted to the local regiment, or regiment stationed nearest to them. Many of my ancestors joined up locally in the “Sherwood Foresters” – Nottingham and Derbyshire.

A good starting point is J Kitzmiller, In search of the Forlorn Hope: a Comprehensive Guide to locating British Regiments and their Records.

Please follow the Links to the relevant service:

Army   Navy    Air Force

Further Research:

This article is only a very basic introduction to the subject, and cannot cover the intricacies of the sources in any detail. Therefore to take your research further, you should consider contacting one of the following organisations for more information.

The National Archives –

This is where you will find service papers prior to 1922 for the Army, Royal Navy and RAF. They have published a series of guides introducing the sources.

The following are where next of kin can apply for further information about their ancestors:

For army service records after 1922: Army Personnel Records, CS(R)2b, Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF

For naval enlistment between 1924-1939:Royal Naval Records, DR2A, Navy Search, Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF

For naval enlistment after 1939:Naval Pay and Pensions, HMS Centurion, Grange Road, Gosport, Hampshire PO13 9XA

For personnel records after 1920s:PMA(CS)2a(2)a [officers], PMA(CS)2a(2)b [other ranks], RAF Innsworth, Gloucester GL3 1EZ

The National Archives also holds some army support services, royal marines, naval reserve units and merchant navy ‘service’ records.

Relevant Links:

The National Archives

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Imperial War Museum

Imperial War Museum, Duxford

National Army Museum

National Maritime Museum

Leave a Comment