British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920 (Soldiers)

There were about 6-7 million soldiers (Other Ranks and Non-Commissioned Officers) who served with the British Army in the First World War. Each soldiers’ record of service was stored by the War Office after the First World War was over.

The 2 Million “Burnt Documents ” (WO 363)

Unfortunately about 60% of the soldiers’ Service Records were irretrievably damaged or lost completely as a result of enemy bombing in 1940 during the Second World War. The exact number of serving British soldiers is not known because of the loss of the records.

However, about a third, approximately 2 million, were saved from destruction. These records are known as the “Burnt Records”. Officially they are classed as WO 363 records, which is the reference number given to them by the National Archives.(The “WO” in the classification code stands for “War Office”.) As a result of the loss of so many of the First World War Service Records, there is now only a 40% chance that the Service Record of the individual you want to trace will be available to examine.

The surviving 2 million “Burnt Documents” Service Records are for soldiers who were discharged, demobilized at the end of the war, who died between 1914 and 1920 and who were not eligible for an Army pension. Some soldiers who were in the regular army before the outbreak of war in August 1914 may, however, be included in this class of records.

The Service Records will not include soldiers who continued to serve in the military after 1920. Their records are not available for public access.

The “Unburnt Documents ” (WO 364)

In addition to the 2 million or so “Burnt Documents ” there are also 750,000 Service Records which survived the Second World War bomb damage. These records are for soldiers who were discharged for medical reasons (illness or wounds) during the First World War. These records also include soldiers who were in the British Army before August 1914 and who were eligible for an Army pension because their term of service came to an end in or before 1920. This group of records are known as the “Unburnt Documents”. Their official classification by the National Archives is WO 364.

Service Records of the Household Cavalry

All the Service Records for Other Ranks and Non-Commissioned Officers of the Household Cavalry survived the Second World War in tact. These records are on microfilm and may be viewed by written appointment at the Household Cavalry Museum, Combermere Barracks, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 3DN.

Service Records of the Guards Regiments

The Service Records of the Guards Regiments are held by each regiment. They are not complete as some were damaged during the Second World War bombing too. Appointments to view documents can be made by contacting the regiment as appropriate.

Information Contained in Soldiers' WW1 Service Records

A soldier's Service Record will include information about an individual's military service from the date when he enlisted to the date when he was either discharged from the military or when he died while serving. The information held within the Service Record usually includes:

A number of forms are usually included in the Service Record as follows and as appropriate:

Access to Soldiers' WW1 Service Records

To help you when you are looking through the surviving Service Records it is recommended that you have the following information if possible:

The reason for this is that, unless the individual has an unusual name, there may be other men with exactly the same surname and initials and/or christian name in the records.

It is also worth bearing in mind that if a soldier served in the war for any length of time he might have been transferred to different battalions or regiments. This would likely have been the result of a requirement for drafts of men into other units which had suffered casualties in action. If this was so, he might have at least two or even three regiment designations and a different regimental number for each transfer. This information may be available from the medal records of an individual.

Where to View British Army Service Records

Surviving Service Records (WO 363) and Service Records with Pension Records (WO 364) are available to the public to view in two ways:

  1. They can be accessed on microfilm for free in person at the National Archives in Kew, where the original records are stored.
  2. In a joint project between the National Archives and www.ancestry.co.uk all 2.75 million surviving Service Records are being processed onto a database. The database contains images of the original records. Access to the online database is by subscription through www.ancestry.co.uk.

Related Reading

Cover of First World War Army Service Records by William Spencer

First World War Army Service Records: A Guide for Family Historians (Paperback)

by William Spencer

A best-selling guide providing expert advice on the records available to family historians online and at the National Archives. William Spencer has spent many years working at the National Archives and he offers invaluable advice for finding the right research material you need to help find what you are looking for in relation to the First World War. Published by The National Archives, illustrated 4th edition (31 July 2008), 160 pages, ISBN-10: 1905615264 and ISBN-13: 978-1905615261

Cover of Army Service Records of the First World War by Simon Fowler

Army Service Records of the First World War (Paperback)

by Simon Fowler, William Spencer and Stuart Tamblin

A short guide intended as an introduction to explain the Service Records which survived damage in the Second World War for soldiers and non-commissioned officers. Published by PRO Publications, Revised edition (Dec 1996), 65 pages, ISBN-10: 1873162316 and ISBN-13: 978-1873162316

Cover of Army Service Records of the First World War PRO Readers Guide by Simon Fowler

Army Service Records of the First World War (Public Record Office Readers Guide) (Paperback)

by Simon Fowler, William Spencer and Stuart Tamblin

This book offers an introduction to the Service Records which survived damage in the Second World War for soldiers and non-commissioned officers. There is information about searching the Officers' Service Records which were released in 1998 and held at the National Archives. The book also explains how to search the Medal Rolls available at the National Archives and other sources available to help discover the service history of an individual. Published by PRO Publications, 2nd Revised edition (Feb 1998), 99 pages, ISBN-10: 1873162553 and ISBN-13: 978-1873162552

Cover of Army Service Records (PRO Readers Guide) by William Spencer

Army Service Records of the First World War (Public Record Office Readers Guide) (Paperback)

by William Spencer

Expert advice from William Spencer, a well-known author and archivist working at the National Archives. The guide offers advice for examining the Service Records available at the National Archives. Published by PRO Publications, 3rd Revised edition (31 Aug 2001), 128 pages, ISBN-10: 1903365236 and ISBN-13: 978-1903365236

Useful Links

The National Archives, Kew, Surrey

Website: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Ancestry.co.uk

Website: www.ancestry.co.uk

Findmypast.co.uk

Website: www.findmypast.co.uk

Forces War Records

Website: www.forces-war-records.co.uk

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