Discover your ancestors among more than 7.8 million documents about the British Army between 1760 and 1920. Find officers and other ranks in 11 different sets of records from The National Archives. The records can tell you when your ancestor joined and left the army, as well as details about where he came from and his military service.
Each record comprises a transcript, and most include several black and white images (ranging from 1-100) of the records of your ancestors who served as officers and other ranks in the British Army.
The amount of detail in each transcript can vary depending on when the record was created and the purpose of the record, such as whether it was created for pension purposes or new recruits. Some of the First World War service papers in series WO 363 were damaged during the Second World War; therefore, the information gathered from these forms can be limited. In the transcripts, you may find a combination of the following items:
Service number (i.e. regimental number)
Age at attestation in years and months
Death date – if the individual died during service
Document type – attestation or discharge
Series – this gives you further clues to the context of the records; for example, the series WO 97 is titled Chelsea pensioners British Army service records 1760-1913, which explains that these are pension records from 1760-1913.
Archive and reference
The accompanying images may include additional information about your ancestor. Use the previous and next arrows on the images to view more pages. Further details may include
Physical description (including any distinctive markings)
Name and address of next of kin
Names of relatives
Pension applications and outcomes
Findmypast’s British Army service records is one of the most significant British Army collections available online. There are around 7.8 million records available. The collection includes a myriad of Army forms including attestation papers, medical forms, discharge documents, pension claims, and proceedings of regimental boards. The attestation form was completed when the soldier joined the regiment and was updated throughout his military career. This, together with other papers found in soldiers files can help piece together a very detailed picture of an individual. This search covers all available papers for each soldier.
Some of the medical reports found on attestation forms reveal how tough conditions could be for the men and how they reacted to these conditions. In the records, we discover that Reuben Booth (service number 29821) from the 10th Battalion suffered from trench foot and dental caries, but the doctor's notes state: ‘This man refuses dental treatment’. In addition, the doctor's notes of a medical report about a musician from Roden Hill, Marton, Buckinghamshire, claim that the man ‘walks with a marked limp which in my opinion is greatly exaggerated’.
The British Army service records include the names of both officers and other ranks. Commissioned officers include the ranks of general, brigadier, colonel, major, captain, and lieutenant. Until 1871, commissions (up to the rank of colonel) were purchased. The sale of commissions could lead to incompetent leadership, which became clear during the Crimean War and the ill-fated ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. It was abolished soon after. Non-commissioned officers, or other ranks, include privates, lance corporals and sergeants. Knowledge of your ancestor’s rank will help you with your search for military records. Many of the records in this collection were composed by the Royal Chelsea Hospital for pensions. The hospital first opened in 1682 for retired soldiers. A pensioner is either an ‘in-pensioner’, meaning that he or she resides at Royal Chelsea Hospital, or an ‘out-pensioner’ if he or she lives in a private residence. Women were first admitted to the Royal Chelsea Hospital in 2009. In-pensioners must surrender their pension to the hospital, be aged 65 or older (this was raised from 55), be able to live independently, and not have any dependents such as a spouse or children.
The British Army did not have a central record keeping system until the First World War. Most documents prior to 1914 come from individual regiments. The records comprise soldiers' attestation and discharge papers and form part of the War Office (WO) series of records now held at The National Archives in Kew. The War Office was the precursor of today's Ministry of Defence. Thousands of British Army records, especially from the First World War, were destroyed during the Second World War in September 1940 when enemy bombs hit the War Office Record Office, located on Arnside Street. What survived was eventually moved to The National Archives and subsequently microfilmed.
WO 22 - Royal Hospital Chelsea: returns of payment of Army and other pensions 1842-1883 In this series, you will find documents related to pensions paid by the Royal Hospital Chelsea. They will detail a soldiers’ change of residence and date of death. Furthermore, they detail the rate of pension paid and whether and when a pension was expired, reduced, renewed, or increased. The date of admission to out-pensioners will give you an indication as to when your ancestor retired from the armed forces.
WO 23 - Royal Hospital Chelsea: admission books, registers, and papers 1702-1876 This series was created to administer pensions payable by the commissioners of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, to both in-pensioners and out-pensioners. These superannuation books recorded your ancestor’s rank, department or regiment, date of commencement, rate of pension paid, and payment dates. Some of the books will have additional notes such as birth dates and whether your ancestor was an in- or out-pensioner.
WO 76 - Regimental records of officers' services 1775-1914
The records found in this series were created by individual regiments and pertain solely to officers. They do not include every regiment and the level of information for each regiment varies. In the documents, you can find your ancestor’s rank, regiment, service dates, commissioned ranks, and promotions. You may also be able to learn additional background about your ancestor prior to his joining the forces, for instance his date and place of birth and his education background, including if he could speak any foreign languages.
WO 96 - Militia service records 1806-1915 The WO96 series includes your ancestor’s attestation form, which was completed when he was recruited. The form includes marital status, occupation, details related to any previous service, residence, and next of kin. Each form recorded your ancestor’s medical examination; here you can find a physical description of your ancestor including height, hair colour, and eye colour. The forms were updated during his service and will have a full service history.
WO 97 – Chelsea: pensioners British Army service records 1760-1913 These records were collected and recorded to determine a person’s eligibility for a pension from the Royal Chelsea Hospital. They recorded an individual’s rank and regiment, service number, birth place, occupation, attestation date and service history. Some will include a statement about the person’s character and proceedings of the regimental board.
WO 121 - Chelsea: pensioners' discharge documents 1760-1887 The records found in this series are similar to WO97. This series contains some of the collections oldest records. They recorded a person’s birth place, the length of service, and why the soldier was discharged. For example, in the records we find Lieutenant Colonel Robert Able of Norwich, who was 43 years old when he was discharged, ‘Having the rheumatism and being worn out’ after serving for 20 years and 6 months.
WO 122 - Chelsea: pensioners' discharge documents, foreign regiments 1816-1817 These records are certificates of service for pensions from foreign regiments: King’s German Legion, Foreign Veteran Battalions, and the Royal Foreign Wagon Train. In this series, you will find your ancestor’s rank and regiment, home parish and length of service and regiment, as well as his physical description. Some of the documents include both portrait and landscape layouts; use the rotation feature on the left side of the image to rotate the image in order to read the document better.
WO 128 - Imperial Yeomanry, soldiers' documents, South African War 1899-1902 The soldiers featured in these records enlisted with the Imperial Yeomanry for a short period during the South African War. They are similar to other attestation records and contain the same information. The Imperial Yeomanry, a volunteer cavalry regiment, was created on 24 December 1899 by Royal Warrant because of a need for more troops in South Africa.
WO 131 - Chelsea: documents of soldiers awarded deferred pensions 1838-1896 This collection comprises 42,000 images relating to the records of 6,000 men for the period 1838-1896. You will find nominal rolls of soldiers awarded pensions as well as discharge documents of pensioners. The documents recorded a soldier’s rank and regiment, enlistment date, age at enlistment, promotions, reductions, and years of service. You may also find a statement about the soldier’s conduct and notes of distinguished service.
WO 339 - Officers' services, First World War, regular army and emergency reserve officers This series is presented on Findmypast as transcript-only. The transcripts were created from records and correspondences related to officers in the regular army and the emergency reserve during the First World War. These records have not yet been digitised but can be viewed in their original state at The National Archives, Kew, London.
WO 363 - First World War service records 'burnt documents' Around two-thirds of the 6.5 million WO 363 documents were destroyed during the bombing of the War Office Record Office in London in September 1940. Many of the surviving records, which pertain to the service of non-commissioned officers and men, were either burnt or damaged by water from the firemen’s hoses and are known as the “burnt documents.” Please note that the WO 363 series may contain poor quality images due to the fire and water-damaged condition of the original documents.
WO 364 - First World War pension claims WO 364 are service records of non-commissioned officers and men who were discharged from the British Army and who either claimed disability pensions for war service from 1914 to 1920 or who were deemed likely to claim a pension. These records were stored with the Ministry of Pensions and, therefore, escaped the bombing that so decimated the records we now find in WO 363. These records are unlikely to contain any papers for soldiers who were either killed in action and had no dependents or who were discharged as part of the demobilisation at the end of the First World War and did not claim a pension.
WO 374 - Officers' services, First World War, personal files This is an index of men who served as officers in the British Army during the First World War. Original papers for these men can be viewed in their original state at The National Archives, Kew, London. You can discover your ancestor’s rank, regiment and service number.
WO 400 - The Household Cavalry 1801-1919 The Household Cavalry is the oldest and most senior units in the British Army, dating back to 1600, and are the Queen’s official bodyguards. The Household Cavalry comprised the 1st Life Guards, 2nd Life Guards and the Royal Horse Guards. During the First World War, a fourth regiment, The Household Battalion, was also raised, and this collection contains the service records of non-commissioned officers and men who served with all four regiments. Today, The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment is stationed at Hyde Park Barracks and provides the army’s mounted state ceremonial duties, making them the public face of the British Army. These regimental records will provide you with your ancestor’s service history.
© Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England.
The National Archives give no warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for the purpose of the information provided.
Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education.
Applications for any other use should be made to:
The National Archives Image Library
Tel: 020 8392 5225
Fax: 020 8392 5266
Remember, some soldiers used an initial or a diminutive instead of a first name, so you should be aware of possible alternatives to your ancestor’s first name.
Begin your search with only the soldier’s name. Not all records included service number, regiment, or birth place.
When searching by regiment, it is important that you keep in mind that the names of regiments have changed throughout history. Originally, regiments took on the name of their colonel, and then in 1694, a number system was introduced (e.g. the 33rd Regiment of Foot). In 1751, regiments were given additional titles such as ‘Kings Own’. In 1782, regiments were attached to geographical areas, and by 1881, regiments no longer used their numerical titles but instead were known by their territorial titles. However, some regiments still used their numerical titles unofficially.