British Army World War 1 Records

British Army World War 1 Records

WW1 Records.

A bit of background…

At the beginning of the Great war in 1914 the peacetime army of Great Britain was about 234,000, with then a mobilization of 380,000 plus 313,000 from the Territorial Army, giving a nominal army of nearly 1,000,000 men from a population of 42.1 million[1], by the end of the war there had been well over 6,000,000 soldiers who had served in the British Army. All their records were maintained and stored by the War Office at the end of the hostilities[2], however bombing in 1940 resulted in destruction of probably 60% of these documents, the remainder, about 2,000,000 records were rescued, these are now classified as WO363 the ‘burnt documents’ in the National Archives[3], about 750,000 records were undamaged, records for soldiers who were discharged for illness or wounds, also including those 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 these are the unburnt documents  WO364 in the National Archive[4].

The reason for this preamble is if you had an ancestor involved in the British Army in the Great war there is about a 1 in 3 chance that some record of their service survived the second Total war of the 20th century. In the wider scheme of things, the destruction of paper records is little compared to the loss of life caused in war but to the family historian (and every other type of historian!) these records if you can find them are a vital source. Reason for which I hope to show you here…

Copyright will prevent me from showing an exact copy her but in a redacted form I will summarize one albeit a very fruitful one I discovered for a client. There were 20 pages in the record with some duplication.

The record is a UK, British Army World War I Pension Records 1914-1920 from WO363.

From the first page I know he was in the Territorial Force and the document is the Army Form B. 268A, it is a Discharge during the period of Embodiment document. On this page I get the Army Number and rank of the soldier. His full name and that he was in 4th Bn. The Welsh Regt and the Company he was in, in this case A.  His date of discharge ** April 1916 and place of discharge. There follows his age in years and months, and in a tangible delve into the past his height in feet and inches, chest measurement, complexion, eye colour, hair colour, any distinctive marks (such as scars etc.) his trade and civilian address where he intends to live, a cornucopia of detail.

Now I can get an insight into his character, his military conduct is noted (sometimes with a charge sheet). The Campaigns Medals and Decorations are recorded for example Mediterranean Expeditionary Force Gallipoli 1915-16 and his length of service over 8 years in this instance.

Because the form was official, he signed it, so his hand putting pen to the paper (copy) I can see and for me this is an even closer link to the person.

The next page in the set of documents I found was his Attestation into the Territorial Force, so I have his full name confirmed, his age at attesting, his full address and occupation at that time. Also, whether he had previously been in armed service. Finally, another signature, which can be compared with that of his discharge. This attestation also included the clause that he would become liable to be ‘embodied’ in a time of national emergency, a long way off when this particular form was signed in April 1908, I wonder if he had any inkling of what was to come, because the documents show he kept rolling along in the Territorial Force re-enlisting at least four times up until 1914.

The soldier’s statement of service in this period including his Territorial Army training is noted, so he can be placed in specific locations on certain dates, always useful, and on the document here, one sentence with huge connotations: “Welch Regt. 4th Batt. Mobilized rank Pte. 5th August 1914”.

His war service is then documented, he became part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force 1915-16, this page would also document wounding or Gallantry, in this instance the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.

His next of kin and address is provided on this page too, more invaluable detail for the genealogist.

There will sometimes in the war service record be a medical history with height, weight, chest, physical development, vaccination marks, sight assessment, distinguishing marks, previous illnesses etc. This soldier had been in the Military Hospital in Devonport with influenza, had recovered.

A specific casualty Form in Active service was kept if you can find one, I found this soldier’s, which gives an insight into battle conditions. He had dysentery in Gallipoli, in August 1915, was taken to Cairo for treatment in September 1915, transferred to Mustapha in Alexandria in October 1915, developed Dermatitis in November 1915, and was eventually discharged back to his battalion, but survived another few months for his period of enlistment to expire in 1916 and home.

So, for this family there was enough detail to touch the past.

In other military records from the Great War, I have found names and dates of birth of children, marriage records which the army used to prove next of kin, prisoner of war details and sometimes copies of letters sent to the War Office by family members. One poignant set were the letters of a wife asking about her husband, another soldier had written to her to say her husband was missing in action, reading between the lines the friend of the casualty ended up in trouble, the War Office wanted to know the name of the soldier writing to the (eventual) widow. There were a set of about 10 letters in this file kept by the War Office.

All the information found moves the names of the people found from mere words on paper or a screen to a vision of the real person, which even in sometimes tragic circumstance helps connect us, and whatever your thoughts on war gives an idea of the life and sacrifice happening at the time.

If you would like to know more get in touch, there are a myriad of record sources…

Subjects I haven’t covered here and which I certainly will in the next months include: Army Officers, Navy, Air Force, Merchant Seamen, Government papers, Gazettes, War Graves…


[1] Marwick, A., 1990. Europe on the eve of war 1900-1914. 4th ed. Milton Keynes: Open University Press in association with Open University, pp.66,67.

[2] Greatwar.co.uk. 2021. British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920 (Soldiers). [online] Available at: <http://www.greatwar.co.uk/research/military-records/british-soldiers-ww1-service-records.htm#:~:text=British%20Army%20WW1%20Service%20Records,%201914-1920%20(Soldiers)%20There,The%202%20Million%20%E2%80%9CBurnt%20Documents%20%E2%80%9D%20(WO%20363)> [Accessed 11 February 2021].

[3] Greatwar.co.uk. 2021. British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920 (Soldiers). [online] Available at: <http://www.greatwar.co.uk/research/military-records/british-soldiers-ww1-service-records.htm#:~:text=British%20Army%20WW1%20Service%20Records,%201914-1920%20(Soldiers)%20There,The%202%20Million%20%E2%80%9CBurnt%20Documents%20%E2%80%9D%20(WO%20363)> [Accessed 11 February 2021].

[4] Greatwar.co.uk. 2021. British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920 (Soldiers). [online] Available at: <http://www.greatwar.co.uk/research/military-records/british-soldiers-ww1-service-records.htm#:~:text=British%20Army%20WW1%20Service%20Records,%201914-1920%20(Soldiers)%20There,The%202%20Million%20%E2%80%9CBurnt%20Documents%20%E2%80%9D%20(WO%20363)> [Accessed 11 February 2021].

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