This week on the Secret Library we hear from Local and Family History’s Josh Flint, who will be exploring the incredibly useful family history resource, military service records. This article will explore what military service records are, how to access them and how they can be useful for your own family history research.
Military personnel records were created as primarily administrative records and can contain information such as; enlistment, duty stations and assignments, training, qualifications, performance, awards and medals, disciplinary actions, emergency data, discharge/retirement and other personnel actions. You will not find detailed information about the soldier’s participation in military battles and engagements. Military diaries are often the best place to find information about the day to day life of a soldier or alternatively national and local newspapers can often offer information. Military service records offer a fascinating insight into the life of a soldier and can provide vital details about their lives outside of the army, including address, marital status, children and occupation.
How to find military service records?
The physical military records are mainly kept at the National Archives, the National Archives website does allow you to see some of these records online. A large number of military records have been digitised and are now available on family history websites such as Ancestry, Forces War Records and Family Search. Most of these collection databases are primarily for the First World War, as these records are now over one hundred years old and have become accessible to the public. The most common World War One databases on Ancestry are British Army Service WW1 Records 1914-1920, British Army WW1 Army Medal Index Cards 1914-1920 and British Army WW1 Army Pension Records 1914-1920.
Hint – Though World War One records can be found online, it must be remembered that only 40% of these records have survived, as the majority were destroyed due to bombing in the Second World War and later water and fire damage. So if you cannot find the record it does not mean that your ancestor didn’t serve in the military but just that those records may no longer exist.
The Second World War military service records are not yet publicly accessible. To access these records you will have to apply for a copy of them by using the Gov.uk website. If you are applying for military records of a family member then you will need to send a piece of identification to prove this. If you are applying for someone outside of your family then you will need to send the death certificate of the person that you are applying for, this is to countenance any attempted misuse of these military service records.
Hint – The Gov.uk is a very useful and easy website to navigate around, it must be noted that it may take several months to receive a copy of the military service records. You can ask for priority if needed quickly, though they will ask for a reason.
The Commonwealth War Graves website is an excellent place to start if you do not know if your ancestor fought in either World Wars. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintain the cemeteries and memorials but they also have an incredibly detailed database which is easily accessible through the Commonwealth War Graves website.
What information can I find on military service records?
This section will be examining the different types of military service records to see what information can be found and how this can be useful for you family history research. These example records will be using the World War One database records on Ancestry.com, which often include records from just before 1914.
Hint – Remember you can access Ancestry.com by using your Leeds Libraries card. You can read this really helpful Secret Library article on how to access Ancestry.com using your Leeds Libraries card. (This information was correct at time of writing – as of Dec 31 2021 Ancestry.com is only available to Leeds Libraries members in our Libraries)
British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914 – 1920
Though military service records do not give detailed information about how soldiers fought, they do offer other invaluable information including, age, address, regiment, regiment number, enrolment year, physical description with any identifying features and previous occupations. These records are often updated with new information during the military service, which could include a marriage or change of religion. When researching your family history it is very rare to find a description of your ancestor, military service records are one of the few places that can offer this.
We will now look through the military service records of a George Clark from Leeds and see what information we can find about him. As you can see here we have the start of George Clark’s service records and it has a number next to his name, this number is his regiment number which is 7526.
The first page of George Clark’s military service records gives the following information; he registered in 1908 to the Prince of Wale’s Own West Yorkshire Regiment at the age of 18 and 6 months. He was born in Leeds, was still living with his parents and worked as a nail maker before joining. The date George Clark joined the West Yorkshire Regiment was the 9th September 1908.
The second page of George Clark’s military service record is a physical description and army fitness. As previously mentioned it is very uncommon to find physical descriptions so this information is invaluable. George Clark is described as having brown hair, brown eyes, being 5ft 5 and was 107lbs. George is described as being fit for service. Interestingly, it is noted that George has a small mark at the bottom of the back. Making a note of distinctive marks was useful to see if the soldiers had previously had any diseases and illnesses and was also used as a way to identify the solder if they had died during their service.
The next page is a character description of George Clark by his former boss Mr J. Heperwell. This is a useful way for the army to confirm the soldiers identity through physical description and to learn more about their character. Again it is very uncommon to find thus type of personal information when researching your family history.
Service records are updated through the duration of the soldier’s service. Here we have an interesting update about George Clark which states that on the 22nd January 1917 he became a Catholic.
British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914 – 1920
The British Army Medal Rolls for the First World War is an excellent resource to see what medals your ancestor’s received during their military service. Here we have the index medal card for George Clark. George was awarded the medal for serving with the British Army, West Yorkshire Regiment during the Frist World War.
British Army WWI Pension Records 1914-1920
The last set of military service records that we will look at are Pension Records from the First World War. The Ancestry database contains service records of soldiers who were discharged from the Army and claimed a pensions for their service in WWI. These records contain medical information about the soldier’s time in service and where they were stationed.
This is the Pension Records of Francis Ernest Campling who was also part of the West Yorkshire Regiment during World War One. Campling’s Pension Records give a description of his physical features including that he was 5ft 1, and that he is married with three children who were living in Hunslet, Leeds. It also notes that Campling was of good character when he was serving.
Campling’s Pension Record then shows that he was stationed in France and developed a problematic cough from the ballistic weapons and this made him unfit to serve in the British Army. This was the reason that he was discharged in 1917 and was able to claim a pension.
There you have it, that is how you can find and use military service records for your family history research.Military service records can offer a fascinating yet tragic insight into the lives of your ancestors. They note physical and character descriptions that are rarely found when researching your family history.
We have a excellent selection of articles about how to use family history resources and where to find them,. If you would like to know more about military service records then please do not hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.