World War 1 Army Service Records
The first thing that you have to appreciate is that the WW1 army records have had a rather unfortunate past. During WW2 the records were kept in the War Office in London as they were not seen as important enough documents to move them to safety elsewhere in the country. The records have come to be known as the “Burnt Records” with good reason, during a bombing raid there was a fire in the offices where they were stored and about 60% of the archive was destroyed. The remaining records suffered from water damage and some are charred round the edges. However the remains are a very important resource for the family historian.
About 5 million men served in the British Army so most families will have stories about a relative who fought in the first world war as time passes the stories will lose some of their details or may even be lost all together. The use of these documents and the adding of any information found into your family history can ensure the memory of these brave men will be honoured and preserved.
The records are held at The National Archives, London under the reference WO363 and under an agreement with www.ancestry.co.uk they were scanned and then indexed. As with any archive this collection was indexed using the information held in the document so if the original states the persons name as Edward Smith then that is what will be indexed. If you and your family have always referred to him as Teddy then a search under that name will almost certainly draw a blank or else bring up a record of someone else. Therefore use as many variations on the name, both forenames and surnames as you can think of until you either locate the correct record or are sure that the record searched for is amongst those that no longer exist.
If the person you are seeking does not figure amongst the surviving records then a search of the British Army Pension records may be successful as these survived the fire that destroyed the Service Records. I will be writing a separate lesson on these records.
What can you expect to find in these records?
Each file contains a number of forms that track the soldier through his time in the British Army. Some files are more complete than others as there is evidence of misfiling of information also you may find that there is more than one file for an individual.
Attestation forms were completed upon the enlisting of the soldier. They contain name, address, whether a British Subject, age, occupation, birthplace, whether married, whether served in the services before, several administrative questions and then the declaration and signatures of the enlistment officer, a JP and the soldier himself. This is just the first page!
The second page is very useful in identifying if the file is definitely that of your ancestor. The name, address and relationship is given for the next of kin is given as is the name of spouse, date and place of marriage and the name, date and place of birth of any children.Campaigns, medals awarded, education completed and various other items are also included in this second page.
Subsequent papers include details of postings and the time periods served, wounds received, promotions, demotions, medical history, discharge, demob certificate, absence passes and a variety of other documents. Each file is unique, I have seen files that contain reports on soldiers who are absent without leave, whose next of kin have died and the soldier is to be informed and reports on the moral conduct of the soldier.
These files can ranged from a couple of sheets of paper to fifty or more pages. At the very least you should expect to find the name, age, birthplace, occupation, regimental number and physical description of the person concerned. This information will help you in searching the Pension Records, Medal Cards, Soldiers died in the Great War publication and Commonwealth War Graves Register all of which are available on www.ancestry.co.uk and lessons on these datasets will be added to this website shortly.