British Military Records
Director, Global Research Systems
A Division of The Everton Publishers [This article originally appeared in the September- October 1987 issue of Everton's Genealogical Helper. Some updates have been made to the article, and additions have been made to the Source list at the end of the article.]
Officers' Service RecordsFamily historians in the United States who can trace their roots back to an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, or the War of 1812, or the Civil War are often amazed and gratified by the amount of biographical data contained in the records of their military service. These records often contain details of their birth, residence and physical aspect, and of course, details of their service. Naturally, those whose ancestors fought in other contries and for other governments often wonder if they, too have access to similar records detailing the military involvement os their forefathers.
In this article, I want to explore some of the records available for genealogists as they research their ancestors who served in the British Army during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Obviously, this will not be an exhaustive study of the subject of British military records, nor even of all the record types discussed here. But it is intended to be a beginning point for those who wish to research their British military ancestors.
For those wishing to delve into the matter somewhat deeper, I have appended a list of sources containing a great deal more information than can be included in one magazine article. Most of the record types noted in this article are available at the Public Record Office in Kew, Surrey (the Public Record Office holding the majority of the military records), and many are available on microfilm through the LDS Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, or at one of its 1,500+ branch libraries worldwide.
Generally, an army's human components are viewed on two levels; officers and enlisted men. This division continues in the record keeping of biographical data. Of course, there were far more enlisted men than officers, and officers' records are usually more complete than those for those in the lower ranks, but even the records for the enlisted men contain quite a bit of information, and will be useful for any family historian. In this article, we'll discuss records available for the officers who served in the British Army.
Most of the records for the British military are arranged along regimental lines, so the usual starting point is to determine which regiment your ancestor belonged to. If this is already known, the regimental files can be examined directly. However, If you don't know which regiment your officer/ancester was assinged to, a good place to begin is with the Army Lists.
Army ListsThe first official Army List was published in 1740, and they were published annually from 1754 through 1878, then quarterly from 1879 through 1922. Since 1939 they have been classified, and thus not available to the general public.
Earlier commisions can be traced using Charles Daltons' English Amy Lists and Commision Registers, 1661-1714 and his George I's Army, 1714-1727.
The Army Lists begin with a list of the officers by rank, generals through lieutenants, giving their name and the date they received their commision to that rank. Following this the officers and their assignments are shown by regiment, beginning with the cavalry and following in order through the regiments of foot. The regiment listings include the number and name (or names) of the regiment, the names and ranks of the officers, and the dates of their commisions in the Army and their assignment to that regiment. Beginning in 1766 these Army Lists are indexed, and begining in 1798 they include the location of the regiment at that time. These Army Lists are available at the Public Record Office (in War Office (W.O.) files 64, 65 and 66), or at the LDS Family History Library.
Regimental Records of ServiceOnce the regimental assignment has been established, the Records of Officers' Services (W.O. 76) can be searched for data on your ancestor. The earliest of these regimental records begins in 1771, the last ending in 1919. Again, these service records are available at the Public Record Office in Surrey, at the LDS Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, or at one of the LDS Branch Genealogical Libraries. These files are arranged by regiment, with an alphabetic index in the front of each volume. After the index come lists of succession for the offices in the regiment, giving the name of the officer, the exact date of his appointment, his age in months and years at the time of his appointment, his country of origin, and the date of his first commision in the Army. Columns are also available for the name of the officer he replaced and why, and remarks on the officer. This section is followed by the Statements of Sevice for each of the officers. This is the heart of the officers' service file. Although the exact contents of each file will vary from regiment to regiment, they generally contain more information as time goes on.
The Statement of Service from volume 61, for the Surrey (70th) Regiment of Foot covers two pages and contains a wealth of information on the officer. His full name is given at the top, along with his birth date and place, regimental assignment, and his age at the time of his entrance to the Army. Information on the ranks he attained, pay, regimental assignments, instances of distinguished service, medals, wounds, and foreign service are all provided in some detail. Genealogists will especially appreciate the sections of the Statement form devoted to the details of his marriage, and the names and birth data concerning the officer's legitimate children.
Certificates of birth, marriage and death for both officers and members of their families can also be found in War Office file number 42.
Using the details from the service record, a family historian can go directly to the appropriate registers of the parish in which the officer was born for information on his parentage. If the officer was married, the service record's indications of the marriage date and place, as well as the birth information on his children, will prove equally valuable.
Enlisted Men's Service RecordsAs with the service records of officers who served in the British Army, the key to locating the record of an enlisted man is the name of his regiment. Occasionally the regiment in which an ancestor served is known from the outset, but all too often the only facts known about an ancestor's service are when and where he served. Even with these sparse facts it is often possible to pin down the one regiment, or at most, a handful of regiments that were in service in that particular place and time.
Determining the RegimentThere are several books devoted to the subject of the regiments and corps of the British Army, but the genealogist may find particularly useful a trio of books discussing the history and accoutrements of the British regiments. The Regimental Records of the British Army, by John S. Farmer contains information on the names and nicknames of the regiments, their uniforms and badges, dates of formation, honors attained by the troops, and lists of their principal campaigns and battles.
A Guide to the Regiments and Corps of the British Army, by J.M. Breton includes much of the same information, although the information on battles and campaigns is sketchier. Closer to Farmer's volume is Arthur Swinson's A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army. As with the other two books, this one is organized by precedence of the corps, beginning with the cavalry regiments and proceeding through the foot guards and regiments of foot. Again, the regimental listings include both the formal titles and nicknames borne by the regiment, a chronological list of the major campaigns and battles fought, and a short history of the regiment.
To locate the proper regiment, you begin with what is known about your ancestor. This could be the fact that he took part in a certain battle, or wore a certain type of uniform, or belonged to a regiment with a certain nickname. Then, you go through the regimental listings seeknig for one (or more) that would conform the the facts as you understand them.
For example, if your ancestor was posted to Gibraltar in the early part of the eighteenth century, he may have served in the 30th (or Cambridge) Foot Regiment. This regiment was stationed on Gibraltar during 1704 and 1705, and at the time was known as Colonel Thomas Sanders Regiment of Marines. Nicknames included The Triple X's and The Three Tens, both of which were obviously based on the number of the regiment.
Station ReturnsAnother source of information on regiments that can be useful if you already know that your ancestor was stationed in a particular place at a particular time is the collection of Station Returns (W.O. 17), located in the Public Record Office. These Returns are yearly lists of the disposition of Army regiments, beginning in 1759. If, for example, you know that your ancestor was in Egypt in 1882, these lists can be searched for a list of the regiments stationed in Egypt at that time.
Once you have determined the regiment in which your ancestor served, you will want to search two sets of records; the Muster Rolls and the Regimental Description Books.
Muster RollsThe Muster Rolls are also deposited in the Public Record Office. These lists were compiled quarterly, and are arranged in volumes covering a twelve month period. Although these volumes do not contain as much personal information as the Regimental Description Books, they are helpful in establishing the dates of enlistment and discharge (or death). The first entry in these rolls for each soldier should indicate his age, while the last entry should show his birthplace, non-military occupation, and the date of his enlistment.
There are several series of these Muster Rolls, bearing War Office (W.O.) numbers 10 through 16. The three most comprehensive are; W.O. 10, containing Muster Rolls for the artillery for 1708-1878, W.O. 11, Muster Rolls for engineers for 1816-1878, and W.O. 12, the general series, with Muster Rolls for the cavalry, foot guards and regiments of foot for 1732-1878.
Regimental Description BooksThe Regimental Description and Succession Books (W.O. 25) are available at the Public Record Office in Surrey, with microfilm copies being available at the LDS Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, or at one of the latest dates are 1756 and 1900, there is some variation between regiments. Volumes 266 through 688 cover the regular Army regiments, with a separate file of bundles for engineers, and another set of bundles for officers.
These Description Books begin with an index (using the first letter of the surname only), and follow with the entries in chronological order. The entries contain quite a lot of detail, filling 39 columns across two pages. Each entry begins with the full name of the soldier, the number of the company in the regiment he was assigned to, his height (both at the time of enlistment and at age 24), and his age (in years and days) at the time of his enlistment.
The next four columns describe the soldier's complexion, the color of his eyes and hair, the form of his visage, and whether he had any physical marks. The country or town and parish of his birth are given (but not the date), and any occupation he had outside of the military is noted. The date, place, and period of enlistment are all given, along with the name of the person by whom the soldier was enlisted. Details of any previous military service and dates of promotion are also noted, as well as the details of desertion, transfers, discharges, and if applicable, where and when the soldier died. The final column is reserved for comments on the soldier's character and conduct while in the service of his country.
The mobility indicated in these books can be amazing. An example is John Kennedy, a brass-foundry worker who was born in Dublin. In 1808 at the age of 19, John Kennedy enlisted in the 1st Foot Regiment on the Isle of Wight after serving eight months with the 17th Light Dragoons (later known as the 17th Lancers). He served in the seventh company of The (Royal) 1st Regiment of Foot until 1831, when he was pensioned at York. Presumably he also accompanied the regiment during its tours of duty in Europe, Iberia, America and India.
In short, service records for the enlisted man can provide far more than the bare facts of his birth, enlistment, and discharge from service or death. They can also give an accurate personal description of his physical condition and character, and chronicle both his military service and his civilian occupation. For the descendant of a British Soldier they are in invaluable.
Pension RecordsThree of the main record types available at the Public Record Office which contain pension information are the Chelsea Regimental Registers (War Office file 120), the records of Soldiers Discharged Through Chelsea Hospital (W.O. 97), and the Applications for Pensions for Widows and Children [of officers], 1755-1908 (W.O. 42).
Like many of the other records concerning British Army personnel in the early part of the nineteenth century, the pension records discussed in this article are organized along regimental lines. So, to use them efficiently, you must know which regiment your ancestor served in before you can begin.
Chelsea Regimental RegistersThe Chelsea Regimental Registers are available both at the Public Record Office and the LDS Family History Library (and its associated Family History Centers). The first fifty volumes of these registers cover the period of about 1715-1843, and are arranged chronologically by the date of admission (to the hospital) within each army regiment. The last twenty volumes include the years 1845-1857, noting the actual pensions being paid. In this second series, the admissions occuring prior to 1845 have been arranged by the rate of the pension, while those after 1845 are recorded chronologically.
Here again, we find an excellent picture of the soldier, in this case, at the time of his admission to the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. The register book includes his full name, date of admission to the hospital, his age, rank(s), time of service, and the rate of pay. The column noting his "complaint" (reason for hospitalization) often includes mention of where the illness was contracted, of the wound was suffered. Finally, the registers give the town and county of birth, civilian occupation, and miscellaneous remarks.
The Regimental Registers can also be found at the Public Office in W.O. 23, with extensions to 1876
Soldiers Discharged Through Chelsea HospitalThese documents, filed as W.O. 97, were compiled at the same time as the Regimental Registers, and thus contain much of the same information.
Here, the data is recorded on seperate sheets for each man, rather than in a register format as the records in W.O. 120. The 1,279 volumes in the series are arranged alphabetically within each regiment, covering a period approxiamately from 1760 through 1872.
The form itself is used to chronicle the soldier's service, and to provide proof of his discharge from the military. Among the information included in his full name, town and county of birth, date, place and term of enlistment, and the period of his service (in years and days) from the time of his eighteenth birthday. This allows for an easy calculation of the exact date of his birth.
His service record notes all of the regiments in which he served, with both beginning and ending dates, ranks attained, and the total service rendered, again in years and days, in each rank and regiment. Service in either the East or West Indies is noted seperately. The reason for his discharge (illness or wounds) is given, as are remarks on his general conduct while in the service, and notations on his height, complexion, ye and hair color, and civilian occupation. The form is dated and signed by both the discharged soldier and his commanding officer.
As with the Regimental Registers, these Soldiers' Documents can be obtained on microfilm through the LDS Family History Library and its Family History Centers, with the originals being deposited at the Public Record Office.
Pension ApplicationsTo make a proper application for pension benefits, the widow or her children had to include a variety of documents proving both military service by the officer to the Crown, and their legitimate relationship to the deceased officer. Thus, the Applications for Pensions for Widows and Children (W.O. 42) are organized into numbered bundles, each including the application for the pension along with the supporting documents. These bundles have then been filed alphabetically by the surname of the officer, with bundle numbers beginning anew at one for each letter of the alphabet (e.g., bundles 1-203 for the letter A, 1-739 for B, etc.). The time period covered by these documents is 1755-1908.
Although the exact contents of each bundle varies somewhat, it is possible to find statements of service and commission for the deceased officer, as well as certificates of birth, marriage or death. In the absence of civil certificates (which began in 1837), there are usually signed statements certifying legitimate marriages and births. Of course, these certificates ans statements include the names of the persons involved, with the date and location of the birth (or baptism), marriage, or death (or burial) indicated.
As is the case with the Regimental Registers and the Soldiers' Discharge papers, these Pension Applications can be consulted at the Public Record Office in Surrey, the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or at an LDS Family History Center.
In this article on British military records, I've been able to cover several collections and their contents, but by no means have I exhausted the list of such records available for research by genealogists and historians. If you wish to go into the records available at a greater length, you should consult the list of sources at the end of the article. Of special interest are Hamilton-Edwards' In Search of Army Ancestry, and Records of Officers and Soldiers Who haved served in the British Army, an excellent booklet published by the Public Record Office.
Certainly seeking information on military ancestors is not always a bed of roses, but the records available can make the study fascinating, while providing a variety of unexpected rewards for the diligent researcher.
Sources for Further StudyA Guide to the Regiments and Corps of the British Army on the Regular Establishment, by J.M. Brerton (The Bodley Head, London - Sydney - Toronto, 1985).
A Guide to the Sources of British Military History, by Robin Higham (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, England, 1972).
An Annotated Bibliography of the British Army, 1660-1914, by A.P.C. Bruce (Garland Publishing Inc., New York, 1975).
A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army, by Arthur Swinson (The Archive Press, London, 1972).
Army Records for Family Historians, by Simon Fowler (Public Record Office Publications, Public Record Office, CHancery Lane, London WC2A 1LR, England, 1992).
British Army, 1660-1914: A Bibliography, by A.P.C. Bruce (Garland Publishing, New York - London, 1975).
English Army Lists and Commision Registers, 1661-1714 (6 volumes) by Charles Dalton (Francis Edwards Ltd., London, England, 1960).
In Search of Army Ancestry by Gerald K. Hamilton-Edwards (Phillimore & Co. Ltd., Chichester, Sussex, England, 1977).
Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, c/o The National Army Museum, Royal Army Road, Chelsea, London SW3 4HT, England.
LDS Genealogical Library, 35 North West Temple Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84150.
Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, England.
Records of Officers and Soldiers Who Have Served in the British Army (Public Record Office, London, England).
Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office by Jane Cox and Timothy Padfield (Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, England, 1984).