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10. The Armed Forces

General information

The Royal Navy and merchant navy

The army

The Royal Air Force



Even before the mass conscription of the two World Wars, the army and the navy provided an occupation or a career for large numbers of men from all strata of society. There can be few British families without some ancestors who served in the forces.

Because of this, military records have been high on the list for indexing and digitization. The National Archives itself has made them a major focus of its digital document service (p. 58), and all the major commercial data services offer a range of military records. There are many sites dedicated to those who have fallen in war, particularly the First World War. Also, the widespread interest in military history means there are a host of well-informed non-commercial sites, which, even if they do not list individual names (and are often not graphically appealing), provide useful historical information.

General information

There are two official sites for information on the armed forces and their records: The National Archives and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Linked from ‘iHelp with your research’ at <>, The National Archives has pages giving basic information on how to trace ancestors in the forces, covering some three dozen categories of service, under the headings ‘Army’, ‘Navy’, ‘Air’, ‘Marines’, and ‘PoWs and conscientious objectors’. TNA’s extensive series of research guides at <> provide more detail on individual classes of record, how they are organized and how to locate and understand them.

The MoD site at <>, while mainly devoted to the present-day forces, has detailed pages on the location of recent service records, and provides many contact addresses. Each branch of the services has its own website within the MoD’s internet domain: <>, <> and <>. Beyond these central bodies, there are the individual regiments, ships, squadrons and other units, many of which have their own web pages with historical information. The easiest way to find these is from the official site for the relevant arm of the services, which has links to its constituent units. The MoD site does not offer information about individuals, but the page on ‘Making a Request for Information held on the Personnel Records of Deceased Service Personnel’ at <> gives details of how to apply for copies of service records for all branches of the services where they have not already been lodged at The National Archives.

Genuki has pages devoted to Military Records at <> and Military History at <>. Cyndi’s List has a page devoted to UK & Irish Military at <>, which covers all branches of the services, while her ‘Military Resources Worldwide’ page at <> has more general material. There are individual collections of links for the two World Wars at <> and <>. UKMFH has over 1,200 links covering all aspects of UK military family history at <>, including over 130 museums.

The London Gazette (p. 197) contains details of officer appointments in the armed forces, and the text search facility on the site at <> can be used to do a name search.

The Scots at War site at <> concentrates mainly on the twentieth century. It has a Commemorative Roll of Honour with service and biographical information on Scottish servicemen.

Britains [sic] Small Wars at <> covers the period from 1945 up to the present and has extensive information about each war, including in many cases lists of casualties. British Armed Forces and National Service 1947–1963 at <> is a site with historical information about the period of national service, the various units active in the period, and ‘Servicemen’s Tales’ from both national service conscripts and regular servicemen.

There are quite a few sites devoted to particular wars or battles, such as Electric Scotland’s pages on the Battle of Culloden <>. Some are devoted to a war as a whole, such as the Trenches on the Web site at <>, which is subtitled ‘An Internet History of The Great War’. While you can locate such sites by using a search engine, it will often be less time-consuming to start by looking for an article on the engagement on Wikipedia, which will have links to recommended sites and sources.

RootsWeb has a number of mailing lists devoted to particular wars, including:

WW20-ROOTS-L is devoted to ‘genealogy in all twentieth century wars’. Details for all these lists can be found by using the ‘Find a mailing list’ search at <>.

British-Genealogy has discussion forums devoted to the following conflicts:

Links to these will be found at <>.

The Royal Navy and merchant navy

Although the merchant navy is not an arm of the state, it has long been subject to government regulation. There has always been movement between the Royal Navy and the merchant fleet, and many ancestors will have served in both. For those reasons, they are treated here together.

The official Royal Navy site at <> has separate sections for each branch of the service, including ships, submarines, the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Marines and naval establishments, all linked from the ‘The Fleet’ menu on the home page. An extensive ‘History’ section will be found at <>. There is no material specifically on family history.

The National Maritime Museum has over 70 research guides devoted to maritime history on the Royal Museums Greenwich site at <>. Two of these are devoted specifically to tracing ancestors in the Royal Navy and merchant navy, and there is a general introduction to ‘Tracing family history from maritime records’, but others that will be of interest are the guides to passenger lists, shipping companies, Lloyd’s List, press gangs, and uniforms and medals.

Genuki has a page of merchant marine links at <>, while the Royal Navy is included in its Military Records and Military History pages mentioned above.

A site with a substantial collection of naval resources is Paul Benyon’s ‘Late 18th, 19th and early 20th Century Naval and Naval Social History’ at <>. It includes extracts from many different types of source, from Navy regulations to newspaper reports, and many include names of individual seamen.

The MARINERS mailing list is for all those whose ancestors pursued maritime occupations, worldwide. The list has its own website at <> with sections devoted to individual countries, as well as more general topics such as wars at sea, and shipping companies. The site also has a guide to ranks in both the Royal and merchant navy at <’sLocker.html>. The MERCHANT-MARINE mailing list covers Merchant Marines of all countries involved in the Second World War, and details will be found at <>. There is also a BRITISH-MARINERS list — details at <>.

In addition to the NMM’s site at <>, almost 300 maritime museums in the British Isles are listed at <>.


Since the majority of naval records are held by The National Archives, one of the best places to find out about them is the collection of online research guides at <>, where the relevant materials are grouped under ‘Royal Navy’, ‘Merchant seamen’ and ‘Merchant shipping’. The ‘Looking for a person?’ at <> has links to introductory material about naval records.

For a more discursive guide to naval records, Fawne Stratford-Devai’s articles on the Global Gazette site are recommended, ‘British Military Records Part 2: THE ROYAL NAVY’ at <> and ‘Maritime Records & Resources’ in two parts, at <> and <>. Among other things, these articles have very useful lists of some of the main groups of records which have been microfilmed by the LDS Church and can therefore be consulted at Family History Centers. (Note, however, that these articles have not been updated for sometime and many of the external links are no longer correct.)

Other guides to tracing seafaring ancestors include Bob Sanders’s site at <>, which has an extensive collection of material on ‘Tracing British Seamen & their ships’, including not only naval occupations but also Fishermen, Customs & Excise Officers and Coastguards. Len Barnett has what he calls ‘a realistic guide to what is available to those looking into merchant mariners’ careers’ at <>.

The National Archives’ Discovery service (p. 58) offers around a dozen series of naval service records, including:

Naval records available on other commercial sites include:

The National Library of Scotland has digitized and donated to the Internet Archive 100 volumes of The Navy List covering the periods of the two World Wars. All volumes are linked from <> (Figure 10-1). Familyrelatives has around 20 Navy List volumes, mainly from the twentieth century.


Figure 10-1: The Navy List, January 1914 (Internet Archive)

There are many data transcriptions relating to seamen to be found on websites run by individuals. For example, Bob Sanders has an index to O’Byrne’s Royal Navy Biography of 1849 with details of Royal Navy officers on six separate pages, linked from his site mentioned above, as well as many other small data collections. The Naval Biographical Database is an ambitious project at <> to ‘establish accurate biographical information on those individuals who have served, or supported the Royal Navy since 1660’. So far the site has details of around 21,500 people and 5,000 ships. The site is basically free, though there is a charge for more detailed information.

The National Archives has a Trafalgar Ancestors database, launched on the 200th anniversary of the battle, at <>, with over 18,000 names drawn from a wide range of sources. There is much further information about the battle and about Nelson. The Age of Nelson at <> has a complete Navy List for the period of the Napoleonic Wars. It also has a project to trace the descendants of those who fought at Trafalgar, as well as its own Trafalgar Roll.

Among the sites devoted to merchant seamen is Irish Mariners at <>, which contains an index of around 23,000 Irish-born merchant seamen, extracted from records in the Southampton Civic Archives for the period from late 1918 to the end of 1921. A particular interest of these records is that they include photographs. Welsh Mariners at <> has a database of 23,500 Welsh merchant seamen, 1800—1945, and over 3,000 men active in the Royal Navy 1795—1815, which therefore includes Welshmen at Trafalgar.

A major undertaking is the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) at <>. The site does not list names of individuals, but it has a wealth of information about crew lists, and how to locate them, including indexes of the lists held at The National Archives and in local record offices.


There are a number of sites relating to the ships rather than the seamen who served on them, and these can be useful for background. For example, Gilbert Provost has transcribed details of vessels from Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping from 1764 up to 2003 at <>. Michael P. Palmer maintains the Palmer List of Merchant Vessels at <>, which has descriptions of hundreds of merchant vessels, compiled from a variety of sources. Both sites provide names of masters and owners as well as information on the ships themselves. Steve Johnson provides a ‘photographic A to Z of British Naval warships, submarines, and auxiliaries from 1880 to 1950s’ at <>. Through Mighty Seas at <> is devoted to the merchant sailing ships of the North West and the Isle of Man and has histories of over 950 vessels.

If you suspect that an ancestor was on a naval vessel, either in port or at sea, on census night in 1901, you should find Jeffery Knaggs’s index to the location of Royal Navy ships at <> of interest. Bob Sanders has a similar list of Ships in UK Ports for the 1881 census at <>.

The army

The official army site at <> has information about the present-day service, and the pages on ‘Who We Are. Corps, regiments and units’ at <> give an overview of how the army is organized. It has a listing of all current divisions, brigades, corps and regiments. There is limited historical information on these pages.


The National Archives’ ‘Looking for a person?’ page has links to introductory material on tracing army ancestry and there is more detailed guidance on the records in the research guides. Genuki has a page devoted to British Military History at <>, and an article by Jay Hall on ‘British Military Records for the 18th and 19th Centuries’ at <>. There is a useful article by Fawne Stratford-Devai devoted to ‘British Military Records Part 1: The Army’ in The Global Gazette at <>.

The National Archives Discovery service is the main source of information for all service records for individual solders. In some cases, it includes the names of individual soldiers from documents in class WO 97, which comprises discharge papers for the period 1760–1854 (Figure 10-2). TNA has a range of army records available for paid download, linked from the guides at <> and including:

Among the records available on the commercial data services are:


Figure 10-2: A search result in the Soldiers Service Documents (WO97)

The National Roll of the Great War is available at both Findmypast and Ancestry.

The National Library of Scotland has deposited scans of around 200 volumes of Hart’s Army List with the Internet Archive at <>, covering the periods 1840–1918 and 1938–46.


While the army website has information on the present-day structure, over the centuries the regiments have not been very stable in either composition or naming. In particular, the last few decades have seen an extensive series of regimental mergers. Since the crucial piece of information about any ancestor in the army is the regiment or unit he served in, you are likely to need historical information for the specific period when an ancestor was in uniform. The essential resource for regimental history is T. F. Mills’s Land Forces of Britain, the Empire and Commonwealth site at <>. The site closed down in 2008 but is preserved at the Wayback Machine (29 January 2008). The site not only provides detailed background information on the regimental system, but also lists the regiments in the army in particular years since the eighteenth century.

An alternative comprehensive source of information on regiments is Wikipedia’s ‘List of British Army regiments’ article, which gives the present-day regiments and has links to equivalent lists for a number of earlier dates, as well as a useful list of regimental nicknames. There are, as you would expect, quite extensive articles on the individual regiments.

For details of the regiments active in the Indian subcontinent, the Families In British India Society Wiki (see p. 178) is a good source. The entry point for all articles on military subjects is at <>. The site also has details of the East India Company’s military presence in India.

Many individuals have put up pages on particular regiments, sometimes in relation to a specific war or engagement. There is no single comprehensive listing of these, but you should be able to find them by entering the name of the regiment in a search engine.

There is a very active britregiments mailing list, details of which will be found at <>. Note that this is a military rather than genealogical discussion forum.

While the Wikipedia article on an individual regiment generally includes a photograph of a cap badge, this will not help if you need to identify an unknown regimental cap badge. But, there are plenty of illustrations on the sites of commercial dealers — just do a search on ‘army cap badges’. There is a discussion forum devoted to the topic, the British & Commonwealth Military Badge Forum, at <>. If you want to know what uniform an ancestor wore, or are trying to identify a photograph, the illustrations from two booklets by Arthur H. Bowling on the uniforms of British Infantry Regiments 1660–1914 and Scottish Regiments 1660–1914 are online at <>. Otherwise, you will need to browse through some of the online photographic collections, such as Photographs of Soldiers of the British Army 1840 to 1920 at <>.

The Army Museums Ogilby Trust’s site at <> has details of 136 museums, which can be located by name or by geographical area. For each museum, there is a link to its website if there is one. The National Army Museum in Chelsea has a website at <>. A list of Scottish military museums is provided on the Scottish Military Historical Society’s website at <>. Regimental museums can also be found via the regiment’s page on the army website.

The Royal Air Force

The official RAF site is at <>, with a list of squadrons and stations linked from the ‘Organisation’ page at <>. The History section at <> offers historical material on individual squadrons and stations, with images of squadron badges, and details of battle honours and aircraft. If you have an ancestor who took part in the Battle of Britain, you will want to look at the operational diaries at <>. Contact details (non-electronic) for RAF Personnel records are given at <>.

So far, Familyrelatives at <> seems to be the only commercial data service with RAF-specific collections, offering Second World War RAF Deaths, and RAF lists for 1920, 1922, 1929 1949 and 1954. The National Archives has a small number of records for the RAF, linked from the guides at <>, including Royal Air Force Officers’ Service Records (AIR 76) and WRAF service records (Series AIR 80) for the First World War.

Although not strictly RAF records, Ancestry’s collection of Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates, 1910–1950 at <> will include details of many who had been or were to be RAF pilots in the two World Wars. This collection includes around 28,000 index cards and 34 photograph albums.

The RAF Museum has a website at <>, and the pages for the museum’s Department of Research & Information Services at Hendon have information on archive and library material at <>.

There do not seem to be any genealogical mailing lists specifically for the RAF, though the general lists for twentieth-century wars mentioned on p. 149 above will cover RAF interests.


The National Archives has five main research guides on medals and their records, all linked from <>:

An increasing number of the records relating to medals are available for download and are linked from the relevant research guides, currently including:

The first of these is particularly important since it includes almost all who served overseas, including many whose service records do not survive.

Ancestry has a database of the Silver War Badge Records, 1914–20 for around two million individuals at <>. This was awarded to ‘all military personnel who had served at home or overseas since 4 August 1914 and who had been discharged because of wounds or illness’. The records give enlistment and discharge dates, and unit discharged from, which again can substitute for lost service records.

Details of gallantry awards were posted in the London Gazette, which can be searched at the Gazettes Online website, described in more detail on p. 197.

There are many other sites devoted to medals, though mostly without information on recipients. In particular, Wikipedia has an extensive set of pages devoted to British military medals and awards. The most general starting page is ‘Military awards and decorations of the United Kingdom’, but for a specific medal, just type the name of the medal into the search box on the home page at <>. For the Victoria Cross, George Cross, George Medal and Military Medal, there are pages listing the recipients and linking to biographies with details of the action for which the award was made. Stephen Stratford has information on gallantry medals, with photographs, at <>.

Google’s image search at <> (see p. 343) will quickly find images of a particular medal. Medals of the World has an extensive collection of images of medals and ribbons for many countries at <> (Figure 10-3). A handy ‘Medals of Great Britain’ page with images of the gallantry and campaign medals of the First World War is at <>.

The MoD Medal Office has details of all medals available to living veterans at <> and the ‘British Armed Forces Medals Booklet’ has images of all gallantry and campaign medals awarded since the start of the Second World War.


Figure 10-3: Medals of the World


There are many online resources which commemorate those who served in the armed forces and particularly those who fell in action.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The most important collection of online data relating to twentieth-century service personnel who gave their lives is that held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) at <>. This was one of the first major databases of genealogical significance to go online when it was launched in 1998, and contains the names of 1.7 million members of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars.

For all those listed there is name, rank, regiment and date of death, with details either of place of burial or, for those with no known grave, of commemoration. The burial information gives not only the name of the cemetery but also the grave reference and instructions on how to get to the cemetery. Some records have additional personal information, usually including the names of parents and the home address. With many cemeteries holding the dead from particular battles and campaigns, there is often historical information which puts the death in its military context. The database also includes information on 60,000 civilian casualties of the Second World War, though without details of burial location.

The initial search form on the home page allows you to specify surname, initials, the service (i.e. army, navy, etc.) and war. However, unless you have an unusual surname, this will almost certainly give you an unwieldy number of results, so it is better to use the Advanced Search which allows you to enter a wide range of additional details, including rank, regiment, any gallantry award and a date range. The ‘Regiment’ search field only works, though, if you enter the name of an individual regiment — if you enter, say, ‘artillery’, you will get a drop-down list of artillery regiments to choose from, which unfortunately does not help if all you know is that an ancestor was ‘in the artillery’. One thing to watch out for is that if you enter a full forename rather than an initial, you need to select the ‘Forename’ check-box, otherwise you will get no results at all. But any search on a forename includes in the results all forenames beginning with the same letter, so the forename option does not in fact narrow down your results, as you can see from Figure 10-4, the results of a search for the record of my great uncle Frederick George Marshall. This is a manageable set of six results but if you get dozens or even hundreds of results, which will often be the case if you have only a name to search on, you can sort them on any column. The ‘Filter Results’ form in the left-hand panel makes it easy to refine your search if you get too many or too few results.


Figure 10-4: Commonwealth War Graves Commission search results

Each name in the search results links to a page giving the details for the soldier (see Figure 10-5). In this instance, in addition to the basic details of rank, regiment and date of death, the record shows the names and address of his parents, which makes it possible to be sure of identification. The bottom part of the screen gives details of the cemetery and grave or memorial, which often includes information on the particular engagements. The ‘Find out more’ link brings up a page of cemetery details, with further links to plans and photographs. For each cemetery there is a complete list of casualty records.


Figure 10-5: Commonwealth War Graves Commission individual record

Because the search results sometimes give only the initials of the individuals, it can be quite time-consuming to search for someone whose regiment is unknown, though in some cases an age is given. Unfortunately, next of kin is not always named, so for common names you may need ultimately to look at service records to confirm the identity of a particular entry.

A useful feature, particularly for one-namers, is the ability to download the entire results table in a format which can then be opened in a spreadsheet or database.

A separate project, but one being carried out in association with the CWGC, is the War Graves Photographic Project <> which aims to ‘photograph every war grave, individual memorial, MoD grave and family memorial of serving military personnel from WWI to the present day’. In January 2012, the site had around 1.7 million names in its database (Figure 10-6). Photos of the headstones can be ordered.

In addition to the CWGC data, the Officers Died site at <> lists officers killed in a whole range of wars from the North American Wars of the eighteenth century to Afghanistan in 2009, compiled from various books, casualty lists, medal rolls, newspapers, and memorials.

The same site has pages devoted to Soldiers [sic] Memorials at <>.


Figure 10-6: The War Grave Photographic Project: the war poet Isaac Rosenberg

War memorials

Perhaps as a result of the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, a significant development in the last few years has been the number of sites devoted to domestic war memorials.

The main national project is the Imperial War Museum’s UK National Inventory of War Memorials at <>. The main database lists around 60,000 war memorials with details of appearance, location and the number of names recorded. Individual names are not currently listed on the site, though the data were prepared for a now defunct Channel 4 site and may well be available in future.

The equivalent project for Ireland, the Irish War Memorials Project, has a site at <>. The site includes many photographs of memorials and often the names of those commemorated and any other text. In addition to a list of memorials, which can be sorted geographically, there is a list of names and regiments.

The Scottish National War Memorial at <> has databases of over 200,000 names of Scottish casualties from the two World Wars and the period since 1945.

World War One Cemeteries at <> is designed as a guide to the cemeteries of the two World Wars. For each cemetery, it generally has a description and photograph; for some there are lists of names, while for others there is just a list of the regiments represented.

Roll of Honour at <> is a site dedicated to listing those commemorated on war memorials, organized by county. For each memorial the site gives not only the names of the individuals but also, where available, personal details drawn from the CWGC records (p. 159) or other publications. There are photographs for many of the memorials. The site does not confine itself to those who died, nor to the World Wars, but includes the Boer War and more recent conflicts such as the Falklands.

Alongside these national projects, there are countless local sites, such as:

Not only towns and cities, but individual institutions may have details of their war dead on the web. For example:

Some have rolls of honour listing all those who served, not just those killed. For example:

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