Introduction to Ancestry and Military Genealogy
It is possible to trace your British or Commonwealth ancestor(s) from birth to marriage and death, enlistment, and their service records. Armed forces records are held by multiple archives, listed at the National Archives. For Indian Army and service in South Asian records: refer to the British Library (£), online and on its bookshelves. Fortunately there is a wealth of downloadable free research guides and tips to help you.
Your research will be quicker and easier if you already know your ancestor's full name, date of birth and unique identifiers e.g. serial number, armed forces service number(s) or regimental number (they're not the same). Start with the family, looking for personal documents, mementoes, medals, or letters that you or other family members may still have.
Look for clues about which units the person served with, what ranks they held and their unique service number(s), to help you search the right records among thousands. Photographs are highly valuable, putting faces to names and in many cases identifying uniforms and badges. File your research and documents together.
You can apply to bureaucracy (£) for the records of someone who’s deceased, but the criteria are strict and you must be eligible, for example you’re their immediate next of kin or you’re legitimately researching them. Meaningful government records go back to the 17th century and The UK National Archives curates 1,000 years of history. Some records are open access, but as a general rule: records for people born less than 100 years ago remain closed until proof of death is verified.
The Ministry of Defence (£) holds military records from 1920 to the present, and you can apply for your own service records (currently free of charge). The UK National Archives charges fees, but the Ministry of Defence suggests that before requesting information, you should carry out searches from sources that provide free access to the details of deceased service personnel.
Free websites: for the two world wars: once you have the person's full name and date of birth:
- Search the open databases at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). You might find a service number, branch of service, unit, and other useful details noted on burial records.
- The MOD online Roll of Honour contains the names of members of the Armed Forces who died in military service, on or after 1 January 1948 (and Palestine 1945-47), who are commemorated on the official single service rolls of honour.
- RootsChat is completely free and it has several family history boards. It is always worth cross-checking to confirm you have the right person.
Your County Records Office and local Library may be able to help; some Libraries offer free access to Ancestry sites. The Arrsepedia Military Genealogy category lists a wide range of topics including tracing family records and medals cards. For hard facts you can search the specialist websites (£) and databases, National Archives Pensions records and Unit War Diaries (WO 95). Or apply to military museums and associations.
Research will gradually build a picture of your ancestor's life, but unfortunately the problems with searching any records, particularly in the United Kingdom, include the widespread physical locations of the materials, and incomplete or incorrect information. Authoritative custodians of service and personal records are usually the most reliable. In most cases, serious researchers subscribe to the major genealogy sites including Ancestry.com, FindMyPast or Forces War Records, and most records are pay per view. However, many subscription sites offer 14-day free trials. You are advised to check their subscription terms carefully.
In summary, ask the family about surviving possessions and documents; they could save a lot of work. You can find reliable and accurate information online, a good place to start is The UK National Archives (£). You can search official records for all the armed forces, Territorials and auxiliaries. There are free records online such as the CWGC and the MOD Roll of Honour; RootsChat is another free site with forums that might provide hearsay information you'll need to confirm. British and Commonwealth records can be searched; for Indian Army and service in South Asia records, the majority are held at the British Library.
National Archives Research Guides: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/#find-a-research-guide .
Where to go for birth, marriage and death certificates: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/birth-marriage-and-death-certificates/.