Researching your ancestor

This page covers the basics of researching an ancestor who was an ordinary rank in the British Army and survived the war. Officers or those that were killed are generally easier to trace.

What can be achieved?

It is important to set your expectations as to what can realistically be achieved. Unless your ancestor kept a personal diary or you already have a detailed knowledge of their war experience, that information is probably lost forever. However, unit commanders within the British Army were required to keep war diaries. If your ancestor's unit can be determined then it may be possible to build up a picture of what life was like for them.

Where to Start

The first step in any genealogical research is to find out as much as you can from family members and friends. This could be anything from medals to photographs to stories carried down through the generations. The critical piece of information you need is your ancestor's regiment and regimental number. This will allow you to identify them in any documentation. With the army being so large at the time, unless they had an extremely unusual name it will be difficult to identify your ancestor with any level of certainty without this.

Any official items that are in family possession will almost certainly show your ancestor's regiment and regimental number. Examples could be their medals or discharge certificate. If you don't have any of these it could be tricky. Photographs of them in uniform could show their cap badge which may allow the regiment to be ascertained but it is often difficult to discern. Another alternative is the local library for the town they lived in. They may have lists of men that served or copies of the local newspapers that again may list men.

Service Records

By far and away the most import official documents on an individual soldier are the service records. These vary in the information that is given but will very likely list the soldier's unit along with any transfers. The problem is however, the vast majority were destroyed during a bombing raid in 1940. Those that survived are in a bad state. These are known as the 'burned records' and are available at the Public Record Office (PRO) in Kew and now also available online. The Ministry of Pensions kept copies of those servicemen that were eligible to claim a pension and these, known as the 'unburnt documents' survived. Again they're available at Kew and online and cover about 20% of those that served.

Medal Rolls

The only official records pretty much guaranteed to list your ancestor are the Medal Rolls. Several service medals were issued along with galantry awards. An index card for each man was kept that list the medals received. These are available at Kew and online. Like most records the information included varies and may well give no more details than you already know but sometimes there's a little gem there so they're definitely worth a look.

The medal index cards make reference to the actual medal rolls themselves. Again definitely worth a look as there may be extra information listed.

Local Libraries

The local library for the town your ancestor lived in may well have information on the men that served. Often local communities would do things for the men serving abroad and these events may be listed in local newspapers. Again the local library may have copies.

War Diaries

Every unit within the British Army was required to keep a war diary while on Active service. For the infantry this would be down to battalion level. For the artillery it would be down to brigade level and sometimes even down to the batteries. The quality and information within these diaries varies and is unlikely to mention individial men. However, they should give a good insight into the day-to-day running of the unit and details of any actions they were involved in. If you know your ancestor's unit then the appropriate war diary is definitively worth reading.