As a supplement to the timeline, here's a list of records of more general interest to those with ancestors in the forces. Click through the pages to find links that will lead you to the documents you need - ships' musters, army service records, RAF operational records, and more.
The collected records relating to a soldier's career from enlistment to discharge often contain biographical information. Records from before 1923 are with The National Archives, and records from after this date are with the Ministry of Defence.
Further information :
Medical notes and service summaries are often provided when a soldier is discharged to pension after completing their period of service. Records from before 1923 are with The National Archives, and records from after this date are with the Ministry of Defence.
Musters and pay lists
Each regiment in the British army in recent centuries has compiled quarterly or monthly pay lists and musters. These can be used to find out where a particular person served. Records from the 18th to the late 19th century are at The National Archives.
Information on particular military campaigns in which your ancestor might have served can be found in regimental or unit war diaries. It is rare to find other ranks (as opposed to officers) mentioned by name, although deeds of gallantry may be referred to.
Royal Navy and Marines
Naval service records
Records of continuous service were introduced in 1853, although service documents from earlier periods do survive. Such records include important biographical information, as well as details of vessels on which your ancestor might have served. Records from before 1923 are with the National Archives, and records from after this date are with the Ministry of Defence.
Royal Navy service registers between 1853 and 1923:
Naval pension records
- A variety of historic records survive that allow you to trace service in the Royal Marines. Attestation, discharge and pension documents for the various divisions can be found at the National Archives, but records for anyone who enlisted after 1925 are still with the Ministry of Defence.
Ships' musters and pay lists
- Ships' musters contain biographical information on their crews, and are stored at the National Archives. You can also use them to track the vessels on which any particular person served
- Information on naval battles and voyages that your ancestor might have been involved in can be found in ships' logs or captains' letters. Surgeons' logs can reveal conditions on board ship, and may include the names of sailors who were treated for sickness or injury
Royal Air Force
The RAF was created in April 1918 from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). RAF service records dated from between 1918 and 1923 are with The National Archives. Records dated after 1923 are with the Ministry of Defence. Earlier service records for RFC or RNAS are with the relevant army or navy records.
- You can use material such as Operation Record Books (ORBs) to investigate the history of the squadron or base where a particular person served. These records, as well as other sources such as casualty reports, can be found at The National Archives. The RAF Museum at Hendon also holds a wide range of operational material.
Military personnel were often awarded medals for taking part in a specific campaign, while other medals were granted for specific acts of gallantry. Nominal medal rolls and the 'London Gazette' (where gallantry awards were published) can be examined at the National Archives.
Further information and to search a collection of campaign medal indexes online
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission provides burial information for all armed forces. You can also find nominal rolls of war dead, as well as regimental births, marriages and deaths, at the National Archives and at various genealogical websites.
- Context is an important part of your research, and military memorabilia can be found at local (e.g. regimental) and national museums. In particular, photographs, uniforms, weaponry and equipment provide an indication of a particular person's life and times in the armed forces
Newspaper and media reports
- Coverage of wars and military operations can be found in contemporary newspapers. From the 20th century onwards, you should also look for television and radio coverage at places such as the National Sound Archive at the British Library
The National Archives
The India Office Records
The British Newspaper Library
The Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum (Duxford)
National Army Museum
National Maritime Museum
Royal Naval Museum
Fleet Air Arm Museum