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18 September 2014
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Tracing Military Records

By Peter Craddick-Adams
A soldier's letter from World War One
A World War One soldier's letter ©

Discover the history of any members of your family who were in the armed forces. Find out how to get started, where to look for clues, and how to approach national archives.

Five sources

The detective work needed to trace your family's military past can apply equally to soldiers, sailors or airmen. But remember that there was no separate air force until March 1918. Until that time, the navy and army had their own flying branches (the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps). In most cases, you'll have some evidence from which to start.

Five kinds of evidence can help your quest. You may have some or all of this in your home, perhaps stored in the attic, or held by other members of your family.

  • Physical evidence, such as a name carved on a war memorial or a gravestone.
  • Written evidence, such as local newspapers, parish or school magazines, postcards and letters written at the front and sent home. Even the postmark on a battered, old postcard can help.
  • Pictorial evidence, such as photographs, drawings and maps.
  • Artefacts, such as medals, military cap badges or buttons from uniforms. (Medals of 1914-18 are particularly helpful, for all servicemen had their name, rank, number and unit etched on the side or rear of their medals.)
  • Souvenirs, such as the brass shell cases the soldiers often brought home, decorated with etched pictures or made into 'trench art' - letter openers, ashtrays or fireside ornaments.
  • Oral evidence, such as family stories handed down about 'Great Uncle Jack's' war and, more recently, interviews on tape or video.

Published: 2004-09-14

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