World War One Soldier’s Records
The easiest way to access the records that have survived for WWI soldiers (not officers) is on Ancestry.com. There are two collections entitled – British Army WWI Service Records 1914-1920 and British Army WWI Pension Records 1914-1920. Let me explain what the difference is between the two collections before we get into examples in later posts.
British Army WWI Service Records – “Burnt Series” – This collection is in WO363. The War Office records repository was on Arnside Street, Walworth and on 8 September 1940 there was a fire. The majority of the records in the repository were either totally destroyed or badly damaged by fire and water. What survived is approximately 25% of the original quantity and is now at The National Archives, in Kew. There are theories but it is not clear what records were at Arnside Street, or how they were arranged. The fire though was a major disaster for those researching WWI soldiers. Typically the files are for men killed in action, those who died of wounds or disease without being discharged from service, were executed, discharged without pension, or soldiers who were demobilized at the end of the war. The collection includes Regulars, Territorials, New Army volunteers and conscripts.
The contents of the files vary greatly but may include attestation papers, discharge papers, medical records, disability statements completed on demobilization, casualty forms, and regimental conduct sheets.
British Army WWI Pension Records – “Unburnt Series” – After the Second World War the War Office needed to find a way to supplement the records that had survived in what is now WO363. An appeal was made to other government departments that might hold records of service. The largest collection came from the Ministry of Pensions – thus this collection is commonly known at the British Army WWI Pension Records or the “Unburnt Records” – currently in WO364. It is important to understand that even though Ancestry.com calls these the Pension records they are not ‘pension records’ in the classic sense, just that the majority of the records came from the Ministry of Pensions. The records typically relate to regular soldiers serving in the army prior to the war who were discharged at the end of their service, those receiving a war pension who had since died or whose claims were refused, or men who later claimed a disability pension from either wounds or sickness. The collection does not include soldiers who signed up for the duration of the war unless they received a pension on medical grounds since such a soldier was entitled only to a gratuity upon demobilization. The original arrangement of the records when received from the Ministry of Pensions by the War Office is unknown, but the records have now all been alphabetized.
The WO364 records contain some anomalies. The records include some soldiers who were discharged as early as 1875, long before WWI. There are files for British men serving in the South African Infantry of Australian Imperial forces who were discharged in Britain.
These original records in these two groups occupy 44,000 boxes of material, much of which is too delicate to be handled. They have all been filmed producing 15,000 reels of microfilm. These films are available for use at The National Archives and at the Family History Library, but care is needed as all the names are not in alphabetical order, due to the number of cameras used in filming (WO363) or four different alphabetical sequences (WO364) . However, searching on Ancestry.com is so much easier, but again care is needed to ensure you have the correct soldier and all the records for that soldier.
What is not included in either set of records is information for any other rank who saw service after 1920, or any officer after March 1922, or who left the army before these dates but were recalled or re-enlisted for service in the Second World War.
Important Search Reminder – It is important to understand how these records have been put online. The pages of a file were first microfilmed in the order they existed within the file. They have then been digitized. An algorithm was then created to search for the attestation papers (joining) or discharge papers (leaving). Making a search then tells you how many pages are in a file, and when viewing an image will generally take you to the attestation or discharge page. This is the landing image and may or may not actually be the first image in the file. In examining the file you need to move back and forth reading earlier and later images in the supposed sequence to see if additional pages actually refer to your ancestors.