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Researching a Great War Ancestor

At events where we present our static displays of Great War artefacts and memorabilia we meet a great many people that have their own stories to tell about a grandfather, or great uncle etc. that served in the Great War and all have great pleasure in talking about their family member.  Sometimes, we get to see their medals, death plaques and associated paperwork too.   However, it is often the case that our visitors know little about the artefacts they have brought with them, and even less about their family member’s service during WW1.   Subsequently, we are asked how they can find out more.   Therefore, we have decided to include a section on researching your Great War Ancestor / family member.  Before starting, we must point out that we are not experts in research but some of our members do have experience in genealogy and military-genealogical research.  Also, by the nature of what we do, collectively, we have amassed a reasonable amount of knowledge about the Great War.


Before starting your research try to obtain as much information as possible about your Great War family member, such as his full name, place and date of birth.  If you are fortunate to have some military details such as service number and regiment then your task will be somewhat easier.  In fact, if this information is at hand then you can 'short-cut' much of the following by obtaining the family member's 'Medal Index Card' (see later).  However, for the purposes of this section, we will assume that you will be starting with little or no confirmed information.  A good place to start is with statutory records where you can obtain birth and marriage certificates.  It is important to have the full name of the person you are researching and his place of birth and/or residence as Irish regiments had so many men with the same given and family names, some from the same towns and villages too; a birth certificate, or knowledge of his parents could further narrow the chance of an error.  If in doubt, a good tip is to check the mother’s maiden name as the chance of two soldiers having a mother with the same names would be very small indeed, (but not impossible).  If the researcher does not know the individual’s place of residence then a useful tool would be the 1901 and 1911 Census records obtainable on line at Discovering the place of residence in 1911 could be a good indication of where the person enlisted, but be warned, don't assume that your military ancestor was born, resided or enlisted where current family members have told you, or has been handed down to them by word of mouth.  If your search is initially unsuccessful in the area/county that has been suggest to you, widen your enquiry to cover all counties. 

Armed with a full name, place and date of birth, residence, and the parent’s names, the next task is to gather as much service/military information as you can; information such as, regiment, service number and where he served.  If your relation died in service or was killed in action then it is a simple matter of searching (for free) at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database at and selecting ‘Search Our Records’.  Fill in as much information as you can and you will be presented with a list of men with the same surnames.  Be warned that if your subject has a common name then the list of names could run to many pages so take your time checking each entry carefully and compare the details with the information you already have.  By further select a name in the first column and clicking on it you will be presented with 'Casualty Details Page', which will provide more information.

Occasionally, there will be additional information included on the individual record such as ‘age’, regimental company, and under the heading ‘Other Information’ there may be a dedication by the deceased man’s family; such as, ‘son of John and Mary Quinn of County Tyrone’ etc.  Or perhaps, wife of ‘~’ father of ‘~’ etc.


Armed with this information, the next step is to consult the ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’ databases at,, and .  Please note that these are on subscription websites and you will need to pay to search their databases.

The additional information you will get from ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’ will be where the individual was ‘born’, where he ‘enlisted’ and his place of ‘residence’ when he enlisted.  Also included will be his previous unit/regiment if it was recorded and a previous service number if it differed.  These are useful additions for your research and enable you to build a bigger picture your distant relation.   Therefore, after your initial research, with luck you will be in possession of the following information;


·         Full name

·         Place and date of birth

·         Parents names

·         Where enlisted

·         Residence at time of enlistment

·         Service number

·         Regiment/Unit

·         Theatre of war


If your family member survived then perhaps you will already have the additional information concerning his service number, regiment/unit and theatre of war etc.  However, the next step is to find the man’s service record... if one exists!  That sounds ominous doesn’t it?   Well, please read on...

There were nearly 9 million men in total that served with the British and Commonwealth Armies during the Great War and around 5 million of those were from the United Kingdom and Ireland.   For each of those men there was a soldier’s record of service, which was kept by the War Office at their records depository in Arnside Road, London when the First World War ended.  Unfortunately, around 60% (around 3 million)of them were damaged or destroyed during the Blitz in 1940 when the building was hit by a German incendiary bomb.  The records that survived were charred and/or water damaged rendering most of them unfit for consultation, and so they became known as the 'Burnt Documents'; in each case, the condition and the amount of service record that has survived varies greatly.  They are now held in the National Archives (UK) at Kew where each surviving record, whether wholly or partly, has been painstakingly copied onto microfilm and are classified with catalogue reference commencing with WO363/.  This record series are in alphabetical surname order and contain (only)the surviving records of service for non-commissioned officers and other ranks that served in the 1914-1918 war but who did not re-enlist prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

In addition to the 2 million or so surviving ‘Burnt Documents’ there are also around 750,000 Service Records for soldiers who were discharged for medical reasons (illness or wounds) during the First World War. These records also include soldiers who were in the British Army before August 1914 and who were eligible for an Army pension because their term of service came to an end during, or before 1920. This group of records are known as the ‘Unburnt Documents’ and the catalogue reference for this series of records commences with WO364/.  These records are unlikely to contain information on individuals who did not claim a war pension.  Once again, they are organised in alphabetical surname order. 

The Service Records of Army and RFC officers are in the series WO374/ and are once again in alphabetical surname order.

There is a fee charged for all records viewed and downloaded from the UK National Archives at However, photocopies of documents not available to download can be ordered and sent by mail where a charge for postage will be included.  Alternatively, all documents can be viewed for free at the repository in Kew, London where a small fee is charged for photocopying.  If you do plan a visit to the National Archives in London, you will need a readers ticket so check the website for details on this.

The UK National Archives’ website also provides good research guides that can be downloaded for free.


The Service Records of the Guards Regiments are held by each regiment, but they are not complete as some of those were also damaged as a result of bombing during the Second World War too. Appointments to view documents can be made by contacting the regiment as appropriate.



Soldier’s WW1 Service Records

A soldier's Service Record will include general information about an individual and his military service from the date he enlisted to the date he was either discharged from military service or died in service.

If the record survives in its entirety the following information can be found:


  • Full name
  • Age
  • Place of birth
  • Occupation on enlistment
  • Marital status
  • Next of kin
  • Regimental number
  • Date of attestation (enlistment)
  • Physical description/distinguishing marks


A number of other records are usually contained within the Service Record and may be as follows:


  • Attestation form (a form completed when an individual enlisted)
  • Medical history forms
  • Casualty forms (if applicable)
  • Disability statements (if applicable)
  • Regimental conduct sheets

·           Record of training and postings

·           Dates of promotions (if applicable)

  • Awards (if applicable)
  • Proceedings on discharge from the service (if applicable)
  • Cover for discharge documents (if applicable)
  • Index cards


When searching for a particular service record it is worth bearing in mind that a soldier may have been transferred to a different battalion, regiment or even a different corps of service. This could mean that he may have had different service numbers and ranks. However, this information may be available from the ‘Medal Rolls’ and individual ‘Medal Index Card’s. 

The WW1 Medal Rolls are not available to view on line and can only be researched at the National Archives in Kew, England. 

The Medal Index Cards are the main source of information where a service record is not available and there is useful guidance that explains the information contained within the card.  The Medal Index Cards are available to view on-line and once again they are in surname alphabetical order with six individual's cards to one microfilm/copy.  This record series can be viewed by using catalogue reference WO372/.


Assuming that you have been able to discover all the individual information you possibly can about your Great War ancestor you will probably want to find out where his unit served and what action they were involved in.   The best source of information for this would be the Battalion/Unit War Diaries, also called an Intelligence Summary.  These were handwritten or typed documents providing a daily account of the activities of each battalion or unit, brigade and division throughout the British and Commonwealth Army.  It was the responsibility of the commander of every military unit to ensure that the War Diary/ Intelligence Summary was kept up to date. A junior officer would be given the sole responsibility of writing up the day’s events each evening, which was usually signed off by a senior or commanding officer.

War Diaries were compiled by month for every month that the unit was on active service.  In addition, War Diaries generally contained appendices for specific events, which could include sketches, maps and Operational Orders.

The daily information contained in a War Diary can vary from just a few words to a detailed description of life at the Front. It may include map references, individual's names (usually officers only), awards of gallantry medals and casualty reports.  

The names of non-commissioned officers and other ranks are seldom mentioned in the War Diaries so you shouldn’t expect to see a family member’s name recorded. This is not because they were considered unworthy of a mention; it was because the Diary’s sole purpose was to record unit events and not individuals. Nevertheless, soldiers' names are occasionally recorded in the account of an operation such as a patrol, a raid on an enemy trench, or an award of a medal.

The names of officers might be recorded in a Battalion War Diary when they join a unit, go on leave, take command or become casualties. As men holding an officers' rank, and there were fewer officers to be named than the other ranks in the Battalion and that type of information was useful for senior commanders to know so that a chain of command was maintained.


In general, individual regiments have retained copies of their own war diaries and are held at their regimental museums or archives, but a war diary for almost every British Army unit from 1914-1922 was given to the War Office during the First World War; these are now held by The National Archives in Kew, London.  The War Diary series have the catalogue reference of WO95/..  Most of the maps that were originally included in war diaries as appendices have been removed and compiled in a separate series with a catalogues reference of WO153/. 

Like many documents, War Diaries can be viewed for free by visitors to the National Archives where there is a small photocopying charge made. Alternatively, they can be viewed on-line for a fee, or copies ordered from the National Archives at a charge plus postage.   

If your family member was a prisoner of war then series WO161/98 should be consulted.  It contains miscellaneous unregistered papers created by the First World War Committee on the Treatment of British Prisoners of War: Interviews and Reports.   Alternatively, the International Red Cross holds an incomplete list of known prisoners of war in its archive.  They can be contacted in writing (only)at; International Council of the Red Cross, Archives Division, 19 Avenue de la Paix, CH1202, Geneva, Switzerland.  Please be note that there is an hourly charge made.


Other sources of information


Promotions and awards for gallantry were published in the ‘London Gazette’, which record the name, rank and serial number of an award recipient.  It will also occasionally include a citation.  Beware, the ‘Gazetting’ of an award and the corresponding citation may appear in different editions of the London Gazette. The London Gazette can be accessed for free on-line at


There are many regimental histories that have been published, which can provide extensive background information for your research but they can be expensive so check your local library to see if there is one in their reference section. Alternatively, many divisional, brigade and regimental histories can be accessed on-line by using a reputable search engine.   There are also many accounts of the main battles that took place during World War 1, but do browse with care and only use trusted websites.


We hope that this section has given you some useful clues to finding your Great War ancestor’s service history. So, on behalf of the Irish Great War Society and its members, we wish you good luck with your research.