Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Service records of soldiers in the British army

More than nine million men and women are estimated to have served in the British armed forces during the First World War. Many of the surviving service records from this period can be found in The National Archives, and can be used for tracing an ancestor who fought in the Great War.

Records destroyed
When war broke out in August 1914, the British army numbered just over 730,000 men. Unlike the other major European states, where conscription allowed huge numbers of men to be rapidly brought under arms, Britain relied on a small, professional defence force. But the scale of the conflict between the Allies and the Central Powers demanded massive increases in Britain’s military manpower resources. By the end of the war in 1918, more than seven million men and women had seen service in the British army.

Unfortunately, more than half of their service records were destroyed in September 1940, when a German bombing raid struck the War Office repository in Arnside Street, London. However, an estimated 2.8 million service records survived the bombing or were reconstructed from the records of the Ministry of Pensions. This means that there is a roughly 40% chance of finding the service record of a soldier who was discharged at some time between 1914 and 1920.

The ‘Burnt Documents’
The service records that survived the Arnside Street fire in September 1940 – the so-called ‘Burnt Documents’ – are located in the series WO 363. Due to fire and water damage, they are too delicate to be handled and are consequently only available to the public on microfilm.

Microfilming the ‘Burnt Documents’ has been a huge project, for which The National Archives has received valuable financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The microfilm catalogues, which are mostly arranged alphabetically by surname, cover soldiers who completed their service between 1914 and 1920. They might have been killed in action, discharged on medical grounds without a pension, or demobilised at the end of the war.

For further information go to the National Archives at

Did you like this? Share it:
Some Text