How to find out about family military history
If you’re researching your ancestry and wish to learn more about a relative’s contribution to preserving the security of the nation, there are a variety of sources, which can help you in your quest.
As the number of surviving ex-servicemen who participated in the World Wars dwindles with the passage of time, it is imperative that their life stories are preserved so that their contribution – and, often, their sacrifice – is never forgotten. For the amateur genealogist seeking to reconstruct his family tree, a wealth of information about his ancestors’ military roles can be uncovered and will help to add substance to the names and dates that family historians often become bogged down by.
Service records from 1920
From 1920, records of all serving personnel in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and British Army were maintained and may contain information about an individual’s medals, medical records, service units and date of death. Sometimes, however, service records may contain little useful information but the nominal application fee (currently fixed at £30) would be judged by most researchers to be worth the investment.
If your relative died less than 25 years ago, application to view the service records should be made by the next of kin or else an access request is likely to be denied. Others can apply if the ancestor in question died more than 25 years ago.
More information about the records and how to request access can be found here.
Service records before 1920
Service records for army personnel before 1920 are incomplete, largely as a result of damage inflicted during World War Two (approximately 60% of the records did not survive), so it is possible that you may draw a complete blank on this front. The service records which were preserved can be accessed at the National Archives.
The National Archives also hold the service records for Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel (also including the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service which preceded the RAF’s inauguration in 1918).
Tracing your family history can be particularly challenging if an ancestor died in service abroad and travelling to one of the overseas burial grounds may be unaffordable or impractical. Fortunately the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s enquiry service can provide you with the place of burial or commemoration from its database of over 1.7 million war dead.
A search may yield information such as the name, date of death, age and next of kin, as well as information about the location of the burial including the number of the grave or memorial plaque, making a personal visit to the resting place far more practical should you wish to undertake this.
Most military personnel in the World Wars were entitled to receive campaign medals and the medals indices are invaluable sources of information – and some of the most popular for genealogists. The database, maintained by the National Archives covers the period from 1856 (for Victoria Cross recipients) to 1990, with merchant sailors, army nurses and personnel from Britain’s dominions also featuring.
Knowing which medals a relative was awarded can unlock a wealth of information, such as the campaigns in which he participated and the units to which he was attached. For many researchers, the medal indices are the starting point when investigating the military service of a family member.
As with any family history project, researching the military records can sometimes prove frustrating if information is missing or a dozen people share the same name, but a chance discovery can make the entire project more than worthwhile.