How to find First World War records
Nearly nine million men and over 57,000 women served in the British Army during the First World War. Nearly a million British and Empire soldiers were killed, mainly on the muddy battlefields of France and Flanders but as far away as East Africa, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Russia.
For the first time in British history, almost everyone either served in the army or had a close relative who did. Uncovering your ancestor’s First World War records is a fascinating and often moving experience, providing a personal connection to the ‘war to end all wars’.
Unfortunately, around 60% of First World War records were destroyed in the Blitz. However, remaining First World War records include some service and pension records; Medal Information Cards; Medal Rolls; War Diaries for the major fronts; and lists of soldiers who died in the war taken from published books.
First World War records for officers are particularly rare, but surviving records are preserved in series WO 339 and WO 374 at The National Archives (which are not online). These records range from (literally) three pieces of paper to reams of material connected to later pension queries or, all too tragically, the sorting out of the officer’s estate if they were killed, or (sometimes gruesome) medical boards held after they were wounded.
The best websites for First World War records
The website records all the Commonwealth war graves and memorials for men and women killed in the First and Second World Wars, usually with records of the unit they fought in and, frequently, details of next of kin.
The National Archives has a research guide to First World War records that includes copies of the Medal Cards; service records of First World War nurses and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps; War Diaries for units serving in France and Belgium, Mesopotamia, Iraq and Persia, East Africa, Cameroon and West Africa; Household Cavalry service records; and prisoner of war interview reports.
Ancestry’s First World War records include Medal Cards (available for free); surviving service and pension records; medal rolls; Silver War Badge records; War Diaries for France, Belgium and Germany and Gallipoli; lists of medal recipients (some with citations); the Register of Soldiers’ Effects; and rolls of honour.
Findmypast’s First World War records include Medal Card transcriptions; the surviving service and pension records of men who served; details of some locally recruited Pals Battalions; rolls of honour from schools, universities and employers as well as specially published ones; lists of deserters from The Police Gazette; Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps service records; details of some prisoners of war; and copies of some absent voters rolls saying where men over 21 were serving in 1918.
Forces War Records is a specialist military records website and holds First World War records including casualty and POW lists; school, university and company rolls of honour; Territorial Force Medal rolls; Embarkation Lists; and a unique collection of military hospital records.
The Long, Long Trail is the best site on the First World War British Army. It contains no actual First World War records but explains what they all are, how to find and understand them and has links to other useful sites. It also has the most complete list of surviving absent voter rolls available.
This website has First World War records of the men captured by German forces, while information on British Red Cross volunteers can be found here.
You can find First World War records in the National Army Museum’s extensive collection of books, manuscripts, old photographs and memorabilia.
The London Gazette is the government’s official newspaper, published daily since 1665. The issues from the First World War hold records of appointments and promotions of army officers and medal awards.
Launched by the Army Museums Ogilby Trust, which represents the regimental and corps museums of the British Army, the Ogilby Muster holds a digitised collection of over two million records, letters, photographs and more relating to the First World War.
When completed, this growing website will hold the records of 320,000 soldiers from the Punjab (divided between modern-day India and Pakistan).
This database holds the names of over 30,000 Irish soldiers who were killed in the First World War.
This website dedicated to the contribution British Jews made to the First World War includes digitised documents and photographs and a searchable database of memorial boards listing those killed.