From 1803 to 1815, Britain waged a series of wars against the French Empire under Napoleon, with the names of battles such as Trafalgar and Waterloo living on throughout history.
Despite the lack of formal record keeping, there are a range of historic resources to help you trace your ancestors who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.
1. National Army Museum
The National Army Museum has a range of articles on the Napoleonic Wars including details of some of the battles and the major players as well as fascinating insights into some of the items in their collection from the ‘coatee’ worn by Major Thomas Harris at the Battle of Waterloo to two samovars owned by Napoleon himself. Although there’s not much here for family historians looking for records, there’s plenty to get you inspired and give you some background to the era.
2. Trafalgar Ancestors
This free National Archives database records more than 18,000 individuals who fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, drawn mainly from ships’ musters. Results include service histories and biographical details, where known. There’s a TNA research guide to records of the Napoleonic Wars, which links to related subjects and you could also try the Genuki-hosted Trafalgar Roll compiled from awards made to the seamen who fought with Nelson, which lists commanding officers, crew and casualties.
3. Waterloo Roll Call
There are lots of digitised history books available through archive.org, covering all kinds of Napoleonic subjects. You can read and download accounts of Nelson’s death, battles on sea and land, or this edition of the Waterloo Roll Call from 1904. It’s a Who’s Who of the battle, with all kinds of ‘biographical notes and anecdotes’, but not just relating to the great and good. For example, there’s Colour Sergeant Jonathan Thomas of the 23rd Regiment of Foot, whose brief entry records simply that he died at the Union Workhouse, Swansea, in December 1867.
4. Waterloo Descendants
Our number 1 website (see above) links to Waterloo Descendants, a drive from Findmypast which at first glance might seem like a simple branding exercise. But there’s all kinds of interesting content here, drawing attention to Napoleonic-era sources on the Findmypast roster, plus interesting articles, such as a touching one on contemporary newspaper coverage of the battle.
5. The Napoleon Series
“The most stimulating of the many websites I used when writing my book was definitely The Napoleon Series,” explains historian Carole Divall, author of Napoleonic Lives. “The homepage conveys the range of material on this site, some definitely for the expert, but much is designed for a more general interest. The list of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ demonstrates this range, and I would particularly advocate ‘Recommended Sources’ as a good starting point.”
The site also contains the Peninsular Roll Call – an index of officers who served with Wellington’s army, originally compiled by Captain Lionel Challis, who began working on the project soon after the First World War. The Napoleon Series is so vast that this is just the kind of page that you could easily miss while trawling through the site.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine