British Army Service Records 1760-1915
Here you can search for your ancestors in the following sets of records:
- Militia service records 1806-1915 (WO96)
- Chelsea Pensioners British Army service records 1760-1913 (WO97)
- Royal Hospital, Chelsea: pensioners' discharge documents 1760-1887 (WO121)
- Royal Hospital, Chelsea: pensioners' discharge documents, foreign regiments 1816-1817 (WO122)
- War Office: Imperial Yeomanry, soldiers' documents, South African War 1899-1902 (WO128)
- Royal Hospital, Chelsea: documents of soldiers awarded deferred pensions 1838-1896 (WO131)
The records comprise soldiers' attestation and discharge papers and form part of the WO (War Office) series of records held at The National Archives in Kew. The War Office was the precursor of today's Ministry of Defence.
The attestation form was completed when the soldier joined the regiment and the discharge form when he left. This search covers all available papers for each soldier.
The records include soldiers from 'other ranks', rather than officer class soldiers, unlike many other military resources of this period. This means that you're much more likely to be able to find your ancestors in this collection.
What can these records tell me about my ancestors?
Each of these sets of records provides rich information about your ancestors to a level that is difficult to find elsewhere. It's common to find several pages of records per soldier – some soldiers have hundreds of pages of records!
The information listed varies, but the records tend to be very detailed and will usually include a combination of the following:
In the news
Alan Crosby writes for Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine about finding his great-uncle's service record:
- Biographical information
- Date and place of birth
- Name and address of next of kin
- Marriage details
- Children's names and dates of birth
- Height and chest size
- Hair and eye colour
- Distinguishing features, including tattoos and scars
- Service history
- Date of attestation
- Rank, including a record of any promotions
- Where stationed
- Campaigns fought in
- Medals awarded
- Date of discharge and reason for it
- Medical history
- Conduct and character observations
Find out more about each set of records below.
Militia service records (WO96)
Here you can search around 500,000 Militia service records for the period 1806-1915.
All pre-20th century men were obliged to serve in the Militia so you are likely to find information about your ancestors here. It's also possible to find details about the men's employment as they were engaged in a regular job for most of the time.
Many of our ancestors will have served in the Militia, often as a precursor to serving in the British Army, so these records provide a useful addition to our British Army service records.
Chelsea Pensioners British Army service records (WO97)
Search more than 1 million records for men pensioned out of the British Army for the period 1760-1913.
The pension records do not just relate to older men: soldiers were eligible for a pension after 12 years of service so relatively young men could be pensioned out. The connection with Chelsea Pensioners is that the pensions were administered through the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. The great majority of pensioned soldiers were out-pensioners and did not reside at the hospital itself.
Most of these soldiers were born in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales; however, a significant proportion came from other parts of the British Empire. In particular, there are a number of soldiers recorded as having been born in India and the Caribbean.
Watch our Chelsea Pensioners British Army service records mini feature – featuring our very own marketing manager Debra Chatfield who explains why these records are so valuable.
Royal Hospital, Chelsea: pensioners' discharge documents (WO121)
This collection contains 246,977 images for 84,916 men for the period 1760-1887.
This series is almost identical to some of the discharge documents in the Chelsea Pensioners British Army service records (WO97). The difference is that this series comprises bound volumes of the discharge documents, with the front page on the right hand side and the back page on the left hand side of the following image. It's possible that your ancestor's record runs over more than two pages as there are 246,977 images for 84,916 men.
We found the record on the right in this collection – click on the image for a larger version. It describes how 20-year-old Thomas Vaughan was discharged from His Majesty's Regiment of Fencible Dragoons on 10 August 1797 after serving for just 10 months. The reason for discharge was a 'scrophulous disease on the right hand by which he lost his arm'.
The Fencible Regiments were quite unusual – and short-lived – units which, for the most part, were formed in 1799 and disbanded by 1802 when the Peace of Amiens was signed. They were another response to the threat of Napoleonic invasion and information about the regiments and the personnel who served in them is not easy to find. The word 'fencible' is a derivation of 'defencible'.
Royal Hospital, Chelsea: pensioners' discharge documents, foreign regiments (WO122)
Search 13,454 images of discharge documents for 2,198 men for the period 1816-1817.
These records are similar to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea: pensioners' discharge documents (WO121) with the exception that these are foreign regiments, for example, the King's German Legion. The majority of these men were veterans of the Battle of Waterloo.
War Office: Imperial Yeomanry, soldiers' documents, South African War (WO128)
This collection contains nearly 159,000 images of documents for 26,680 men for the period 1899-1902. It is as close to complete record of other ranks from a particular unit in a specific military campaign as it is possible to get.
The Imperial Yeomanry was a volunteer cavalry unit formed in late December 1899 and was made up of men from existing yeomanry units, as well as volunteers.
The records comprise attestation papers, discharge documents and, occasionally, other papers. The attestation papers reveal that the majority of men were already serving either with a yeomanry (i.e., mounted, part-time or home-defence unit) or Militia unit but some men had no previous experience of military service. These men were generally farming stock from the middle-upper classes.
Royal Hospital, Chelsea: documents of soldiers awarded deferred pensions (WO131)
This collection comprises 42,000 images relating to the records of 6,000 men for the period 1838-1896.
These records are almost identical to the Chelsea Pensioners British Army service records (WO97) except that these are deferred pensions. These records will usually give details of the deferred pension, e.g., 48-year-old James Smith is to be paid a pension of £100 when he reaches the age of 50.
Attestation papers – official papers written for a soldier upon joining the army.
Description books – before the days of photography, the army had to have a means of recognising soldiers, not least in the case of desertion or to prevent pension fraud. Description books provided detailed physical descriptions of each soldier and details of birthplace, trade service and enlistment.
Discharge papers – official papers written for a soldier upon leaving the army.
Militia – a voluntary part-time force for home defence. The Militia Act of 1757 established Militia regiments in all counties of England and Wales. The Yeomanry (cavalry) and the Volunteers were introduced later. In 1808 a further force, the Local Militia, was formed. By 1816 the Local Militia and the Volunteers had been dissolved. The Volunteer Force was revived in 1859. In 1907, the Yeomanry and the Volunteers combined as the Territorial Force, and in 1908 the Militia was revived as the Special Reserve.
Royal Hospital, Chelsea – a retirement home for the Chelsea Pensioners and an administrative office for the British Army. It was founded in 1682 and opened in 1692 to look after wounded and disabled soldiers. The hospital catered for in-pensioners but the large majority of soldiers pensioned out of the army were out-pensioners living at their own address but receiving a pension via the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
Timeline and historical context
The following are some of the major conflicts that fall within the same period as these records:
1775 – American War of Independence
1793-1802 – British involvement in French Revolution
1795 – British capture of Ceylon
1798 – Irish Rebellion
1803-1815 – Napoleonic Wars, including the Battle of Waterloo in 1815
1854-1856 – The Crimean War
1857-1859 – Indian Mutiny
1880-1881 – The First Anglo-Boer War (also known as the 'Transvaal War')
1899-1902 – The Second Anglo-Boer War
Other useful records to search
Find out more
How to search the British Army service records
We only need the first or last name of an ancestor to start searching these records for you. This is the only required piece of information – everything else is optional.
It's always best to start searching with basic information, like your ancestor's first and last name. If there are too many results, you can refine your search and add more detail.
You can click the 'refine search' button on the search results page to return to this search box and add more information.
If you know the record series you want to search
The British Army service records are made up of a number of different record collections, held by The National Archives.
It's best to start by searching all of these records, but if you're sure that your ancestor is listed in a particular record series you could use this to narrow down your search results.
Choose a record series from the list in the box shown below. Findmypast.co.uk will then only show you records from this collection.
If you know the regiment your ancestor served in
If a basic search returns too many results, you could try adding your ancestor's regiment.
Select the 'advanced' tab at the top of the search form, as shown in the image below. Choose a regiment from the list in the relevant box and findmypast.co.uk will then only show you results that match your selection.
When you use our advanced search, it's possible to search with just a regiment – you could enter this instead of your ancestor's first or last name.
An important point to note is that this search option relates to either the regiment the soldier originally joined or the one he was discharged from, depending on the record series.
A soldier's regiment may well have changed through the duration of his service – bear in mind that the regiment you think your ancestor served in may not have been the one he joined or was discharged from. You could actually exclude relevant results by selecting a regiment, so always try searching with basic information first.
If you know your ancestor's soldier number
If a basic search returns too many results, you could try adding your ancestor's soldier number.
Select the 'advanced' tab at the top of the search form and enter the soldier number in the relevant box. Findmypast.co.uk will then only show you results that match this number.
When you use our advanced search, it's possible to search with just a soldier number – you could enter this instead of your ancestor's first or last name.
Understanding your search results
You'll notice that your results list a 'record source', as shown in the image below.
This is because the British Army service records are made up of a number of different record collections, held by The National Archives. The record source refers to how the records are categorised at The National Archives.
You may also notice that some results don't have information listed in all of the fields.
This is because the British Army service records are not in a standard format. It is, therefore, much harder to capture information from them than from other more structured records.
A field will be left blank if the information was not in the place we expected it to be. A blank field doesn't necessarily mean that the information was not recorded, just that it wasn't easy for us to find.
If you view an image and find the missing information, you can tell us by using the 'report transcript change' link at the top of the image viewer.
Can't find who you're looking for?
- The British Army service records generally don't include records of soldiers who died in service. You could try searching our armed forces death records instead.
- Try leaving some search boxes empty. Your ancestor's date of birth, place of birth, soldier number or regiment may not be listed as you would expect, so the details you enter could exclude relevant results.
- Keep the 'include variants' boxes underneath the name fields ticked. This means your search results will include spelling variations of the names you've entered.
- If your ancestor's name could be easily misspelled, try using a wildcard search. Just use a * symbol in place of a letter or multiple letters. For example, instead of searching for Jennings you could search for Je*ngs or *enning*.