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Duration 07:19

Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldiers’ service documents

Military records specialist William Spencer talks about WO 97, one of The National Archives’ most popular record series. This series holds detailed and comprehensive military records of over 1.5 million soldiers who served in the British Army between 1760 and 1913.

Please note that this collection has been digitised since this talk was recorded in 2010.


Series WO 97 consists of just over 6,000 boxes of original records of service for men discharged to pension from the British Army at any time between 1760 and 1913. The digitisation of these records has made them available to anybody, worldwide. Originally, the records were arranged according to a number of different criteria.

Between 1760 and 1854 they were arranged by regiment, and then in alphabetical order, and again a similar arrangement between 1855 and 1872. Between 1873 and 1882 they were arranged by arm of the service: infantry, artillery, cavalry and then in alphabetical order, and then from 1883 to 1900 and from 1900 to 1913 in two alphabetical sequences.

The content of the series varies according to time and the amount of information that you can discover about an individual who saw service in the British Army does vary. The digitisation has enabled a user to be able to search by as little as surname and/or forename. If you have the regiment that an individual was discharged from, and his regimental number, so much the better. If you’re unsure of where an individual served, which regiments he served in, you can search by name and a place of birth if you have it.

The types of information contained in the series vary according to time, really; the closer to the 20th century, the more information you’re likely to get, but from 1760 onwards you will get as a minimum: the date and place of enlistment; a rough idea of the date and place of the birth of an individual; his physical description.  The army always wanted to know what their soldiers looked like, not necessarily during their service and how they did as soldiers, but in many cases they wanted to know what their men looked like if they deserted.

The records will give you an idea of where an individual served, whether he served in the United Kingdom (and that of course prior to 1922 continued with garrison service in Ireland for example), service overseas in far-flung places, North and South America, in South Africa, East and West Africa, in India, in Australia, New Zealand; anywhere that the British Army went.

The great thing about the records and the digitisation is that they have been made available to users who can access the records worldwide. A lot of men who saw service in the British Army took their pension in far-flung places, places that they’d served, rather than coming back to England, and it’s the descendents of these people that are now looking at the records and are able to do so by searching on findmypast.

The records; not only do they contain an idea of when an individual served, when he was attested and when he was discharged, the more recent material will give you such information as their medical history, if they suffered any injuries during their operational service, if they had any diseases, any cuts, wounds from day to day activities, from accidents, and of course bouts of influenza and flu, dysentery and so on and so forth if they saw service in the warmer parts of the world.

A lot of the records contain information relating to a man’s conduct. If a man was court-martialled, the records would nearly always reflect that, and in many cases they’ll tell you what the crime was and what their punishment was.

The records really reflect not only the activities of the army but they also illustrate how the army wanted to keep an idea of the character and ability of a given individual because the records have a lot of connections with controlling the finances of the state, so the British Army wanted to know how much it had to pay an individual, and if they were able to give him more. More importantly in many cases how much money they could take away from him for the crimes that he may have committed, whether they were minor or major.

If a soldier saw any operational service the records will nearly always reflect the fact that they would in many cases receive campaign medals for their operational service. If an individual was granted a long service and good conduct medal for service in excess of 18 years, that may also be recorded on the record of service.

If an individual was married, the records may give you the date and place of the marriage, to whom, and who officiated, maybe even the names of the witnesses. The more modern records, the late 1880s onwards up to 1913, may also list the names of the children, where they were born and when, and if they died that’s also recorded.

It’s a sad fact to see how a man moved around the world as a soldier but with his family, and had children born overseas and die overseas and in many cases the families back here in Britain never knew anything about them.

Some of the more interesting records contain detailed accounts of the activities of given individuals, so for example if an individual was awarded a Victoria Cross in the Crimean War, with the Indian Mutiny or the wars after that, you quite often get a detailed account of the deeds for which a cross was awarded. Other medals such as the Distinguished Conduct Medal may also be annotated on the record of service.

Prior to about 1895, if a man was discharged by purchase, or just completed a period of service which was a non-pensionable term, the records are less likely to survive, but with the advent of the second Boer War, the South African War between 1899 and 1902, Widow’s pensions came in as a matter of right, and the War Office started to keep the records of service of many men who had completed what was called the Short Service Term; a period of about 12 years.

So although the records are described as pension papers, after 1895 if a man completed a 12 year term or if he died in service, and especially if he had dependents, the records are more likely to be kept.

For the period 1900 to 1913, you get a lot of men being discharged from the army who’d seen service on the North West Frontier, or South Africa, during the Boer War, and in many cases these individuals volunteered for service again in the First World War, and their records, their First World War records of service, were possibly destroyed in 1940. So if you’re looking for a late 19th, early 20th century soldier and he saw service in the First World War, don’t be afraid to look at the records for the period, of the men discharged between 1900 and 1913. You may be pleasantly surprised.