RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees No. 13

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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 13:  Military Records (Worldwide)

"God and the Soldier,
all men adore
in time of strife,
and not before
When the danger is past,
all wrongs arighted
God is forgotten,
the Old Soldier slighted"

— an anonymous soldier under
the Duke of Marlborough
circa 1705

Do you have stories about ancestors who fought in various wars? Or perhaps you have inherited a weapon that your grandfather used during World War I or a faded uniform that your great-grandfather wore? Ever wondered what historical information or photographs might be available to complete or enhance the family history? Military records — often rich in personal information, historical facts, and genealogical gems — can bring your ancestors to life though they served long ago and far, far away.

The challenge is to identify which military records exist and then figure out how to access them. Through the years most countries have created military records, but not all of these have survived, and in many instances those that exist are not indexed, have not been filmed or digitized, and are not on the Web.

Here's a look at the military records of various countries with tips on how to access them.


AUSTRALIA. National Archives of Australia has Army records pertaining to: Boer War, World War I and World War II and later conflicts, Navy and Air Force records, veterans' case files, courts-martial files, civilian service, soldier settlement and war gratuities.


CANADA. Most of its 18th- and 19th-century records of military units were kept by the War Office and other offices in Great Britain. There are some records in French archives, but the National Archives of Canada has copies of many of these records. Canada has been involved in these military actions:

Records of deceased military members are available 20 years after their death to members of their families. Requests to:

National Personnel Records Centre
National Archives of Canada
Tunney's Pasture
Ottawa, ON, Canada K1A 0N3

The Canadian Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission keeps records and registers of Canadian soldiers who died in the two world wars:

The Secretary-General
Canadian Agency, C.W.G.C.
East Memorial Building
Ottawa, ON, Canada K1A 0P4

During the 19th century all Canadian men, 16 to 60, were required to serve in the sedentary militia. Scattered militia lists give names of some of them. There are few service records for Canadian volunteers who fought in most 19th-century wars, but the National Archives of Canada has medal registers listing names of many who served during the 19th century. Keep in mind that military pensions were sometimes authorized many years after the service. Canadian Military Genealogical FAQ provides pages of information for genealogical and historical research.


DENMARK. Laegdsruller (Army Leving Rolls) are a major source for genealogical research in Denmark. These records can help you track an ancestor as he moved from parish to parish and with this information you can then seek census and church records. Starting in 1788 all males from birth until age 34 were listed on a parish roll of potential draftees. Each name was assigned a number and every three years a new roll was taken and each man's number became smaller. Every parish in the county was also assigned a number and this number was permanently assigned to identify the parish. When a man moved from one parish to another, the roll usually indicates the new parish's number and the person's supplemental number enabling the researcher to him as he moved to a new parish. Danish military records were kept by the national government and these have been centralized at the Haerens Arkiv (Military Archive) at the National Archives in Copenhagen.

Haerens Arkiv
Slotsholmgade 4
DK-1216 Kobenhavn K


ENGLAND. England has been in wars for centuries. Among the major conflicts were:

Military service — other than the militia — was usually a lifetime career. The "regular army" and the navy were the major branches of the military. Armed forces that kept their own records include: Militia, fencibles, yeomanry, territorial armies, coast guard, royal marines, and merchant marines.

Civil registration, census, or church records usually can provide enough information to help in a search for military records. Pre-1914 records are at the Public Record Office, Kew, Post-1914 army records are at:

Army Records Centre
Bourne Avenue
Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF
Post 1914 navy records are at:
Ministry of Defense
Main Building, Whitehall SW1A 2HB

England's army began as a permanent organization in 1660. Pre-1847 English army service was usually for life or when they were discharged early for disability. Pre-1872 army records are arranged by regiment. Most regiments have published histories that provide information about where the units served and about the battles fought.

Surviving navy records date from 1617, but are difficult to use due to lack of indexes. Many are available only at the Public Record Office, Kew. Before 1853, individual ratins (seamen) are not mentioned in navy records other than on musters or pay lists unless they deserted, misbehaved, or earned a medal. After 1853, seamen served for the duration of their career. The Royal Marines has been a separate branch of the military since 1755. Alphabetically arranged records of marines survive from 1790, some by enlistment date and others by discharge date.

In order to use British military records you will need to determine the specific army regiment or navy ship on which your ancestor served. With this information you may be able to utilize such records as:

Militia Lists and Musters. Begin as early as 1297 and contain the names of men eligible for military service. Not all have survived for all years in all localities.

Militia units were raised on a county basis and kept their own records

Fencibles — army units raised for home service only, records usually with militia records.

Yeomanry — volunteer regiments; few records have survived.

Colonial armies — forces raised in other countries and such records are usually in the country where the forces were raised, except the Indian Army, for which many records are held at the India Office Library, 197 Blackfriars Road, London Se1 8NG.

Coast Guard (1816-1923) and Royal Marines (1790-1914) kept their own records.

If your ancestor served in the British Army before 1913 the major source to search is a class of records known as War Office (WO) 97. However, because of the arrangement of these records, you can not write to the Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, England, and request a search for your William Winterbotham. You will have to make the trip to England or hire a researcher there to do the work for you. The WO97 records contain the personal document of soldiers, but not officers, who were discharged to pension. If your ancestor died in service, completed a limited non-qualifying period of service, purchased his discharge, negotiated a free discharge or deserted, you will not find anything about him in these records.

British army records start in 1760 and the WO97 records are divided into five periods by dates, and each group is arranged differently, meaning the researcher needs to know some of the peculiarities of this filing system in order to be successful.

If your ancestor was an officer, tracing him is rather straight-forward since there is a variety of sources available. The key one is called "Army Lists" and it covers the period from 1702 to the present. There is a reference set of the published "Army Lists" at the PRO. Until 1871 officers were not entitled to a pension per se. When they retired they either sold their commissions or went on what is called "half pay." Payments of half pay and pensions rested with the paymaster-general (PMG), and it among those PMG records that the genealogist will have to search at the PRO. They date from 1737.

If you are tracing an ancestor born after 1837 in England and Wales or 1855 in Scotland, it is quite possible to find a reference to a solder's regiment on a birth, marriage or death certificate. Therefore civil registration records should be searched as well as the census returns of 1841-1891, where reference to professions and occupations are found.

The Public Records Office — PRO — has information about its available publications and online records.


FRANCE. Some French military records begin as early as the 1500s. Many have been centralized at the Military Archives in Vincennes, but conscription records are kept at the departmental archives. Military records are rarely used in genealogical research because they are difficult to access and few are indexed; additionally, they are kept confidential for 120 years from the soldier's birth. To use these records, in most instances you will need to know the soldier's specific regiment or sailor's ship. The military archives in Vincennes have not been microfilmed.

Le projet Ste Helene (The Saint Helene's Project) is a volunteer project to index records of the Medal of St. Helena, awarded to 390,000 soldiers (still living in 1857) who fought under Napoleon 1792-1815. These soldiers were born circa 1765-1797 and all of them belonged to the French army between 1792 and 1815. The site is in French, English, and Flemish (with pages for other languages under construction). The online database already includes records of more than 23,000 medal recipients, and indexing is in progress for many more French departements.


GERMANY. Most German states had conscription laws and most young men were required to register for military service. Young men who had not yet served were required to get special permission to emigrate. The earliest records begin about 1485, listing only the names of the soldiers, but records from the middle of the 19th century onward give information about promotions, places served, pensions, conduct and details about the person's career; some may include age, birthplace, residence, occupation, and physical description as well as the names of family members.

Access to Germany military records is often a problem. There is no central archive for these records. Each German state had its own system of keeping records before 1867 and these records are now stored in several German state archives. In 1867 the armies of all but three German states (Bayern, Sachsen, or Württemberg) were integrated into the armies of Preußen. These military records were almost completely destroyed in 1945.

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

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