His full name. From family knowledge, a birth, marriage or death certificate. While it was not necessary for a man to enlist using his full name or provide any evidence of it, it obviously helps if you know it.

His regiment and/or number. If you do not know this, your life is going to be rather harder. It does not stop you - but it may be difficult to decide which man is Grandad from others of the same name.  

His background. Where he came from, his date of birth and the name of his next of kin are all pieces of information that can help you pick out one man from others of the same name.  

Where he served or what he did. Family stories of Grandad being at a particular place or having a particular role or being wounded can all help.

Useful clues can be gained before you really start from - photographs - discharge certificates or other documents - 1901 census information - medals (look for his regiment and number stamped on the rim) - local newspaper cuttings.

It is not a good idea to begin by contacting a regimental museum. They do not hold the service records of soldiers, although some do have some useful lists*. Some of the museums are excellent, friendly and helpful. Others are under-staffed and unable to devote much time to your project. You may find the museum very useful once you have discovered the basics of a soldier's career.

*The Guards regiments do have records of their troops.

Many men are mentioned by name in published sources, although if you are just starting out this might be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Local newspapers carried stories of men enlisting (at least in the early days), mentions when they were wounded or killed, and even letters from the soldiers to the Editor. Post-war, many books were published that gave rolls of honour or even whole lists of men who joined up - but only for a relatively few units. Modern researchers have produced great work on, for example, the Pals battalions, local war memorials, etc - but again for only a relatively few units and places. This is an exercise best left until you are much further down the road and in possession of good information about units and dates that were important to Grandad.

What can I find online?

Things have developed fast as far as online sources are concerned. Researchers can now find in minutes what used to take weeks. There are however very few useful free sources, particularly for men who survived.

Army service records

The military career of every soldier was recorded in great detail. His enlistment, postings, health, conduct and eventual discharge were all written down on official army forms. The forms used varied depending on the type of soldier Grandad was. The records give the most comprehensive view of a soldier's army career.

On the other hand, the service records provide very little information on what the soldier actually did and where he went. They are often hard to read and full of army abbreviations and jargon, which you might need help to interpret. Copies of the various papers were kept in a single central file. A given man's file can contain very little or a great deal, depending on his circumstances and the various actions that thinned out the files once they were archived after the war.

The surviving service records of men who served during the war and who died or were discharged before 1922 are available on microfilm at the National Archives (Kew, London) but are now being scanned and made available online via www.ancestry.co.uk

There are two series

1.The so -called “Burnt Series” or National Archives collection WO363. This is the main collection of army service records of men who were not commissioned officers. Included are records of men who died and of those who survived, whether they were discharged to pension or not. Unfortunately it holds only about one third of all soldier's records, the rest having been destroyed by fire in 1940.  Many of the records   are damaged and almost all are faded and incomplete

2.National Archives collection WO364, misleadingly called pension records by Ancestry. When the warehouse where the records were stored burned in 1940, luckily some had been withdrawn and were in the Ministry of Pensions. All of the records in WO364 are of men who had been pensioned, but it is not all men who had been pensioned

Medals records

The man's entitlement to medals - and all men, including officers, who went overseas qualified for medals - was recorded in great lists, called rolls. An index card was created for each man, telling you which roll he appeared in. They sometimes also provide other useful information. The index cards are available online, in two places.  

First, at the www.nationalarchives.gov.uk website. The cards have been scanned and currently cost £3.50 to download. The quality of scanning leaves much to be desired and the download gives you a PDF page containing (usually) 6 cards, one of which will be the one you have ordered.  

Second, at  Ancestry.This company is in the process of scanning the cards and at time of writing only a small proportion are available. But the quality is much improved and the reverse face is included, although it is blank in the majority of cases.

War diaries

Units of infantry battalion or artillery brigade size and above recorded their day to day movements and activities in operational records called war diaries. Most have survived and are available in the original at the National Archives. Some have now been digitised and can be downloaded from the their website. Once again, they cost £3.50 to download a PDF file. Each file covers usually about a month's worth of the diary although this varies depending on how much is written. War diaries rarely mention men of the “other ranks” but officers and senior NCOs are often named. War diaries can be very useful for, for example, understanding an action in which a man was killed or wounded.

Men who lost their lives in the war.

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

This remarkable organisation was originally formed as the Graves Registration Commission during the war. They meticulously recorded the details and burial place of every casualty, where conditions allowed. After the war came the immense job of clearing the battlefields. Many bodies were simply not in a condition to be identifiable, and many early graves had been destroyed by subsequent bombardment. The men and parts of men thus found were buried as 'unknown soldiers', or had special memorials erected saying that they had been formerly buried somewhere else but their graves had been lost. Memorials to the Missing were erected, listing those men known to be gone but whose body had not yet been identified. Today, the Commission maintains all British and Commonwealth war graves and such Memorials.

You can search for details of a casualty through the www.cwgc.org

‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’

An excellent source for locating those who died. Published in 1921 with facsimile copies since. In 80 parts plus a separate volume for officers. Each volume deals with individual Regiment or Corps, and lists those who died, giving dates, locations, army number. Not 100% accurate but an excellent record that was based on regimental records. This has been digitalised and you can search on www.findmypast.co.uk

Useful websites







The 1914-15 Star was a campaign medal of the British Empire, for service in World War I.

The 1914-15 Star was approved in 1918, for issue to officers and men of British and Imperial forces who served in any theatre of the War between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915 (other than those who had already qualified for the 1914 Star).

Recipients of this medal also received the British War Medal and Victory Medal. Some 2,366,000 were issued

The British War Medal was a campaign medal of the British Empire, for service in World War I.

The medal was approved in 1919, for issue to officers and men of British and Imperial forces who had rendered service between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918.

The Military Medal was (until 1993) a military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and other services, and formerly also to personnel of other Commonwealth countries, below commissioned rank, for bravery in battle on land. The medal was established on 25 March 1916. It was the other ranks' equivalent to the Military Cross, which was awarded to commissioned officers and Warrant Officers (although WOs could also be awarded the MM), although it took precedence below that decoration as well as the Distinguished Conduct Medal, also awarded to non-commissioned members of the Army. Recipients of the Military Medal were entitled to use the post-nominal letters “MM”.

The Victory Medal (also called the Allied Victory Medal) is a campaign medal - of which the basic design and ribbon was adopted by Belgium, Brazil, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Romania, Siam, Union of South Africa and the USA. The medal was issued to all those who received the 1914 and the 1914-15 Stars, and to most of those who were awarded the British War Medal - it was never awarded singly.

Researching your World War I Ancestors

                 extracted from the web site The Long Long Trail.

 click here to go to

Commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the ending of the First World War.

90 years on, for many of us the memory of Grandad's military service in the First World War is just a photograph, perhaps a medal, maybe a mention that he was at a particular place. So what exactly did Grandad do in the war?

November 11th 2008 commemorated the 90th anniversary of the ending of the First World War.

The war claimed the lives of 670,000 soldiers, out of the 5 million men who served in the  British army. This equated to roughly one in every five of those who served being killed; three in every five were wounded. With figures like this there can be few front line soldiers who escaped the war unscathed.

In White Colne a total of 13 men lost their lives. Seven of these were under 25, 3 were aged 19. These young men would have been well known in the village – they thatched their neighbour’s roof, they carried bags at the station, they groomed the Gentleman’s horses, they worked in the fields and taught at local schools.

click here for Here is part of their story – LEST WE FORGET

Silent Cities

There are more than 2,000 war cemeteries from WW1 in Belgium and France, ranging from small battlefield burial grounds to huge post-war concentration cemeteries.

Nurses who died

No British service women served in the combat zone during WW1. Nurses were in the  Casualty Clearing Stations behind the lines, but were never allowed near the trenches. Despite this, more than 650 of them became casualties; many killed in bombing raids or lost on hospital ships.

War Wounds

The great killer in WW1 was artillery fire. Most soldiers were killed and wounded by high explosive shells. The bayonet was the weapon which inflicted the least casualties despite wartime images of glorious bayonet charges.

Front line service

One of the myths of the war is that soldiers spent all of their time in the front line. By 1915 most men never spent more than a week at a time before going for rest. Battalions were constantly rotated.

click here to see more details of Alfred Duncombe

68523, PRIVATE Alfred George Duncombe

, Labour Corps

Died of wounds, France & Flanders, 23/05/1918

Born Pedmarsh, Essex. Enlisted Colchester, Essex


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Millions of men served in the army. You need to do everything you can to make sure that you can spot your man from among others. If he has a common surname this is vital, for you could be looking at hundreds or even thousands of men with the same name. So what kind of information helps?

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