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Military records

What are they and how are they useful for genealogists?

Many of us will have family members who served in the armed forces whether they enlisted for one conflict or served over a lifetime. Military and naval records can provide many interesting details on an ancestor’s life and any wars in which he or she took part but they can also give many useful genealogical facts as well.

You may find it difficult to find people who served in the armed forces in the usual records used by genealogists as they may have rarely been at home so won’t be found in census returns, birth, marriage or death events may have happened across the world while on service and thus you might not find these records where expected.

Military records are the official records of a military force whether that is the army, navy, air force, coast guard, marines, militia, etc. They can contain records that track a person’s service, record any medals or promotions they may have received or any training undertaken or their post-service pension. There are a vast number of different types of records that the military bureaucracy creates to track its members which we can be thankful for as genealogists.

Why are they created and what type of information might we find?

Like any organisation a military body needs to know who its members are in order to track such things as experience, training, pay, progress through the ranks, names of any dependants a member might have in case a pension needs to be paid, information on the next of kin in case of death and so on.

Often the first record created is an attestation record which is the papers that are filled in when someone signs up for service. These contain a varying amount of information but you usually will find names, birth information, names of the next of kin, and addresses. Other records you may find on someone will depend on their branch of service, how long they served, if they served overseas, whether they got into trouble, and whether they were wounded or died.

The military also created birth, marriage and death records which record any of these events happening on a military base or through the auspices of a military chaplain or other officiate.

Particular issues with finding military records

Your success in finding information about your military ancestors will depend in part on:

  • whether they were an officer vs. enlisted as generally it is easier to track officers as more records were kept on them and
  • whether you know their regiment’s name, the ship served on and so on. Many record sets are not arranged by individuals’ name so if you are looking at a resource that has not been indexed, then you may have to resort to looking page by page through the resource for your ancestor.

Family sources may help you with these questions. However, many databases that include records on individuals are searchable by name (so you may not need to know regiment, etc. depending on how common the name is that you are looking for).

While many military records have been digitized and indexed online, there are many more that are only available in physical archives. However this is an area that is being developed particularly fast so do keep checking to see if what you are interested in has been made available online or plan a trip to that particular archive of interest!

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information on the topic.

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This article is from the free online course:

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

University of Strathclyde