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Military records identify individuals who either served or were eligible to serve in the military.
Before 1707 Scotland had its own military. During that time, people were only called up when needed. They were dismissed when the need was met. Few records were kept during this time.
In 1707 the governments and militaries of England and Scotland united. Most records from this time forward are housed in the Public Record Office in England. The information contained in the records varies depending on the record, but you will generally find the following information in military records: date of enlistment, date of release, record of service, age, place of birth, residence, spouse, and children.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the military had the following branches: army, navy, militia, fencibles, yeomanry, territorial armies, coast guard, and royal marines.
To find a person’s military record, you must know the regiment or ship on which the person served. You can often find this information in home sources, certificates of births, marriages, and deaths, census records, or other types of records created over the life of your ancestor.
Military service (other than the militia) was usually a lifetime career. Officers came from the upper classes and soldiers often came from the working class. Compulsory draft was generally not used except in times of greatest need, and people could purchase substitutes if they did not wish to serve.
The navy sometimes used force to make men serve on their ships. This was called impressment. The navy stopped this practice in 1815 when it became illegal.
Pre-1872 army records are organized by regiment. Most regiments have published histories which tell the places they served and the battles they fought. A bibliography of these histories is:
White, Arthur S., comp. A Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army. London, England: The Society for Army Historical Research, 1965. (Not at Family History Library.)
To find military histories at the Family History Library, look in the Locality Search of the catalog under"
GREAT BRITAIN - MILITARY HISTORY.
Records of officers and enlisted men are usually separate. Records of officers usually include only commissioned officers, which were field marshal, general, lieutenant-general, major-general, brigadier, colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major, captain, lieutenant, ensign, cornet, paymaster, adjutant, quarter-master, surgeon, assistant surgeon, chaplain.
Types of Records
Army records include the following:
Chaplains’ Returns. Army chaplains throughout the British Empire kept records that list the baptisms, marriages, and burials by regiment. These returns (from 1796 to 1880) are indexed and available at the Family Records Centre in London.
Muster Rolls. Records usually list name, age at enlistment, date, and place of enlistment. Army musters exist from 1760 to 1878.
Pay Records. These include pay lists, warrants, and ledgers.
Pension Records. Pensions were available to officers, their widows, and children. The earliest of these records date from 1713 and include both service and personal information.
Records of Service. These records are for officers and were kept from 1771 to 1911.
Regimental Description Books. These books include name, age at enlistment, birthplace, previous trade, and physical description. Most books start about 1805 and continue to 1850.
Regimental Registers. These are registers of births, baptisms, marriages, and burials of soldiers or members of their families that were compiled by regiment. Baptisms are indexed. Marriages and burials are partially indexed. These records (1761 to 1924) are available at the Family Records Centre.
Soldiers’ Documents. Since military service was usually for one’s lifetime, discharge was often due to wounds or other physical impairment. Soldiers were discharged through an Army hospital, such as Chelsea. These records are available only for those soldiers who were discharged to pension. They have various arrangements depending upon the time period. Records exist from 1760 to 1914.
Location of Original Records
The above records are at the Public Record Office, Kew, unless stated otherwise. Pre-1707 records are at:
Scottish Record Office
P.O. Box 36
HM General Register House
Edinburgh EH1 3YY
Post-1914 records are at:
Army Records Centre
Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Libraryhas:
- Soldier’s documents.
- Regimental description books.
- Lists of officers.
- Records of service.
You can find military records by looking in:
Army Records. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1978. (Family History Library book 942 M2a; film 990313 item 5.) This is a typescript list of army records in the Family History Library’s collection.
You can also find them by looking in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under either SCOTLAND or GREAT BRITAIN and the following topic headings:
MILITARY - ARMY
Numerous navy records were kept after the union of England and Scotland in 1707. However, unless you know the name of a ship, they may be difficult to use. Many are available only at the Public Record Office.
Records for officers and seaman were generally kept separately. The ranks of officers were as follows:
Commissioned officers include:
- Flag officers—admiral of the fleet, admiral, vice admiral, and rear admiral.
- Ship officers—captain, commander, lieutenant.
- Posts for men aspiring to be commissioned officers—first class volunteers, midshipmen, executive mates.
Warrant officers include:
- Wardroom rank—master, surgeon, purser, chaplain, schoolmaster, cook.
- Not of the wardroom rank—gunner, boatswain, carpenter.
Many sources list navy ships with descriptions, dates, and places of service. A good example is:
Colledge, James J. Ships of the Royal Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1987. (Family History Library book 942 M3c.)
Official list books, available from 1673, give ports of call for ships during each year.
Types of Records
Navy records include:
Officers Service Records. These date from about 1795 and list officers’ service information.
Navy Lists. Starting in 1782, these lists contain seniority lists of officers from lieutenant upwards.
Succession Books. Arranged by ship, these books give the successive appointments to each position on the ship.
Musters and Pay Books. These are lists of the ship’s company and give information such as appearance, whether or not pressed into service, age, birthplace, and discharge.
Certificates of Service. Starting in about 1790, certificates were needed to support a claim to receive a pension.
Continuous Service Engagement Books. From 1853, navy ratings (seamen) were assigned continuous service numbers. The records give name, birth date, birthplace, description, and ship. From 1872 to 1892, merchant seamen were included.
Registers of Service. There are several different types of service registers with the earliest dating only from the 1840s and pertaining to officers. Before that time, officers were issued certificates of service only when they needed to prove qualifying service. The earliest service registers for ratings (seamen) are for those entering the service from 1873.
Bounty Papers. These give the name and address of the relation to whom bounty is to be paid in case the seamen is killed in action or dies. They include baptismal and sometimes marriage certificates of next of kin.
Lieutenant’s Passing Certificates. Registers of those young officers or gentlemen examined for promotion to Lieutenant in the Navy from 1691 to 1848. From 1789 onwards baptismal certificates were attached to them. They are indexed to 1832.
Location of Original Records
Pre-1914 navy records are at the Public Record Office, Kew.
Post-1914 navy records are at:
Ministry of Defense
Main Building, Whitehall SW1A 2HB
The Family History Library has
- Continuous service engagement books.
- Indexes to commission and warrant books.
- Bounty papers.
- Some navy lists.
You can find records at the Family History Library records in the Locality Search of the catalog under either SCOTLAND or GREAT BRITAIN and the following topic headings:
MILITARY - NAVY
Militia units were generally raised on a county basis. Each unit kept its own records. Lists of eligible men were compiled, and compulsory draft was used as needed. The decision of who would serve in the militia was usually left up to the individual parishes.
Location of Original Records
Records of muster up to the Act of Union of 1707 are kept at the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh. A list of these records is in:
Tudor and Stuart Muster Rolls. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies, 1989. (Family History Library Ref. 942 M2gj.)
To find post-1707 muster lists held by the Scottish Record Office and other Scottish archives, see:
Militia Lists and Musters 1757-1876.Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies, 1989. (Family History Library Ref. 942 M2gmm.) This source also lists regimental returns for the reestablished militia from 1798 onwards, which are at the Public Record Office, Kew.
Some militia records are found with the army records mentioned previously, particularly the records of service of officers and the soldiers’ documents.
Records at the Family History Library
Many militia records have been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library.
The Family History Library Catalog lists militia records in the Locality Search under:
GREAT BRITAIN - MILITARY RECORDS
SCOTLAND - MILITARY RECORDS
SCOTLAND [COUNTY] - MILITARY RECORDS
Other Branches of the Military
The following other military branches have separate records:
- Fencibles were army units raised for home service only. Fencibles were usually classed with the militia, and records are kept with militia records.
- Yeomanry were volunteer regiments, records of which often do not survive or are not very complete.
- Territorial armies were forces raised in other countries. Records of these forces are usually in the country where the forces were raised. A notable exception is the Indian Army, for which many records are held at the India Office Library.
- Coast Guard (1816-1923) and Royal Marines (1790-1914) kept their own records, including pension, description, and other records.
These records are at the Public Record Office, Kew.
For more information on military records for branches of the service other than navy or regular army, see the military record handbooks listed next.
Handbooks on Military History and Military Records
Because the records are vast and varied, it would be useful to read some of the following books to learn more about the military and what is available for each branch of the service:
Barnes, R. Money. The Scottish Regiments: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, 1625 to the Present Day. London, England: Seeley Service, 1956. (FHL book 941 M25b.)
Calder, Jenni. The Story of the Scottish Soldier, 1600- 1914. Edinburgh, Scotland: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1987. (FHL book 941 M2c.)
Fowler, Simon. Army Records for Family Historians. London, England: Public Record Office, 1992. (FHL Ref 942 M27f.)
Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald. In Search of Army Ancestry. London, England: Phillimore & Co., Ltd., 1977. (FHL book 942 M2ha.)
Higham, Robin. A Guide to the Sources of British Military History. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. (FHL book 942 M2h.)
Kitzmiller, John. In Search of the Forlorn Hope. Ogden, Utah: Manuscript Publishing Foundation, 1988. (FHL book 942 M2kj.)
Records of Officers and Soldiers Who Have Served in the British Army. London, England: Public Record Office, 1984. (FHL Ref. book 942 M23gb.)
Rodgers, N.A.M. Naval Records for Genealogists. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1988. (FHL book 942 A5p no. 22.)
Swinnerton, Ian. The British Army: Its History, Tradition, and Records. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies, 1996. (FHL book 942 M2si.)
Swinson, Arthur S., ed. A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army. London, England: Archive Press, 1972. (FHL book 942 M2am No. 1.)
Thomas, Garth. Records of the Royal Marines. London, England: Public Record Office, 1994. (FHL Ref 942 M27tg.)
Watts, Michael J., and Christopher T. Watts. My Ancestor Was in the British Army: How Can I Find Out More About Him? London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1992. (FHL Ref 942 M27wm.)