Researching Your Ancestor's Military Service

Unidentified CEF soldierFrequently, members of the Calgary Military Historical Society were asked to assist in finding information about an individual’s military service. Typically, the person has passed on and therefore cannot provide the wanted details or insights. Regardless of the particular circumstances, most of these requests tend to follow similar beginnings.

First of all, the individual requesting assistance generally either has 1) limited information on the family member in question, or 2) has information but cannot understand or interpret that information due to a lack of knowledge or insight into things military. The latter, especially, is understandable because the military, regardless of nationality, does have a well-deserved reputation of having their own unique ‘culture’, complete with a unique language and organization.

Before we get into a discussion on how to approach the necessary research itself, we would encourage new researchers to educate themselves to some degree to improve their understanding of military terminology and hierarchy, and how it is organized both administratively as well as learning about the various units and their service. How much knowledge is necessary will obviously depend upon the immediate need. There is no denying that this can be a daunting task, but no matter how difficult the learning curve may appear, this knowledge will allow you to place the military records you will be examining into their historical context of the time period and will add to your family history endeavours by painting a more vivid and meaningful picture of the person whom you are researching.

As a beginning comment, whether you are searching for military records online, in published sources or any other source, try to remember that there is absolutely no substitute for verifying the information in the original records. All indexes, databases and other publications should be used as pointers to original records that you must access at some point to ensure the accuracy of your research.

Lastly, it should be noted that this article is not meant to be an exhaustive “how to” discussion, nor is it necessarily a complete listing of available military records. Rather, it can be looked at as a fairly comprehensive beginning point for those who wish to research military service. It was decided that this discussion would focus on military and naval topics and as such, no attempt is made to discuss police or non-military organizations, even if they had strong associations with the military in their history.

The new researcher will quickly find that often the major problem in proceeding is not necessarily a lack of data or advice, but rather just the opposite. For the neophyte this can be quite bewildering. Military records and documentation and other sources of information as well as military events and history in general are covered in thousands of published books, official and unofficial archival sources, and at least as many internet sites. So one should try to be discriminating in their search. Depending on how the search proceeds, as well as the insight of the researcher (remember – the detective and his/her abilities to ‘solve’ the mystery), will determine the ultimate path of discovery. Therefore, we will simply give an overview of the types and source of the more significant types of military records and resources that are available to the researcher, as well as those information sources that we personally have found useful. The focus will be on Canadian and British sources, but a brief summary of international resources is also given with the qualifier that in many cases, regardless of nationality, the same approach is valid.


The first step we have to do (and by default, yourself) when undertaking such a project, is to ask the question – is there enough information available to proceed? Generally, when we are first approached, often all the person may have is a name and a family relationship. The person wishing more information may also know which conflict is involved, but often very little else at that point. Therefore, we ask the person to try and supply more information. Think of this as a classic mystery investigation, exactly as one would see in a movie or television show. The detective gathers information through observation or other means, synthesizes the data and draws conclusion (i.e. solves the mystery). A search of military service is really no different. Therefore, any details on the relative in question can and usually does prove useful, not only in giving information but in opening up different avenues or directions of research. All we do initially is suggest types of information that more often than not is already available to the person asking for assistance.

Having said the above, any or all of the following can be particularly useful.

  • Personal information: full name, date and place of birth, next of kin and relationship (and if married), civilian address (or address of next of kin) at time of military enlistment, occupation and nationality. Additional personal information that can also help (but realistically is often not known to the requester) would include religion, height, weight, hair colour, distinguishing marks, etc.
  • Military service information: date and place of enlistment, military unit of enlistment, serial or service number, rank (i.e. officer or enlisted man/woman) and any former military service, regardless of nationality.

Having any or all of the above information gives a real chance to 1) identify the individual with certainty (all too often, several individuals will have the same name, thus creating confusion), 2) narrow the necessary search to time and place, and 3) successfully retrieve at least some of that individual’s military service record. Once the necessary initial information has been identified, then the search proper, and thus the fun can begin. Remember that such research is rarely straightforward. All too often, the research will move down a promising pathway only to find a dead end requiring one to retrace their steps and start down another avenue. Also all too often, surprises and intrigues will show themselves. It is these, in large part, which can make the entire effort worthwhile. Lastly, this research has no definite timeline. You can be fortunate enough to find what you are looking for in a matter of an hour or so, or you may have to spend years in your search. The main point is not to become discouraged to the point of giving up. If you find yourself reaching that stage, then is the time to ask for assistance from others hopefully more knowledgeable or experienced in such things.


Primary Sources: a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These records were compiled during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include original documents (including diaries, manuscripts, letters, official records, etc.), creative works (poetry, drama, music, art, photographs), and relics or artifacts. These, being original are less open to interpretation and can be considered to be the best sources. However, as with any documentation, errors can be present and therefore confirmation by other sources is advised. Also, too, because these types of records were created for a specific purpose, they may provide only limited, albeit important, information. Types of military primary records include:

  • Army: Attestation (enlistment) and discharge documents, lists (army, militia, territorial army), regimental records of service, regimental description and succession books, muster rolls, pension records, etc.
  • Navy: Records of Officers’ Service, Warrant Officers’ and Seamen’s Certificates of Service, Ships’ Muster Books, Seamen’s Services, the Navy List, Continuous Service Engagement Books, Admiralty Records Seamen’s Effect Papers, Officers’ Lists, Pension Lists, etc.
  • Secondary Sources: these interpret and analyze primary sources and are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of secondary sources include publications (textbooks, magazine articles, criticisms, commentaries, later histories). As these are second-hand, interpretations and insights removed from the original times may or may not be valid. Their usefulness, however, is that they allow the researcher a broader viewpoint and appreciation of the context of the primary sources.

We are now ready to examine the specific resources available to the military service researcher. Again, we must stress that the following is not meant to be totally comprehensive, but rather, to provide some suggested sources of information from which to proceed. The choice of how to proceed will ultimately be yours.

Firstly, a discussion of some of the types of records relating to army service will be given, followed by a similar discussion for navy, marine and merchant marine resources.


Napoleon I once said that “an army marches on its stomach”. This is certainly true – to an extent – however it may be equally accurate to say that “an army marches on paperwork”. Fortunately for the military researcher, the latter is true resulting in a large existing records inventory available for examination. Following is a discussion of army record sources with a focus on the British and by association, the Canadian situation. A review of British and Canadian army history as it applies to military research, as well as a brief discussion of the some of the more important types of available army records, and their repositories follows.

Evolution of Documentation within the British Army

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. Records relating to regular army units are usually held at one of the national repositories such as the British Public Record Officer. Militia unit documentation as well as records relating to fencibles units (army units raised for home service only) are usually found within militia archives, while few records relating to Yeomanry units (i.e. volunteer regiments) have survived. Records of colonial armies and forces raised in other countries are usually kept in the country where the forces were raised, except the Indian Army, for which records are held at the India Office Library or the National Army Museum, both located in London.

In order to use British military records efficiently, it is helpful to determine the specific army regiment in which your ancestor served. With this information you may be able to utilize a wide variety of primary 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 cannot write to the Public Record Office and request a search. You will have to make the trip to England or hire a professional researcher there to do the work for you. The (WO) 97 records contain personal documents 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 (WO) 97 records are divided into five periods by dates. Each group is arranged differently, meaning the researcher needs to know some of the peculiarities of this filing system in order to be successful. From 1760-1854 these records are arranged alphabetically by regiment, so you need to determine that information first. However, there now is a computerized alphabetical surname index. It was compiled by volunteers from the Friends of the PRO, and there is a printout at the PRO in England. However, if there are several soldiers of the same name — a rather common problem — you still will have to determine which one is yours.

From 1855-1872 the records are arranged by regiment and there is no index. From 1873-1882 the documents are filed alphabetically by name within the arm of service, i.e. cavalry, infantry, artillery, engineers and corps, rather than by regiment. If you do not have this information, start with the infantry, which was the largest group. From 1883-1899 and 1900-1913 the records for the entire army are filed alphabetically by surname in these groups.

If your ancestor was an officer, tracing him is more straight-forward since there are 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 was called "half pay." Payments of half pay and pensions rested with the paymaster-general and it among those 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 soldier'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.

Lastly, civil registration, census, and church records can usually provide enough information to help in a search for military records. Pre-1914 records are at the Public Record Office while Post-1914 army records are at the Army Records Centre, Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF.

Evolution of Documentation within the Canadian Military

Indigenous Canadian military history is generally considered to start from about 1855 when the Canadian Militia was established. Up to that point, defence matters were handled firstly, by French Colonial Forces and after 1791, by British Army and Royal Navy units. Thus the vast majority of information before 1855 originated from French and British military organizations. Notwithstanding this, local Canadian military units were involved in various conflicts prior to that date and thus cannot be overlooked. Following is a listing of records, organized by conflict, that are available to some degree.

Fenian Raids

  • Medal Roll – confirming all recipients and in many cases gives dates dispatched and address where sent.
  • Service Files – there are no known service files for those who served however there are pay records available for all Militia units that sent men to the border points.
  • Land Grants – the Canadian Government offered land grants to qualifying Militia personnel who served in the Fenian Raids. Veterans had to apply giving details of where and when served and present address where to be contacted. These applications fall into two groups, those approved and those not.

NW Rebellion

  • Official Government Medal Roll – confirming all recipients and in many cases gives dates dispatched and the address where sent. A complete medal roll of North West Mounted Police recipients has also been published.
  • Service Files – there are no known service files for those who served except for members of the North West Mounted Police. Military units sent to Western Canada were mainly Militia and the only documents available are pay records of the units. However the conflict is well documented in many books and a medical account exists giving details about those who were wounded, as well as the movement and recovery progress.
  • Land Grants – the Canadian Government offered land grants to qualifying Militia personnel. Veterans had to apply giving details of where and when served and present address where to be contacted. NWMP were later offered land grants but could accept script in lieu of the grant.

Anglo-Boer War

  • Service Files – these are open documents, preserved on microfilm, for all who enlisted in the Canadian Contingents.
  • Medal Roll – a complete medal roll exists for all Canadians who served in the Canadian Contingents and who were awarded the Queen South Africa medal.
  • General Correspondence – records consist of volumes of documents outlining all aspects of the war effort

World War I (Canadian Expeditionary Force or CEF)

  • CEF Attestation Documents – these documents were completed when an individual enlisted in the CEF and contain personal information and descriptions, assigned service number (in the case of non-officers), a brief summary of prior military service. Often, but not always, the unit involved is also recorded. Most of these are now available online through the National Archives of Canada.
  • CEF Personal Service Files – available to researchers from the National Archives of Canada. No privacy rules apply.
  • Circumstances of Death Documents – in many cases these detail how and where a soldier actually died. Some, unfortunately, only state "Killed in Action", as the actual circumstances could not be determined. Wounded who were evacuated to Hospitals or England but later died are not listed in these records. Unfortunately the last few books containing these records are missing so records are only available from A through to SIMS.
  • War Graves Registry – the registry lists all those killed in action or died of wounds regardless of where death took place. Included is information regarding the original place of temporary burial, any relocation of graves, and the cemetery name and plot number. If remains could not be located or identified then a commemoration of the person is given.
  • War Diaries – these were kept for every fighting battalion and support unit in the field. Some diaries also exist for units on the Lines of Communication or back in the United Kingdom, such as training units. Some diaries are well written giving detailed accounts while others contain little information for the researcher. Many of these are now available online through the National Archives of Canada.
  • Militia Lists – the Canadian Military published monthly lists of units in the Canadian Militia from 1866 to 1945 listing officers in these units. As well, names of retired officers and their war service, names of reserve officers and those senior ranks who had passed Officer Candidate Eligibility exams are recorded.
  • Royal Flying Corps Documents – records exist on every CEF Officer "seconded" to the Royal Flying Corps. These do not include men who enlisted directly from Canada. Documents, in most cases, list all squadrons served in, aircraft trained on and qualified to fly, and periods of service with the Royal Flying Corps.
  • Book of Remembrance – a full coloured page from the Book of Remembrance is available showing name and date. This is now available either as hardcopy or online through the website of Veterans’ Affairs Canada []

The Militia

  • Volumes of information are available on the Canadian Militia starting around 1800 and running up to 1960s. Unfortunately very few service files have survived but many muster roles, pay records and unit diaries or inspections reports are available.
  • Militia Lists – the Canadian military published monthly lists of units in the Canadian Militia from 1866 to approx. 1964. Officers in these units are listed. With the integration of the Armed Forces from 1968 - 1972 Militia lists were no longer published resulting in a reduction of the amount of information published. General Orders and such are still available but have not as yet been released as public information. These, though, are available from the Directorate of History and Heritage, Canadian Forces.
  • Medal Rolls - available for all medals issued for a) Canada General Service - Fenian Raids, b) Northwest Canada - Riel Rebellion, 3) Queens South Africa - Boer War

Canadian Army – World War II

  • Service Files - the National Archives of Canada holds service files on all persons who served in the Canadian Army during WW2. Militia information is also sometimes found on Active files of personnel who enlisted direct from a Militia unit for war service. Files continued for those remaining with the active military post war. Officers who returned to civilian life but remaining with a Militia unit can also be traced, however enlisted men are more of a challenge, especially those remaining only a few years. Unfortunately the Federal Government’s 'Old Policy" resulted in many pre & post war Militia files being destroyed once a person would have reached their 70th birthday. If the person was active force and had no war service then the file would be destroyed on their 90th birthday. For those who served in a conflict, their files were never destroyed. Sometimes other relevant militia documents were placed in these files This policy was in effect from approximately 1950 to 1984 with the result that thousands of files were destroyed. To access Service Files, a researcher must prove death more than 20 years to view the entire file. Without proof of death National Archives will release limited information such as medal entitlements, but documents are actively and arbitrarily vetted prior to release to remove protected information. Often much of the information deemed "protected" by National Archives can be located in other areas such as Directorate of History, National Defence; Provincial Records; Newspapers; City Directories etc. Therefore it is often a useful process to enquire at these other sources.
  • Gallantry Citations – most citations are available for all awards even though not all were officially published in the London or Canada Gazette.
  • Photographs - a large selection of photos of service personnel, units are available but unfortunately they are not indexed by family name in some instances and much time and effort is required to search data bases.
  • War Diaries – these are available for most units. Some are on microfilm; others are still hardcopy. To the knowledge of this author, these have not yet been digitized for online access. Hard copy diaries often have additional information such as newspaper articles, photos and other documents.
  • Army and Militia Orders - these can confirm all Long Service and Canadian Decorations, Colonial Auxiliary Decorations/Medals, Efficiency Decorations/Medals and Meritorious Medals.
  • Book of Remembrance – a full coloured page from the Book of Remembrance is available showing name and date. This is now available either as hardcopy or online through the website of Veterans’ Affairs Canada []

Korean War

  • Service Files – personnel files are protected by the Access to Information. Full access to files, under supervision, is permitted when a researcher can produce proof confirming 20 year proof of death. If proof of death cannot be supplied, only limited information will be released such as medal confirmation and posting, promotions and sometimes attestation but all are vetted. However a significant amount of this information is available from other sources such as regimental archives.
  • Medal Roll – exists for all veterans who applied for and were granted the Canadian Korean Volunteer medal.
  • War Diaries – some diaries exist and volumes of other material are available for research on all branches of the service.
  • Book of Remembrance – a full coloured page from the Book of Remembrance is available showing name and date. This is now available either as hardcopy or online through the website of Veterans’ Affairs Canada []

Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR)

Information on the Canadian Navy is available from 1914 to post WW2.

  • Service Files RNCVR (World War I) – service files are contained in two separate files, one administrative, a second being a record of ships served on, periods of service and all medal entitlement. Full access to these files is available through the National Archives of Canada.
  • Service Files RCN (World War II) – these are covered by Access to Information, therefore the researcher must prove death more than 20 years to have full access to a file. Without proof of death only vetted documents of medal entitlement, postings and some other non-protected information will be released.
  • Ships’ Logs – logs are available for most ships from both World Wars.
  • Navy List – covers from the late 1800's to 1964 and includes officers only and the ships they were attached to at the time of printing.
  • Citations – many unpublished citations are available for gallantry awards as well as copies of all Canada or London Gazettes.
  • Book of Remembrance – a full coloured page from the Book of Remembrance is available showing name and date. This is now available either as hardcopy or online through the website of Veterans’ Affairs Canada []

Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), Royal Air Force (RAF)

  • RFC / RNAS / RAF Documents – exist for those who enlisted directly into the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service from Canada. In most cases, squadrons served in are identified. These are not service files, but more like a nominal role with some additional information.
  • CEF to RFC Service Page for every CEF officer who was seconded to the RFC – these generally show full name, address, squadrons served in, awards, posting dates and aircraft qualified to operate, period of enlistment etc.
  • RCAF (World War II) – the National Archives of Canada holds service files on all persons who served in the RCAF from approx. 1935. These include wartime service files and all are protected by Access to Information. Researchers must prove death more than 20 years to view an entire file. Without proof of death National Archives will release information such as medal entitlements, postings, squadrons served in and sometimes other non-protected information but documents are vetted to remove protected information. Squadron diaries are available for the Canadian squadrons but many Canadians served in British Squadrons and these diaries are not available in Canada. Canadian diaries list all aircraft and crews as well as all aircraft failing to return and casualties. Many of the entries have foot notes of enemy aircraft encounters etc.
  • Gallantry Citations – most citations are available for all awards to RCAF personnel.
  • Photographs – the RCAF photo unit has a very large selection of photos of air crews and individuals from WW2, Korea & peace time.
  • Book of Remembrance – a full coloured page from the Book of Remembrance is available showing name and date. This is now available either as hardcopy or online through the website of Veterans’ Affairs Canada []
  • Canadian Decoration, Efficiency Decoration Medal Rolls
  • Air Force Routine Orders – these records dating from the mid-1930’s to 1964 can be accessed through the National Archives of Canada.

Royal Newfoundland Regiment

Newfoundland officially became part of Canada in 1949. Prior to that, it was a colony of Great Britain. As such, records before 1949 were kept in British repositories. The National Archives of Canada now hold all the Regiment’s World War I service files and is presently working at scanning attestation documents on the internet. Likewise, the National Archives of Canada hold those Gallantry Citations that were not published in the London Gazette.

Primary Army Sources

Attestation and Discharge Documents – these documents show, in the former case, enlistment details and in the latter case, those soldiers discharged with a pension. These were kept for all soldiers but are based on the time period when you believe the person served. These usually give the place and time of birth, age at enlistment, occupation before enlistment, and physical description, next of kin, marriage, children and sometimes, a brief medical history. Often also included with the discharge papers is information about his/her army career (medals, places served and more). These can be found either at the British Public Record Office or in the British War Office records.

  • Army, Militia or Territorial Army Lists – beginning in 1756, these mainly relate to officers. Published regularly (at least annually and at some times, four times/year), these give names of individuals servicing at the time of publication (half pay officers were not included in the early indexes) as well as their units. These can be found either at the British Public Record Office or in the British War Office records.
  • Regimental Registers, Records or Returns of Officers’ Services – available in the British War Office records. Regimental Registers are available from 1790 – 1924 while the other records mentioned exist from 1771 to 1911 (more incomplete before 1828). The amount of information in these records can vary but they usually provide officers’ ranks, service details and some personal information such as a physical description. Because many British officers between 1774 and 1855 served at some point in Canada, some of these records are available through the National Archives of Canada. These can be found in the British War Office records.
  • Regimental Description and Succession Books, or their equivalent – these can be found in the British War Office archives or at the Public Record Office. Microfilm copies are also often available at the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. LDS or Mormons) and on loan to local Family History Centres of the LDS.
  • Muster Rolls – usually held in either the National Archives of Canada or at the Public Records Office in Britain. These were usually compiled four times a year and arranged in volumes based on a one year period. While these do not contain as much personal information as Regimental Description Books, they can be useful in establishing dates of enlistment and discharge (or death).
  • Pension Records – the amount of information given in these documents can vary considerably and depends to a large extent by the pension policies at the time of discharge. However, when awarded, a record of such was kept. A good secondary source of individual British army pensioners who settled abroad is the work, British Army Pensioners Abroad, 1772 – 1899 by Norman K. Crowder. The book is available from Details on Canadian pensioners can be researched by name from the National Archives of Canada and/or Veterans’ Affairs Canada websites. The LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City can also be helpful.
  • Miscellaneous Original Regimental Documents – many regiments and other units have within their own archives, original documents and records relating specifically to that unit. These are harder to discover due to their limited scope however can, once discovered, be very valuable in any researcher. To access such records, the researcher must approach each unit individually (assuming archives are kept) to determine what is available.
  • Pay Records – found in the Public Record Office under the records of the Paymaster General
  • Continuous Service Engagement Books
  • Chaplains Returns – Army chaplains throughout the British Empire kept records that list the baptisms, marriages and burials of soldiers and their families. These returns, from 1760 to 1971, are indexed and available by correspondence from the General Register Office.

Secondary Army Sources

Published Works

There are a tremendous number of published resources available that deal in some fashion with various aspects of military service research, and certainly more than can be recognized in the scope of this discussion. Having said that, following are a few that may be of immediate value to the new researcher.

  • Army Records for Family Historians by Simon Fowler and William Spencer – a useful guide, using the records of the army at the Public Record Office.
  • My Ancestor was in the British Army by Michael J. Watts and Christopher T. Watt – covering the period from 1660 to World War I, this includes a readable and comprehensive listing for sources for researching officers and other ranks.
  • Gone for a Soldier: Beginning a Search for Military Ancestors by Simon Fowler.
  • An Introduction to the British Army its history, tradition and records by Iain Swinnerton - this 48 page book is part of the Federation of Family History Societies 'Introduction' series.
  • British Army Pensioners Abroad 1722 - 1899 by Norman Crowder – intended to serve as an index to the Chelsea regimental pension registers of British Veterans who settled abroad with an army pension.
  • Regimental Indexes by Barbara Chambers – a series of indexes to the general army musters of circa 1806 and much easier to use than a search at the Public Record Office (WO25).
  • Do I Have Army Ancestors? by Barbara Chambers – a 12 page booklet that deals with earlier army ancestors than many books on the subject. The main subject area is the British Army between 1793 and 1815. This small 12 page booklet is a useful starting guide that deals with earlier army ancestors than many books on the subject.
  • The Records of the War Office and Related Departments 1660 - 1964 by Michael Roper. Public Record Office handbook No 29.
  • Records of the Militia & Volunteer Forces from 1757 1945 by William Spencer. No. 3 in the series of the PRO's Readers' Guides.
  • Militia Lists and Musters 1757-1876, A Directory of Holdings in the British Isles by J.S.W Gibson & Mervyn Medlycott - provides precise information on the survival and location of comprehensive or extensive lists of personal names which may be of use in family historical research.
  • Discovering British Regimental Traditions by Ian F W Beckett. This 136 page book charts the history of the British army through the development of its traditions. Describes traditions and customs as well as explaining monuments, dress and more. 1st edition 1999.

On-line Resources

These are felt by this author to be most useful to the new researcher. Again, as with published sources, these represent only a small sampling of the large number of resources currently online.

  • The Regimental Rogue by Michael O’Leary [] – a very readable, simple and understandable summary explaining how to go about researching your ancestor’s military service. It has a Canadian focus but much can be applied to Britain and other nationalities. This author would recommend a close review of this website before proceeding with your search, i.e. it is highly recommended as your starting point.
  • The Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group [] – an extensive, comprehensive and up-to-date listing of various sources of information pertaining to the Canadian World War I military. An excellent source for World War I.
  • National Archives of Canada Online Search Facility [] – two easy to use entry points to national archival records that are currently available online.
  • In Search of Your Soldier Ancestor – online leaflet from the Federation of Family History Societies [] to assist you in beginning a search of a soldier ancestor (may no longer be available).
  • Canadian Soldiers [] – an excellent and comprehensive summary of the history of the Canadian military including organization, unit evolution, etc.
  • Summary of United States Military Service Record Sources [] – a good starting point summary of various sources of information when researching American military service records along with a listing of useful links.
  • UK Ministry of Defence British Army Service Records []
  • The British Army official website []
  • Cyndi's List UK Military [] – a genealogy site that contains a fair amount of useful information on sources of military information.
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission [] – this website is devoted to documenting the names of all those who are buried in Commonwealth War Graves. Search is by name of the fallen soldier and information includes nationality, unit, date and place of death when known, occasionally details of how death occurred, next of kin and exact location of grave. Occasionally a photo is available however a photo can often be obtained by requesting such on this website, if you are willing to wait for some time.
  • Trenches on the Web [] – website devoted to the First World War
  • Directorate of History and Heritage, Canadian Forces [] – a useful site that focuses on various Canadian military topics. The information can be considered to be accurate and valid.
  • Ancestry [] – this author has never used this website for research but it does appear to be a valuable resource. However, one must pay a yearly fee (fairly substantial) to use the site but it does allow access to a variety of sources in what appears (if one believes their advertising) to be a fairly seamless and interactive manner.

Repositories of Primary Records for Army Records

National Archives of Canada (NAC)

The National Archives of Canada is the largest repository in Canada of those official records that give details of soldiers’ careers from 1855 to present. These are extensive and while very complete, most original Canadian records of military units from the 18th and 19th centuries are kept by the War Office and other repositories in Great Britain. There are also some records in French archives, but the NAC has copies of many of these records.

It should be noted that more recent records may be restricted, and therefore partially or wholly unavailable due to Privacy or Access to Information legislation. It should also be mentioned that any request for information from the archives, if you cannot visit the archives yourself (or hire a professional researcher), will usually take several months to complete. This is due to the high volume of requests received by the NAC coupled with limited manpower resources.

To obtain records of deceased military members (remember that post-World War I records are only available to the general public 20 years after the death of the individual being researched), you can either apply online or write to the following address: National Archives of Canada, Tunney’s Pasture, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0N3. Ensure that you provide as much information on the person as possible to 1) ensure that the correct person’s records are retrieved, and to 2) reduce the waiting period as much as possible.

Canadian Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)

The Canadian Agency of the CWGC keeps records and registers of Canadian soldiers who died in the two world wars. You can request information either online, or by writing to: The Secretary-General, Canadian Agency, C.W.G.C., East Memorial Building, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0P4.

British Public Record Office (PRO), Kew

Amongst other records, etc., the Public Record Office contains extensive military records including details of soldiers’ careers. However, most of the PRO World War I records were destroyed by German bombing and subsequent fire during World War II. While some of those destroyed records (notably officers’ files) were duplicated and stored elsewhere, only about one-quarter to one-third have survived, and many of these show the effects of the fire.

As with the National Archives of Canada, more recent records may be restricted, and therefore partially or wholly unavailable due to Privacy or Access to Information legislation.

A book Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office (5th edition, by Amanda Bevan, 1999) is a valuable resource to consider. This book outlines the research methodology while using the resources of the Public Record Office and includes information for both army and navy records. It can usually be found through an internet search.

The Public Record Office has also published a series of online leaflets on a wide variety of topics with many relating to available army records. An A-Z Index of all leaflets provides the researcher with a listing of the topics. These leaflets can be accessed at It should be noted that these leaflets are subject to copyright. While is permitted to copy these for personal use, they cannot be used commercially.

LDS Family History Library Catalogue

A great many records have been microfilmed by the LDS and are available at this source. When searching the catalogue, begin with BRITAIN MILITARY RECORDS or CANADA MILITARY RECORDS.


Great Britain has a long history of maritime conquest and exploration. Many British men (as well as many Canadians in the 20th century) served as sailors or marines in the Royal Navy, or in the Merchant Marine. Still many thousands more served at various ports and dockyards or worked to supply the goods and services to support the country's maritime strength. This is also true in Canada because the country’s naval bases at Halifax and Esquimalt were first and foremost Royal Navy bases. It would not be surprising for modern family historians with English or Welsh roots to find evidence in a census, family papers, oral history traditions or vital records that an ancestor served in the Royal Navy or Merchant Marine.

A search for surviving navy records can be complex, frustrating and elusive, certainly more so than for army records. The sheer volume of navy records preserved in various places, both in the United Kingdom and Canada, attest to the incredible volume and complexity of the information available to modern family historians. This is further exacerbated by a lack of indexes. Many are available only at the British Public Record Office, Kew. Before 1853, individual ratings (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’s records are more common.

As with army records, before undertaking research in Navy records it is important to know as much information as possible about the person who served. In particular the rank (if any) held by your ancestor (naval records are more easily identified for officers than ratings) can greatly shorten your search. Likewise, knowledge of the time period and geographic area(s) in which they served (this information may help you to determine which campaigns/battles or other military events that occurred during the time period in a particular geographic area), the name of the ship(s) on which they served and, when they were discharged is also of great help.

Primary Naval Sources

As with most primary records, naval records do not survive for the convenience of modern genealogists. They were compiled and preserved to document for bureaucratic purposes. Naval records are intricately connected to the government and for this reason are primarily preserved by the British Public Record Office or in the National Archives of Canada. It is important to know, however, that many other primary records or microfilm/copies of naval records are held by other institutions.

Researchers should be cautioned against assuming complete and extensive records exist for all who served in the Navy. Canadian navy records, given that they are more recent and the fact that the Canadian navy has always been smaller than its British parent, tend to be more complete than their British counterparts.

As a start, it is important to understand some of the complex bureaucracy of the day in order to know where to begin to look for information. In Britain, for example, until 1546, the King, through his council, was responsible for managing all naval affairs. After 1546, the King delegated his authority to the Lord Admiral. However, systematic Admiralty records do not begin until 1660. To find records before 1660 it would be necessary to look through the complex records series of the Privy Council, Exchequer or Domestic State Papers. In addition, for the period from about 1660 until the early 1830s, the Royal Navy was administered by both the Navy Board and the Admiralty which means that some types of records were duplicated. The Navy Board was abolished in 1832 and the Admiralty was singularly responsible for the Royal Navy. As a result of historic events, shifting responsibilities and simple government bureaucracy, naval records can become rather complex. For example, even if a researcher knew their ancestor was an officer, there are six different "classes" or groupings of records of men appointed as officers from 1790 until 1850. For all of the reasons highlighted, the discussion of primary records in this article will be based upon the rank of those who served.

Most post-1914 navy records can be accessed through the British Ministry of Defence, Main Building, Whitehall SW1A 2HB.

The Royal Marines has been a separate branch of the military since 1755 and as such kept their own records. Alphabetically arranged records of marines survive from 1790, some by enlistment date and others by discharge date, until 1914, when the Ministry of Defence took over record responsibilities. The same is true of the British Coast Guard which has records dating from 1816 – 1923.

In the Canadian case, naval control rested squarely with a non-military Naval board that reported directly to the cabinet of the Canadian government. This provides both good and bad points to consider. While the same bureaucracy pervades Canadian naval records, the traditionally frugal Canadian government kept close and extensive records on most aspects, especially finances, of its generally small naval service.

Similar to army records, it is often easier to locate information for officers than others who served in the navy. For the purposes of this discussion, officers can be either commissioned officers or simply warrant officers who were specialists or looked after specific departments, e.g. masters, surgeons, gunners, engineers, etc.). However, there is no central, readily available overall index for the names of navy officers. The first place researchers in search of an officer's information should look is in published primary sources such as printed Navy Lists. The lists usually include alphabetical lists of commissioned officers and many warrant officers. Many of the lists provide a cross reference from an officer's name to a specific ship. The printed volumes then list the officers on a particular ship. The List will assign a specific number to a ship, and provide the ship's name and type. Carefully following the published Navy Lists will provide researchers with the basic outline of an officer's career. Although surviving naval records for officers can be quite complex, there are a few main record groups which should be consulted for naval officers. These include in part:

  • Records of Officers' Service (PRO Admiralty [ADM] 199) – Records of Officers' Service include both commissioned officers and warrant officers. The records begin towards the end of the 1700s and consist of several series/sections of registers. Although each series has its own index, the different series may overlap making it necessary to search more than one index for the full information about an individual officer. Many of the records provide dates and places of birth and death this is particularly true for nineteenth century registers. All the registers list the names of ships on which the officer served with dates. Copies of these records, as applicable, are also found in the National Archives of Canada.
  • Warrant Officers' and Seamen's Certificates of Service (PRO ADM 29) – Warrant Officers' and Seamen's Certificates of Services are the records of those men who received a pension from the navy. The records begin in about 1802 and document a pensioner’s service record by ships and dates. Although the early records tend to include primarily warrant officers, after 1834 pensions became more common and listings of regular seamen in the records also became more frequent. The original certificates do exist and can be located in the Greenwich Hospital School Admission Papers at the PRO in ADM 73. It should also be noted that Certificates of Service were compiled by the Navy Pay Office from the actual Ships' Pay Books which are a separate group of records that can be used to find similar information. Again, the National Archives of Canada have copies where applicable.

For records of naval service of seamen (ratings) before the mid-nineteenth century, it is usually necessary for the researcher to know the name of at least one ship on which a seaman served and the approximate date of service. The main reason for knowing the ship before 1853 is because men were recruited into the navy by a particular ship and were then subsequently recorded in the ship’s muster/pay lists. Those ‘recruited’ individuals included those who fell in with the Press Gangs, and were not only British but other nationalities such as Canadians and Americans – indeed any able-bodied man who was ‘available’. The navy did not keep systematic, central records of average seamen/ratings before 1853. The following records are the most commonly used for information about seamen/ratings:

  • Ships' Muster Books (PRO ADM 36 to ADM 39, ADM 41, ADM 115 and ADM 119) – The ships’ muster records the names of officers, regular seamen (ratings), servants, marines or others that were on board a ship. Next to each name will be some indication as to whether they were present or absent for each muster and some additional information. The musters usually provide researchers with a ratings name, name of ship and a starting date. In many instances after the mid-1760s, the musters also include age and place of birth. However, use the age and place of birth information with caution as it has been found to be vague or inaccurate. Beginning in about 1800 description books (which give a man's age and some physical description) may be included with the musters. The descriptive information can also include clothing, tobacco and other items issued to a seaman by the navy. These books tend to survive from 1688 with a few as early as 1667 and are filed by ship. To understand the muster books it is important to know that a muster list was sent by a ship to the central navy pay office so that payment would be issued to the crew of the ship. Due to the bureaucracy of the central pay office there are basically two main types of musters - general musters and monthly musters. The general musters were usually for a 12 month period. Often musters for a one year period were bound together so that one ship’s muster would include six monthly musters and a general muster.
  • Seamen's Services (PRO ADM 188) – Registers of Seamen’s Services are the official records of seamen who were already serving in 1873 or had enlisted between 1873 and 1923. Entries in these continue for many years, sometimes after 1923, but depended on the length of service of each man. Seamen's service records are listed by a man's service number and offer researchers the date of birth and enlistment, first ship and period of service. Indexes to seamen's service records are also available in the British Public Record Office filed under ADM 188 (245 267). Records of seamen who entered the Navy after 1928 are not held by the Public Record Office but must be requested from the Ministry of Defence.

If the name of a seaman's ship is unknown researchers may direct inquiries about ships of the Royal Navy to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich or the National Archives of Canada. The former holds List Books for the period 1673 to 1893 that can be checked to find out the geographic location of a ship on a certain date, while the latter has more or less a complete record. Another useful Canadian source is the Alberta Naval Museum. Through a very generous bequest of an extensive private naval library, this museum possesses as good a collection of naval-related books as any other place in Canada.

It is suggested that you do not contact the National Maritime Museum or other institutions unless you are able to provide very specific information about the time period in which an individual is believed to have served as well as the geographic area(s) of service. A listing of contact information for relevant institutions is provided below.

As is the case with army records, more detailed information about Navy records (including specific classes or series of records) at the Public Record Office are provided through online British Public Record Office leaflets for researchers. These were developed over the years by members of staff and by generous contributions from researchers. As more information is discovered and new records are accessioned the leaflets are updated. A main A-Z Index of all leaflets can be found at Again, copyrights rules apply.

The British Public Record Office has also published a series of Family Fact Sheets that give information about: Tracing an Ancestor in the Navy Ratings; Tracing an Ancestor in the Navy Officers; and Tracing an Ancestor in the Merchant Navy Seamen. These can be accessed at

While many naval records are only available directly from the Public Record Office in England or other repositories, a great many of these have also been microfilmed by the LDS Family History Library and are available in their main Family History Library Catalog. As with army records, when searching this catalogue, it is suggested you try several categories of keywords such as BRITAIN MILITARY RECORDS or CANADIAN MILITARY RECORDS. ENGLAND – MILITARY RECORDS – NAVY, ENGLAND – MILITARY RECORDS – NAVY – HISTORY, ENGLAND – MILITARY RECORDS – NAVY – INDEXES, ENGLAND – MILITARY RECORDS – NAVY – INVENTORIES, REGISTERS, CATALOGS or ENGLAND – MILITARY RECORDS – PENSIONS.

By way of example, following is a small sample of resources from this source.

  • The Navy List [Great Britain. Admiralty (Main Author)] – Imprint varies. Date on cover is one month later than date of correction, i.e. January 1884 for the list corrected to December 1883, etc. located under the subject England – Military records. Available in book form at the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City under the call number 942 M25gba or on microfilm loan to your local Family History Center on 18 reels of microfilm beginning with Apr. 1851 Jan. 1854 Jan. 1856 Apr. 1857 on microfilm FHL BRITISH Film 918928 and ending with Apr. 1881 July 1886 Apr. 1872 on microfilm FHL BRITISH Film 990326.
  • Continuous Service Engagement Books (PRO ADM. 139), 1853 1896 [Great Britain. Admiralty (Main Author)] – Microfilm of original records in the Public Record Office, Ashridge Park, Hertfordshire. These books give the date and place of birth, physical characteristics on entry, and a summary of the service of each rating (seaman). Arrangement is in order of continuous service numbers, but includes alphabetical indexes of surnames, giving also the individual's continuous service number. These records are arranged in three series. The first series has no specific designation but the 2nd and 3rd series are designated series A and series B respectively. There is one index for all three series so it is important to note from the index which series is referred to. The series designations are at the top of each page of the index. If there is no series designation the page refers to the first series. Located under the subjects Great Britain – Military records – Navy and England – Military records – Navy. Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1973 and held on 923 reels of 35mm microfilm.
  • Admiralty Records Seamen's Effect Papers (PRO ADM 44), 1757 1850 [Great Britain. Admiralty (Main Author)] – Microfilm copy of originals at the London Public Record Office at Kew, Surrey, England. Public Record Office call nos. ADM44/A1 10, ADM44/B1 10. Wills are arranged in alphabetical order of the writers' names and by the date of making the will. Dates of records range from 1757 to 1850. Located under subject heading(s) Great Britain – Probate records and Great Britain – Military records – Navy. Original manuscript filmed on 29 reels of 35 mm. microfilm. Film notes for the 29 reels begin with the following microfilm Seamen's effects papers, A1, pages 1 645 (Surnames begin with A) cases 1 250, 1767 1827 found on film VAULT BRITISH Film 1942131. The second reel contains Seamen's effects papers, A1, pages 645 830 (Surnames begin with A), 1781 1847 on film VAULT BRITISH Film 1942132.
  • A list of the officers of His Majesty's Royal Marine Forces (PRO ADM 192) [Great Britain. Admiralty (Main Author)] – Microfilm of original records [London] Admiralty Office, 1760 - 1886. 44 v. Contains the Admiralty class no. ADM 192. The information contained in these printed volumes includes lists of officers, the date of commission, rate of pay, company numbers and details of the officers’ establishment of the corps. Located under subject heading Great Britain – Military records – 1760 1789. 5 microfilm reels; 35 mm. Film numbers begin with ADM 192/1 7(ends p. 94) Royal Marines, list of officers 1760, 1777, 1779, 1804, 1806, 1807, 1813 on microfilm FHL BRITISH Film 1502037 Items 1 7.
  • Naval Officers' Marriage Certificates, 1806 - 1902 (PRO ADM 13) [Great Britain. Admiralty (Main Author)] – Microfilm of original records at the Public Record Office, Surrey, England. Marriage certificates and accompanying letters from 1867 to 1902 are arranged in a loose alphabetical format, A - Z, for each year. London PRO call no. ADM 13/70 71, 186 192. Located under subject heading(s) Great Britain – Vital records, Great Britain – Civil registration and, Great Britain – Military records Navy. Located on 12 microfilm reels; 35 mm. Begins with Index to marriage certificates, 1806 1861 Letters and marriage certificates, 1806 1858 on microfilm FHL BRITISH Film 1818342.
  • Pensions For Widows Of Naval Officers, 1800 - 1818 (PRO ADM 30/57) [Great Britain. Admiralty (Main Author)] – Microfilm of original records at the Public Record Office, Surrey, England. Register includes name of widow, name of husband, rank, name of ship, date and place of marriage, and age of husband at death. London PRO call no. ADM 30/57. Located under subject heading(s) Great Britain – Vital records, Great Britain – Civil registration and, Great Britain – Military records Navy. Can be viewed on 1 microfilm reel; 35 mm. microfilm number FHL BRITISH Film 1818354.

Also, always remember to do a final search through the catalog for the AUTHOR(s) listed on the most common resources. There are occasions when a search of the catalog by author will turn up entries not filed under standard subject headings.

Secondary Naval Sources

Published Works

  • Naval Records for Genealogists by N.A.M. Rodger. Extensive new edition of this guide to the holdings of the PRO, Public Record Office Handbook No 22. With illustrations. 1998, 230 pages. (Available from or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Catalog #06028073)
  • The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy by N.A.M. Rodger - this book offers a portrait of eighteenth century Naval Society, showing clearly how the Navy worked, what life was like below decks. Probably the most complete picture of the Navy in the eighteenth century. 1st edition 1988, 446 pages. (Available from or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Catalog #06028575)
  • Victorian Sailor by David Marcombe – an illustrated guide to the life of the Victorian sailor. (Available from or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Catalog #0602721)
  • National Maritime Museum the Collections – provides an illustrated guide to the collections of the National Maritime Museum, mainly dealing with the extensive collection of artworks pertinent to Naval history. 1990, 128 pages. (Available from or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Catalog #06021397)
  • Discovering British Military Badges and Buttons by R J Wilkinson Latham – this 88 page guide is designed to help researchers recognize badges and buttons of the army. Very helpful when trying to identify uniformed soldiers in photographs. Part of Shire books 'Discovering' series. 2nd edition 1994. More info at
  • Researching British Military Medals A Practical Guide by Steve Dymond – this 144 page guide is designed to point researchers to the records available for tracing and researching medals and their recipients. Well illustrated with examples of documents, medals and photos. Includes case histories showing how the research process worked. 1st edition 1999. (Available from or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Catalog# 06028467)
  • Maritime Sources in the Library of The Society of Genealogists by John Hailey – the Library of the Society of Genealogists contains much information about maritime history, although it is not always easy to find, as it is incorporated into many parts of the library. This guide, therefore, is not a complete record of the library's holdings, but provides a starting point for those seeking their seafaring ancestors. 32pp., Soft Cover, 6" x 9",1999, ISBN 1 85951 069 8.
  • Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford – in particular chapter 15.
  • In Search of your British and Irish Roots by Angus Baxter. 4th edition (1999) – a complete guide to tracing your English and Welsh, Scottish & Irish Ancestors; in particular chapter 8 is useful for military information
  • Ancestral Trails The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History by Mark D. Herber – first published in 1997, this exceptional book includes an extensive chapter on records of shipping and seamen with illustrations of actual PRO Admiralty records. The author carefully explains the research process within the record groups using step by step research examples to learn as much information as possible. This 674 page reference book is invaluable for anyone researching their English and Welsh Roots and is most helpful when working through military records. Available from or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Catalog# 2182691

Online Resources

Once again, most online sources deal with the Royal Navy, however much in a general nature can be gleaned that can then be applied in searches for Canadian ancestors.

Repositories for Naval and Maritime Records

Several of the main institutions with naval/maritime records, artifacts and related services are as follows:

  • Public Record Office (PRO) – The PRO holds most Admiralty records including official logs of warships. It also holds all personnel and service records of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines up to about 1922. Try
  • The Family Record Centre –  has records of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales from 1837, with a separate Marine Register for events at sea. Note registers of events at sea were not recorded with any regularity before about 1852. Try
  • National Maritime Museum [] –  the Museum has a large collection of navy and maritime resources.
  • Ministry of Defence CSR (2) Navy Search - This office controls all service records which have not yet been passed to the PRO. Please note that information can only be given to next of kin and rules of privacy are followed.
  • PP1 A1 HMS Centurion, Grange Road, Gosport, Hampshire, PO13 9XA - This office controls service records for the period after 1939. Please note that information can only be provided to next of kin.
  • The Admiralty Library 3-5 Great Scotland Yard, London SW1A 2HW – this library in Whitehall also has material housed with the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth and in the Hydrographic Office at Taunton, but initial enquiries should be made to the main Admiralty Library address shown above.
  • Royal Naval Museum Library No 12 Store, Semaphore Tower Road, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, Hampshire PO1 3NH
  • Imperial War Museum [] – the museum collection covers 20th century naval history and warfare only. Rules of privacy exist.
  • Imperial War Museum Department of Photographs [] – includes the official photographic record of the Royal and merchant navies during the First and Second World Wars.
  • British Library Oriental and India Office Collections [] – the British Library holdings include the surviving archives of the East India Company.
  • British Library Newspaper Library [] – the holdings of the Newspaper Library include national and provincial newspapers, maritime and trade papers.
  • Maritime History Archive (MHA) [] – The Maritime History Archive, Memorial University collects and preserves original documents and copies of documents relating to the history of sea based activities in the north Atlantic region. The Maritime History Archive will research the records in its custody and provide reports and/or copies of documents on request, however they are not able to construct detailed family trees or determine family relationships. Further details about genealogical research at the MHA can be found on their website.
  • National Archives of Canada (NAC) [] – the main repository of military and naval records in Canada. Due to shortage of manpower resources and a high volume of requests, one can expect to wait several months to receive information. It is suggested that a professional researcher who lives in Ottawa be hired if time is a concern. Privacy rules exist.
  • Naval Museum of Alberta [] – has an extensive collection of naval records pertaining to both Canada and Great Britain.
  • Directorate of History and Heritage, Canadian Forces []
  • The National Archives (UK) [] – The National Register of Archives has some 41,000 unpublished lists of major manuscript collections, approximately 5,000 published finding aids and repositories' annual reports. Indexes to the lists available online, are arranged archivally rather than thematically. Information sheets are also available.
  • The Genealogical Services Directory, a book compiled and published annually by Robert Blatchford and Geoffrey Heslop – includes an extensive listing of military museums in England and Wales. Many county and borough record offices and local specialty museums have military and/or naval collections not necessarily found in the larger naval institutions or repositories. In addition these records may be supplemented by local diaries, private papers and other collections that help to explain the local impact of naval events and recruitment.


It must be mentioned that this author’s experience is very limited when it comes to research dealing with air force or aviation records. However, as should now be obvious after reviewing the section on army and navy records, there will be a great deal of commonality between the different branches of military services. As they say, “the difference is in the details”. In this case, the details are essentially the location of repositories of air force records. The types of air force records, notwithstanding obvious differences inherent in the three services, tend to be similar to the army and navy models. Therefore little additional discussion in this direction will be given.

As with army and navy records, much information resides with either the National Archives of Canada, or the British Public Record Office. Additional significant repositories include various museums. In Canada, three of these are the National Air Force Museum of Canada, located at Trenton [], the Military Museums in Calgary [], the Canadian Aviation Museum in Ottawa []. In Britain, significant repositories of information include the Imperial War Museum, Duxford [], and the Royal Air Force Museum with two venues at London (Hendon) and Cosford [].

In both countries, numerous smaller museums that have more geographically-focused aviation records also exist.


Most established countries will have, as a minimum, some version of a National Archives. Museums in these will also exist. Depending on their histories, these archives and museum will be sources of military records. As such, any search of individuals associated with these countries will tend to follow similar lines to those already mentioned for Canada and the United Kingdom. However, we occasionally receive recurring requests for military service information from a few select countries. Most of the time, this arises from some direct historical association with Canada. These few are summarized below.


The National Archives of Australia has Army records pertaining to the 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.


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 who fought under Napoleon I 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 departments.


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 because 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 Prussia. Records associated with the armies of Prussia were almost completely destroyed in 1945.

United States

During the colonial period in America most able-bodied men between the ages of 16 to 60 were called on to be part of the local militia. These groups were organized by towns, counties or colonies. After the Revolutionary War, each state retained a militia organization which ultimately evolved, after the Civil War, into the National Guard. Records of militia and National Guard units are generally kept by local and state governments in their archives, as well as in state adjutant generals' offices, historical societies, courthouses, local museums and libraries.

Your ancestor’s records may also be found in federal repositories if he/she served in some capacity that included federal service, e.g. drafted for the Civil War, World War I, World War II, etc., service in the regular U.S. military forces, service with a local militia or national guard unit that was mustered for federal service during an emergency, etc. Obviously, the major federal repository is the U.S. National Archives (USNA). The USNA has extensive federal service, bounty land and draft records. While several major indexes and some collections are on microfilm, most of the original records have not been filmed. Thus, they are available only at the National Archives. You can obtain photocopies of these records by first obtaining NATF Form 85, NATF Form 86 and Form SF 180. These are available via mail free from National Archives and Records, Administration, Attention: NWDT1, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001 or online Form NATF 85 is for Copies of Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, Form NATF 86 for copies of Military Service Records Pre-WWI (pre-1917), and Form SF 180 is for Military Service Records for World War I and later records. The minimum information required for a search is the soldier or sailor’s full name, the war in which he/she served and his/her period of service and the state from which he served. For Civil War records searches, you must also indicate whether he served in the Union or Confederate forces. A separate copy of the form must be used for each type of record requested (i.e. military service, pension records, etc.).

The federal government and some state governments also often, but not universally, granted pensions or free bounty land to officers, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans, and veterans who served for a specific period of time. These records can give valuable information on an individual’s service.

Military service records, such as muster rolls or descriptive rolls, while seldom as rich genealogically as pension files, are also very helpful. They can verify your ancestor's military service and pinpoint where he resided at a particular time. Additionally, descriptive rolls usually include the individual's name, rank, age, physical description, marital status, occupation, city of birth, place of residence, plus the service information. Depending on their origins, these records may be at the U.S. National Archives or in state repositories, as mentioned above.

After the Civil War (1861-1865), discharge certificates were issued and often recorded in some fashion by local counties.

Other military records that may exist include pay rolls, hospitalizations, prisoner-of-war records, promotions, courts martial, draft or conscription and desertion records. Again, depending upon type of service, these may be found in federal, state or municipal archives.

The National Personnel Records Centre in St. Louis [] also has some information pertaining to those who served in World War I and later. Downloadable forms are available at this site as well as instructions and suggestions for finding specific information. While its military records are not online, details about how to obtain the data are given.

A surprising amount of information about U.S. veterans of various wars is online. Genealogy Research in Military Records provides links to various sites with some form of military records, categorized by the major lines. From here you will find links to many online records.

Civil War records abound on the internet, including Virginia Confederate Pension Rolls, Veterans and Widows [ and the Texas State Archives with its searchable index to Confederate pension claims held by this repository []. If interested, explore the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System [], which is a database containing basic facts about servicemen who served on both sides. Also at this site is a database of the service records of United States Colored Troops. Women also served in various capacities during the Civil War, many of them as nurses and spies. State archives and historical societies are the best sources to search for these records.

Another useful Civil War source is the Confederate Research Center in Texas. This is an archival depository that contains many files of soldiers' letters, diaries and unpublished manuscripts. While not a genealogical library, researchers have on occasion found pictures of their Confederate ancestors here. Among the centre’s other treasures are capsule histories of all 3,200 Confederate regiments and special units and ships. It also has an extensive file of magazines and newspaper clippings, including major Texas newspapers published during the Civil War, the military service records of all members of Hood's Texas Brigade, Confederate generals and staff offices, and an index listing of all Confederate soldiers, showing their companies and regiments. Research service is offered, for a fee, but due to the volume of requests received it usually takes several months for a reply. It can be contacted at Confederate Research Center and Museum, Harold B. Simpson Hill College History Complex, P.O. Box 619, Hillsboro, TX 76645.

A number of smaller 19th century military conflicts that took place in the United States have also generated records of interest to the genealogist. The National Archives and many of its regional branches have microfilmed indexes to these various military records. You also can access them through the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library system. However, copies of the actual records are available only through the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

A couple of books that should help the new researcher to wind their way through the myriad of record sources are U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal & State Sources, Colonial America to the Present by James C. Neagles, Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1994, and The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All the World’s Fighting Men and Volunteers by Christina K. Schaeffer. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1998.

As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, and which hopefully has become clear as the reader reviews the above, an exhaustive discussion of this topic is well beyond the scope of this work. Hopefully, though, with the proper education and using some of the resources mentioned, the new researcher will achieve success in their search. Good luck with your research.

– David Love