A Guide to Tracing Soldiers who fought in the First World War


Paul Reed


I frequently get asked questions from visitors to the web site about how to trace ancestors who fought in WW1. To help with your research, a basic guide is given below. Regular features on WW1 research are found in the monthly magazine 'Your Family Tree' available in WH Smiths and other newsagents.

Remember the Old Front Line does operate a WW1 Research service.


The best place to begin your research is at home. What survives in your own family archives? There may be photographs, documents, discharge papers, campaign medals and other souvenirs. All of these are useful in research, but of course may be scattered amongst several relatives. Once you have gathered all the material you have together, look for any details of regimental ('army') numbers, regiments or units, and if medals have survived, they are all name - so look to see what they say. You may of course have nothing but a name and a few stories passed down the generations. Always treat such stories with caution, but they can be useful clues. With a name and at least something, you are now ready to begin.

Your research then falls into two categories: are you researching a soldier who died, or one that survived the war?


These are by far the easiest servicemen to trace. Begin all research at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) on-line database ( Here you can type in just a name and come up with results. Based on what you know relating to his next of kin and where he came from you should easily be able to find your man. If you have just a name, and a common one, and nothing else, you may end up with many results. How do you know which one is yours? The best and next step is to use Soldiers Died in the Great War. This was originally published by HMSO in 1919 and there were more than 80 volumes; mostly each one was for a specific regiment or Corps. They are long out of print, but some libraries have originals or microfilm copies. However, Naval & Military Press have made this source available as a fully searchable database on CD Rom. See their website for more details:

However, this CD costs a lot of money for just one name. Some UK libraries have copies and there is also one available to use for free at the National Archives. Most WW1 Research services will also include this in the package they offer.

A typical entry from Soldiers Died in the Great War is below:

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The information in this source is not the same as the CWGC database, and even if you have found your man there, you should also consult this source as it should give you extra information. You can also use this source to tell you how many men died the same day as your relative so you can work out if he died in the day to day activities of trench warfare or in a large battle. This version of Soldiers Died in the Great War also allows you to print off a 'Memorial Scroll' which looks quite nice framed. 

These two sources will therefore provide you with the basic information on a soldier who died and where he is buried or commemorated.

The next step would be to view his Medal Index Card and visit the National Archives for further research.


Researching soldiers that survived WW1 presents the greatest challenge. The place to start is by searching the on-line Medal Index Cards made available by the National Archives. This is described in detail below. Having checked this source, a visit to the National Archives (NA) is essential, or if you are unable to visit, you could use a WW1 Research Service to do it for you. At the NA you would be looking to find out if his WW1 Service Record has survived. If it has, it will give you the structure of his service, but if it hasn't - and many have not - what do you then? Have you reached a dead end? Not entirely. While many people look at the Medal Index Cards, few bother to look at the actual Medal Rolls themselves. These are in class WO329 at the NA, and are large original documents which have an entry for every man. They are usually arranged by regiments. The references on the Medal Index Cards allow you access to them, but none of the Medal Rolls are on-line. You have to view them yourself or use a WW1 Research Service. The Medal Rolls for infantry regiments will normally tell you which battalions a man served in: the information you need to work out where he served. For Corps units (artillery, engineers etc) specific units are only rarely mentioned, unfortunately. With a battalion, you can then use a source like my own British Regiments or Chris Baker's Long, Long Trail to see where the battalions fought. This will then allow you to have at least an idea of some of the battles and engagements your relative served in.


The Medal Index Cards (or MICs) were used in the 1920s to issue the campaign medals for WW1. These medals were given to every soldier who served overseas. Ordinary soldiers did not have to claim medals; they were issued automatically. Officers did have to claim theirs. Those that died in the war had their medals, both officers and men, issued automatically to the direct next of kin.

An example of a typical MIC is below:

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The MIC will tell you the soldier's name, his unit(s), rank and regimental numbers. It will also tell you what medals he was awarded (for descriptions of WW1 medals visit this website); the strange references against the medals are those used to refer to the Medal Rolls which are now in the NA under class WO329 (they are not available on-line). If a soldier was awarded the 1914 or 1914/15 Star, then the date he went overseas and theatre of war entered are shown. The Theatre of War is normally represented by a number: the most common are "1." which was France, "2B Balkans" which was Gallipoli, "5a" which was India, and "5c" Mesopotamia. The remarks box often includes some additional information, such as "K in A" for killed in action.

The Medal Index Cards are now available to download at:

It is free to use the index, but currently (2005) the NA charge £3.50 for each download.

Alternatively you can visit the NA yourself and consult the MICs for free, and most WW1 Research Services will include them in the package they offer.


Service records were kept for every soldier during WW1, but sadly many were destroyed by the War Office in the 1930s, and many more were lost during the Blitz in WW2. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of surviving records available at the National Archives. None of these are on-line, and there are no on-line indexes to check if the record for your relative has survived. 

There are two basic classes of these records: the so-called 'Burnt Documents' and the so-called 'Un-burnt Documents'. The Burnt documents were those subjected to damage during WW2 from fire, smoke and water. They represent only a percentage of the overall records that were there and are in Class WO363 in the NA. The other records were kept by the Ministry of Pensions and largely relate to soldiers who were discharged to pension for wounds or sickness. They were not damaged in WW2, and are pretty much complete; but again, they only represent a percentage of the overall number of men who served (not everyone was discharged to pension). These are in Class WO364 at the NA. Both are on micro-film and it is possible to make copies.

To search for these records you either have to visit the NA yourself, or use a WW1 Research Service to do it for you.


The majority of units which fought in WW1 kept a War Diary in which they recorded their day to day activities. Depending on how good the record keeper was (in infantry battalions it was an officer called the Adjutant), these diaries can be very detailed or very brief. Names of individual soldiers are only rarely mentioned, although officers are mentioned more frequently that ordinary soldiers. However, they will tell you where a unit was and what it was doing, which is very useful for finding out where and under what circumstances a relative died.

War Diaries are in class WO95 at the National Archives. Some are available at Documents On-line to download for a fee, but most are original documents available to view when you visit.

Many WW1 Research Services will supply a copy of a War Diary for the period a relative was killed.


Sources for WW1 research are almost endless. There are thousands of printed books on all aspects of the war. After WW1 many regiments, schools, universities, factories etc produced Rolls of Honour which list those who died, often with photographs. Large reference libraries will have these. Local Newspapers also printed rolls of honour and carried articles on those who died during the war; check your local reference library for what local newspapers were around for your area at the time. Copies of all local newspapers are kept at the Newspaper Library at Colindale in London.

In 1918/19 'Absentee Voters Lists' were prepared for all areas in the UK. Sadly some have not survived; others have in local County Records Offices and larger Reference Libraries. They are not indexed, and to use them you have to know at least the area a soldier was living in, and even better, his exact address. It may be possible to trace where these are using the Access to Archives website.

Asking questions during your research is also a good idea. The Great War Forum is a good place to do this, but don't expect others to do all your research for you for free. Use the forum to ask specific questions about what you are researching or for help in interpreting data. The more specific the question, the more likely you are to get a reply. The forum is free to use, but you have to register. 


Research into your WW1 ancestors can be a fascinating journey - but also a frustrating one! Don't expect to find everything at once, and don't expect quick fixes on-line: only a minority of information about WW1 is on the Net. However, given some time, money, and perseverance, you should be able to put together a good picture of what your relatives did in the 'war to end all wars'. We will remember them.


İPaul Reed 2005-2006

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