How To Discover If Your Grandfather Served in WW1

During the course of your family history research, you may discover that your grandfather served in WW1, fought between 1914-1918.  Unfortunately, it may not be easy to find your grandfather's service record because 40% of service records were destroyed during World War 2.

Don't despair, however!! There are still many ways you can discover whether your grandfather did indeed serve during the war.


Service Records

If your grandfather's service record still survives, records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks service records can be found on Ancestry or FindmyPast.  These databases include service records (WO363), pension records (WO364) and campaign medal cards. 

This set also includes soldiers who enlisted many years prior to the start of the war.

The records obtainable using these mediums include:

  • Soldiers discharged between 1914-1920
  • Soldiers killed in action between 1914-1920
  • Demobilised soldiers
  • Soldiers who died of wounds or disease following their service in the war

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

If you know your grandfather's name, and some other details such as date of birth or place of birth, you can discover if he died in the war. 

You can search for his name using the War Dead record on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's website. 

If you find his death record, this will usually tell you his service number, the regiment he was serving with, his date of death, and where he is buried.

The record may provide you with further information about your grandfather, such as that given in the record of my relative Leslie John Dunkley, where it stated that he was the son of John Samuel and Bessie Dunkley of 150 Ashburnham Road, Northampton.


British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920

You can also discover if your grandfather was awarded a medal for his service during the war.  You can search for an individual medal index card at the National Archives in series WO372, and also at Ancestry and FindmyPast, but a charge applies to search through the record on the latter two websites.


What Information Can Be Obtained From the Medal Roll?

Although the card does not contain much personal information regarding your grandfather, it does usually contain the following details:

  • Name
  • Rank
  • Unit
  • Regimental Number
  • Entitlement to a Medal
  • Medal Roll entry located in series WO329 at the National Archives

If the card contains additional information, this usually mentions a date of death, date of discharge and any other remarks.


Campaign Medal Rolls

If you find your grandfather in the medal roll index cards, you may then be able to use that information to find him in the campaign medal rolls, again on Ancestry.  The medal roll was created by the Army Medal Office to list men who were entitled to claim a medal.  

If your grandfather was awarded a British War or Victory Medal, it may mention his battalion or unit that may help you to find a war diary kept by the unit.

If your grandfather had a relatively common surname such as Smith, it will be that much more difficult to determine if you have found the correct record than if his surname was less common.


Unit War Diaries

You need to know the regiment your grandfather served with to search for a unit war diary, but if you discover the regiment, you can see if the unit compiled a war diary to discover more about where your grandfather was sent during the war.

These diaries can provide you with an insight into the daily lives of soldiers serving on the front line, and record in detail some of the decisions made and the consequences of those decisions.  The diaries describe events and decisions made from the unit's arrival on the front line to the unit's departure when the war ended.

Although war diaries are not personal diaries, they can refer to individuals and can provide an insight into their life on the front line, and sadly their possible death.

Unfortunately, not all diaries contain the wealth of information contained in some other diaries.  Some diaries only record daily losses and map references of where the unit was situated, but others give daily reports of operations, intelligence reports and any other information. 

If your grandfather was awarded a medal, this may be recorded in the regimental diary.

Although some maps and plans were sometimes included, some of these could have been removed before the diaries were made publicly accessible.

You can search for a diary held by the National Archives by filling in a form on their website, where you can enter the regiment, battalion, brigade or division.  There is no need to include the word regiment, battalion or brigade in your search query. 

If you know the number of the regiment, such as 8th battalion, you should not include the 'th' in your search query.

Once you have located the diary you are interested in, you will find that it covers a period of many years, and will be divided into numerous PDF files when downloaded, which you can then browse through to find the dates you are interested in.  The National Archives makes a charge to people taking advantage of this service.

Many diaries were written in pencil, so they may prove difficult to read because the writing may have faded over time.  It is also possible that the individual compiling the diary used abbreviations that you may not be able to understand.

Diaries of units serving in France and Flanders are kept in WO95/1-3154, WO 95/3911-4193 and WO 95/5500.

If your grandfather's unit served in Mesopotamia, Iraq and North Persia, the diaries are kept in WO 95/4965-5288, and if the unit served in East Africa, Cameroon and West Africa, the diaries are kept in WO95/5289-5388.

Unfortunately, not all unit war diaries have yet been digitised, and these can only be viewed at the National Archives in Kew in series WO95.


British Military Medical Records 1912-1921

You may be able to discover if your grandfather received medical treatment by searching through hospital admission and discharge records of servicemen via FindmyPast, but only a small number of records were kept.

Admission and discharge records from hospitals, field ambulances, and casualty clearing stations are included.  Hospitals or medical facilities mentioned in the records are listed on FindmyPast.

These records may contain information regarding:

  • Name
  • Year of birth
  • Service number
  • Rank
  • Corps
  • Admission date
  • Transfer date
  • Year of death
  • Hospital
  • Country
  • Register type
  • Description
  • Series description
  • Record year range
  • Archive

Some additional information regarding your grandfather may be added to the record, such as:

Number of years served

Description of the disease or wound

Religion

Any other observations


  1. Family Tree Resources
  2. Military Records
  3. Grandfather served in WW1