Tracing Ancestors who served in the British armed forces, by Simon Fowler

Paper delivered by Simon Fowler, a leading authority on family history, author of Tracing Your Naval Ancestors and currently working on a guide to First World War research

Tracing ancestors who served in the British armed forces.

Tens of thousands of Irish men (and a few women) have served in the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force over the centuries.

Fortunately it’s fairly easy to trace them. Most records are online through one of the commercial data providers.

But before you start you need to be certain

• The service they were in

• Roughly when they served, and

• Whether they survived to get a pension

The British Army was a draw for many young Irishmen. For many it was one way out of grinding poverty. Even during the Emergency 100,000 men crossed the Irish Sea to join the Army.

Pre-1913 service records for soldiers are online through Findmypast . However they are only for men who survived to receive a pension.

Other records are at the UK National Archives (TNA) in London. Indeed they have all the surviving service records up to the early 1920s, including ones for officers, as well as operational records for WW2.

The TNA website includes lots of guidance for people researching their military ancestors.

For the First World War, soldiers’ records are available through Ancestry . Only a third survive.

If your grandfather’s records do not exist (or even if they do) check out the Medal Index Cards as they contain basic information about a man’s service. These too are on Ancestry.

If you are researching somebody who died in one of the world wars then you need to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website  where you can find when they died and where they are buried.

You can download service records for men in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force from TNA’s website

Records for men who served after 1920 are still with the UK Ministry of Defence. Details of how to find them are at

Simon Fowler

One Comment

  1. Hi Simon. I am a decendant of the Fowlers in Galway. My grandfather was Frederick Fowler. He was born in west derby Liverpool in 1903. He disappeared from my mothers life when she was about 4. I have been trying to find him for a few years. As my mother Muriel, is 84, I would really like to find him and find out why he disappeared. I have tried but there is no record of him after about 1930. Would you have any hints on how to find him. Regards Sue Battis (Lowe)

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