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If you wish to undertake your own reseach into medals, we offer the following advice:-
Conducting research into the history of the recipient of medals within your collection is probably the most rewarding part of the hobby. Research often includes finding and photocopying original documents such as service records, medal rolls, medal index cards, casualty forms, war diaries and so forth which will give you a wealth of information regarding the soldier, sailor or airman whose medals you now own. Many of these can be found in the National Archives at Kew in London which holds records open to the general public of service personnel who served prior to 1922.
Records of people who served after this date are not yet available due to data protection of individuals who may still be alive today and so remain, at present, confidential. Effectively this means you can research the history of servicemen and women up to and including the First World War. In addition to this you can also find details of those killed in action or otherwise died on active service during the two Word Wars from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Soldiers Who Died in the Great War database (see below).
Pre-First World War
Researching medal recipients or family members who served in the armed forces before the First World War can reveal a wealth of information. In particular you will want to find service records of commissioned officers or enlisted men which are currently held by the National Archives. Not all service records have survived but many are filed away waiting to be rediscovered. In addition to service records there are a multitude of other documents such as medal rolls which list the medals and clasp entitlements of the recipient which will also help you confirm the medals are in order and have not been subjected to forgery.
You can also look for muster books, attestation papers, ship log entries and pension documents which contain important information on your soldier or sailor. Remember if the service records have not survived do try looking for these other documents which can still help you gain a picture of who the medal recipient or family member was.
First World War
Researching soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought during the First World War has become one of the most popular and common research themes for both medal collectors and family historians. If you are trying to research a soldier who fought during the First World War then you have a number of avenues open to you including:
Service Records: Held at the National Archives and open to the public which show the history of the soldier, sailor or airman from enlistment to discharge or death if they died while still serving. With a copy of these you will find most of the personal details of the individual which often includes when and where they were born, where they enlisted, where they served and in what regiment or corps, how long they remained in service, details of medical records, marriages etc. The one major drawback of looking for these records is that more than 60% of them were lost in fire during the Blitz in 1940 and so be prepared to be disappointed.
Commissioned officers service records were released by the Public Records Office (as the National Archives was formerly known) in February 1998 into the public domain. These include officers who had left the services by no later than December 1920. As mentioned above many of the original service records were destroyed by enemy action in 1940 and what remains are mainly correspondence files which, thankfully, quite often give most of the service history of the officer.
However, these files do vary considerably in content ranging from almost complete records to tiny fragments of information. The files themselves are divided into two series the first of which are known as WO 339. This contains papers arranged by War Office registry numbers. The individual number of the officer in question can be discerned by reference to WO 338 which lists commissioned officers who joined the Army between 1901 and 1922 in alphabetical order. With this War Office number you can order the relevant documents to the officer you are researching. Any officers who served after 1922 will be marked with a ‘P’ indicating that his documents are still kept confidential.
The second series, known as WO 374, contains files relating to commissioned officers of the Territorial Force/Territorial Army. Again you can find out the index number of a TF/TA officer by resorting to the WO 338 list but you will notice the format of the number is different containing the officer’s initials followed by a number. This assists the researcher since it indicates the second series (WO 374).
Similarly service records to naval officers are available at the National Archives but are more intact than Army records. A good starting point for finding naval records would be to refer to the Navy Lists which often provide a basic outline of the officer’s career and the ADM 177 list covers the period 1914-1945. You can also refer to the ADM 196 Register of Officer’s Services containing entries for officers between 1756 and 1966. This list contains information such as dates and places of birth and death, home address, name of wife and date of marriage as well as ships they served on. ADM 196 also includes service records for commissioned officers of the Royal Marines.
Other ranks service records fall broadly into two categories including ‘burnt’ and ‘unburnt’ - that is those damaged by the fire caused by the German bombing raid and those which escaped the flames. As with those of commissioned officers enlisted men’s service records can reveal a lot of information but with just over 30% of them having survived the blitz be prepared to be disappointed. The ‘unburnt’ records are known as the WO 364 series while those which were ‘burnt’ are referred to as the WO 363 series. Both the burnt and unburnt series also contain records of enlisted men in the Royal Flying Corps.
Naval records to NCOs and ratings are found in the ADM 188 series and include service records of those who served up to 1923. ADM 188 records often give information such as date and place of birth, date of enlistment, physical descriptions, character remarks and ships the sailor served on. Records for other ranks in the Royal Marines are more complex because of the nature in which marines were recruited by four divisional depots each of which was responsible for the updating of their own marines service records.
However attestation forms up to 1925 can be found in the ADM 157 series which usually give birthplace, previous occupation, physical description and often a record of service. You can also try looking at the Description Books (ADM 158) which consist of several different types of register giving the date and place of enlistment, age, parish of birth, previous occupation, physical description, promotions and whether injured or killed.
Medal Rolls: These show the regimental rolls of individuals and what medals they were entitled to. These are particularly useful as they often show what unit the recipient served in (i.e. battalion) which will allow you to trace the history of where he was likely to have been during the war and what battles or offensives he may have taken part in.
Medal Index Cards: Shortly after the Great War the Army made a summary of every soldier who was entitled to campaign medals by recording the individual’s basic information (name, service number, regiment etc.) along with what medals he was to receive. There is often additional information about when the soldier entered the theatre of war and where (i.e. France & Flanders, Gallipoli etc.) and sometimes will record the fact if he was Killed in Action or listed as Missing in Action and so forth. Most of these are now available for download online (and then printed) from the National Archives Documents Online website for a small administrative fee.
Soldiers Died in the Great War Database: In the 1920s some 81 volumes listing British soldiers who died on active service during the war were published. In recent years these 81 volumes have been transcribed into a database which is now available on CD-ROM. Details vary from individual to individual but normally will tell you how and where they died in addition to the usual service number and unit details. Sometimes there are also other comments regarding the soldier which will be of interest to the collector/researcher. The only drawback to this CD is its cost being over £250 but there are a number of online research services who will search and print details for you for a small fee.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission: The CWGC Web Site holds the names of those who are buried or commemorated at the many war graves or memorials within the commissions care across the globe. Here you can search for individuals of all services from the Commonwealth who died on active service during both World Wars and the intervening years. Not all those that died are however listed and it does not tell you how they died but it does include information such as date of death, age, family details and the exact location of where they are buried or commemorated.
Post-First World War
Most service records after 1920 are still kept confidential since many of the servicemen and women are still alive and are protected by the Data Protection Act. Research therefore becomes more difficult especially for those who served in the post-Second World War period. However, if you are the next of kin of a deceased relative you can apply in writing to the Ministry of Defence for a copy of his or hers service records – please see the MoD web site for further details. If you are not a relative but a collector you may still be able to find some documents regarding the medal recipient. These include war diaries, prisoner of war lists, recommendations for awards or honours, ship log entries and some medal rolls.
Conducting Research Yourself at the National Archives
If you wish to conduct research yourself please be prepared to spend much time and expend a lot of effort in doing so. Researching can be very rewarding but also frustrating. You will, at some point during your research on a particular medal recipient, need to visit the National Archives at Kew in London. As already mentioned this is where the service records, medal rolls and medal index cards etc. are held for those who served prior to 1922. However before making the trip please ensure you have as much of the ‘basic’ details as you can of the individual or individuals you are researching. These include:
- Full name (although most medals have only the initial and surname).
- Service number (most medals will have this inscribed along with the recipient’s name but many early medals do not).
- Arm of service (Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army or Royal Air Force etc).
- Regiment or unit (regiment, squadron or ship the recipient serve in or on).
- Period of service (First World War or Victorian era etc).
You may not have access to all the above but the more information you are in possession of the easier a time you will have at the Archives.
Armed with this information will you will then need to contact the National Archives before you visit. This is important because you may need to order a reader’s ticket and the relevant documents a number of days before your intended visit. There are also a number of other things you need to be aware of including security arrangements and what you can and cannot take into the Archives. All this will be explained to you before hand or you can visit the National Archives web site for further details.
Once you are there the staff should be able to point you in the right direction to find what you are looking for. You will also be able to pick up and read printed pamphlets and guides designed to assist in your research.
Employing a Researcher
While conducting research yourself may sound attractive it is by no means easy. Although the National Archives have published various leaflets and advice on finding records many people find it difficult and somewhat time consuming especially if you are new to it. Also many of us do not live near the archives and so regular trips to London can prove quite expensive. It may therefore be recommended you employ one of a number of researchers who spend much of their working time within the archives and have become adept at finding records relatively quickly. There are numerous researchers listed on the National Archives web site who charge varying hourly rates.