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Army - Commander-in-Chief Memoranda and Papers/Commission Books/Indexed Letter Books/Manuscript Army Lists - Officers before 1914 (Military)

Nature of Source

Documents relating to the purchase and sale of commissions (including Ireland from 1801 to 1859) as vetted by the office of the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C). The office was closed in 1870 following the abolition of the system of buying commissions under the Cardwell Reforms. The papers also contains appointments, promotions and resignations. Establishing dates of commissions and promotions is very important as the records identify other series of records held at The National Archives for further research.

The practice of buying commissions dates back to 1660 under the reign of Charles II and provided the officer with some form of a pension. Officers could progress their career through the ranks by purchasing a higher rank when the vacancy arose or they could swap with an officer of equal rank from another regiment.

Officer records can also be found in series WO 25/1 and WO 25/89 which comprise of Commission Books covering the years 1660-1684 and 1728-1741 respectively. The books contain details on officer promotions and fees paid for commissions and will provide the officer's name, rank and regiment. Correspondence relating to the purchase and sale of commissions can be found in the Indexed Letter Books which are held in series WO 4/513 and cover the years from 1704 to 1708. Regiment and gradation lists of officers can be found in the Manuscript Army Lists and are held in series WO 64 covering the years from 1702 to 1823. In addition, various printed editions appeared up to WWII. The details Manuscript Army Lists can provide on an officer include the regiments served with, his rank, date of commission, promotions, exchanges and transfers to half pay.

The key starting point for most army research is to determine which regiment the officer served with. A potential source of regular army officer information can be found in the Graduation Lists which run from 1901 to 1914 which are available in the open reading room at The National Archives. These lists are similar in scope to the Army Lists.

A possible starting point for officer research pre-WWI is to consult the alphabetical card index of officers compiled by staff at The National Archives in the 1970s. The information was extracted from series WO 25 and WO 26 but unfortunately is not complete. WO 25 is also available as part of the Digital Microfilm project. Officer commissions, promotions and discharges have also been published in the London Gazette since the early 18th century.

The supporting documents often contain statements of service, baptism certificates and letters of recommendation. Consult the Army List and the London Gazette for the dates of the official award of the commission or promotion. Appointments were also announced in the United Service Journal and the Naval and Military Magazine.

The papers consist of four groups; commissions by purchase, commissions without purchase, promotions and sale of commissions. The Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery selected officers by merit and some commissions in other parts of the army were granted without purchase by the commander-in-chief. As with the purchase of a commission, an officer needed the agreement of the commander-in-chief to sell a commission. It can be difficult to find the actual date of the sale as it is not reported in the Army List. The Notification Books in series WO 25 (administration movements of officers) could help find the date.

An officer's name can also be found amongst the surviving documents found in series WO 27 covering the years from 1750 to 1914. The series contains regimental inspection returns and amongst other things shows the names of officers present providing his name, age and nationality. Another possibility for finding details of an officer (cavalry and infantry officers only) is to search the Service Returns found in series WO 25. These records consists of surveys of retired officers on full or half pay and were taken for various years from 1809 to 1873. Service returns for Engineers officers can be found in series WO 25 and WO 54 and for Artillery officers in series WO 54 and WO 76 (Records within WO 76 are available to download free of charge as part of the Digital Microfilm project). The Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers published their own lists of officers and these are available at The National Archives and other local and reference libraries.

Service records for all ranks who served after 1920 remain with the Ministry of Defence with each military service maintaining its own record office. The Veterans UK web site provides contact details of where to apply for service records for each of the services.

Where Found

The National Archives (WO 31, Office of the Commander-in-Chief: Memoranda and Papers, 1793-1870)
The National Archives (WO 74, War Office: Army Purchase Commission: Records, 1758-1908. Series includes applications from officers and registers of service)

Regimental Museums (Some regimental museums may hold officer service records such as appointments, commissions and promotions. These records may deal with officer service before the War Office assumed responsibility for keeping and maintaining officer records towards the end of the 19th century)

National Army Museum/Templer Study Centre (The museum houses a wealth of information on the history and traditions of the Army including officer Army Lists, regimental and campaign histories, soldier's effects records, military memoirs and diaries, regimental and other military periodicals and books and other archives relating to the pre-1914 Army. The museum also holds the enlistment and discharge books for the Buffs, the Middlesex Regiment, and the five Irish regiments disbanded in 1922. See the web site for details of their collections and a series of information sheets for researching army family history)

Period Covered

1793 - 1870

Genealogical Value

Name of officer, dates of commissions, appointments, promotions and resignations.

Further References


Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006

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Brereton, J.M. A Guide to the Regiments and Corps of the British Army: Bodley Head, 1985

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Blank, Dr. Stuart. Researching British Military History on the Internet: Alwyn Enterprises, 2007

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Cox. Reginald H. W. Military Badges of the British Empire 1914-18: Ernest Benn, 1982

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Farmer, John, The Regimental Records of the British Army: Grant Richards, 1901 (Free download available at the Internet Archive)

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Fowler, Simon. A Guide to Military History on the Internet: Pen & Sword, 2007

Fowler, Simon. Tracing your Army Ancestors: Pen & Sword, 2006

Fowler, Simon. Tracing Your Army Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2013

Gaylor, John. Military Badge Collecting: Pen & Sword Books, 2002
Grehan, John & Mace, Martin. British Battles of the Crimean Wars 1854-1856: Pen & Sword Books, 2014  

Kitzmiller, John. In Search of the Forlorn Hope: A Comprehensive Guide to Locating British Regiments and Their Records, 1640-WWI: Manuscript Publishing Foundation, 1988

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Murphy, Gerry. Where Did That Regiment Go? The Lineage of British Infantry and Cavalry Regiments at a Glance: The History Press, 2009

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Paterson, Sarah. Tracing Your Family History, Army: Imperial War Museum, 2006 Buy Now on Amazon

Pols, Robert. Dating Old Army Photographs: Family History Partnership, 2011

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Saks, David. Boerejode: Jews in the Boer Armed Forces 1899-1902: 2010  

Spencer, William. Family History in the Wars: The National Archives, 2007

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Spencer, William. Army Records: A Guide For Family Historians: The National Archives, 2008

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Storey, Neil. Military Photographs and How to Date Them: Countryside Books, 2009

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Swinnerton, Iain, An Introduction to the British Army: Its History, Traditions and Records: FFHS, 1996

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Swinson, Arthur. A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army: The Archive Press, 1972

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The Great War: A Photographic Narrative: Imperial War Museum: Jonathan Cape, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon

Usher, George. Dictionary of British Military History: A&C Black Publishers, 2006

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Watts, Michael and Watts, Christopher. My Ancestor was in the British Army: Society of Genealogists, 2009

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Westlake, Ray. The Territorials 1908-1914: A Guide for Military and Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2011
Banks, Arthur. A Military Atlas of The First World War: Pen & Sword Books, 2013
Bridger, Geoff. The Great War Handbook: A Guide For Family Historians & Students Of The Conflict: Pen & Sword Books, 2013
Christopher, John & McCutcheon, Campbell. 1914 the First World War in Old Photographs: Over by Christmas: Amberley Publishing, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Doyle, Peter & Foster Chris. British Army Cap Badges of the First World War: Shire Publications, 2010 Buy Now on Amazon
Doyle, Peter. Great War British Tommy Manual: The British Soldier 1914-18 [All Models]-Haynes Owners' Workshop Manuals: Haynes, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Doyle, Peter & Foster Chris. Remembering Tommy: The British Soldier in the First World War: The History Press, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Doyle, Peter & Foster Chris. What Tommy Took to War, 1914-1918: Shire Publications, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Doyle, Peter. The First World War in 100 Objects: The History Press, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Forty, Simon. Mapping the First World War: Battlefields of the Great Conflict from Above: Anova Books, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Gregson, Keith. A Tommy in the Family: First World War Family History Tales and Research Tips: The History Press, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Holding, Norman, More Sources of WWI Army Ancestry: FFHS, 1998 Buy Now on Amazon
Holding, Norman & Swinnerton, Iain. WWI Army Ancestry: FFHS, 2004 Buy Now on Amazon
Holmes, Richard. Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918: Harper Perennial, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
Holmes, Richard. Shots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18: HarperPress, 2010 Buy Now on Amazon
Holmes, Richard. The First World War in Photographs: Andre Deutsch, July 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
James, Brig. E. A. British Regiments 1914-18: Naval and Military Press, 2009 Buy Now on Amazon
Paterson, Sarah. Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors: The First World War: Pen & Sword, 2012
Rawson, Andrew. The British Army 1914-1918: The History Press, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Spencer, William. First World War Army Service Records: The National Archives, 2008 Buy Now on Amazon
Swinnerton, Iain. Identifying Your World War One Soldier from Badges and Photographs: Federation of Family History Societies, 2001 Buy Now on Amazon

TNA Research Guides

Websites (The Purchase of Officers' Commissions in the British Army, by John Armatys & Robert George Cordery) (TNA Guide: Looking for records of a British Army officer up to 1913)
(TNA Guide: Looking for a subject, Military history) (TNA Guide: Looking for a person, Army) (UK Military Family History Online: Links to web sites with online data and information to aid in military family history research) (Guide to Army Lists and published lists available on CD) (Online store selling military records from a variety of suppliers) (Veterans UK) (Ancestor Research & Military Genealogy) (Imperial War Museum, Your History, Family History: Army: Information sheets include Tracing Army Ancestry, Army Service Records, Tracing Army Units and List of Abbreviations) (British Military Records: The Army by Fawne Stratford-Devai) (Military Archive Research, by Dr Stuart C Blank) (GENUKI Military guide with useful links) (British Military Records by Jay Hall) (Guide and links to military museums in the UK) (National Archives of Scotland Research Guide: Military Records)

Online Databases (Military Genealogy Forces War Records: Military records of over two million British Armed Forces personnel cross matched with over 4000 Regiments including Rolls of Honour, Crimean and Boer War Databases, Medal Rolls and Casualties Lists. The site also has a facility to access information on specific units or bases including regiments, ships, airfields) (British Army Service Records 1760-1913: Data extracted from TNA series WO 97 which provides details on soldiers, popularly known as Chelsea Pensioners, in receipt of a pension from the Royal Hospital Chelsea after discharge between 1760 and 1913) (The Cadet and Staff Registers of the Sandhurst Collection: Details for almost every officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy Woolwich, covering 1790-1793, 1799-1805, and 1820-1939 and the Royal Military College Sandhurst, covering 1800-1946. Staff registers are also included, though less informative) (Register of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. The records contain over 258,800 names, including a completely revised casualty list of 59,000 casualty records) (Casualties of the Boer War, 1899-1902: The database lists the names, regiments, dates, locations and nature of casualty of all officers and men of the South African Field Force from the outbreak of war. The data is also available at (Transcribed summary service details of officers and men who served with the 28th North Gloucestershire Regiment during the 19th Century or the Gloucestershire Regiment in WWI. Database courtesy of Mr. J. Devereux) (The Register of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902: Database that lists men and women who served in the British Imperial Forces during the Anglo-Boer War. The register includes soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians as well as a casualty roll. The data is compiled for sources such as Official Casualty Rolls, A Gazetteer of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, Medal Rolls, Anglo-Boer War Memorials Project and Winifred Scott's Anglo-Boer War Index. The Register will state whether the person listed has an entry in series WO 97 held at The National Archives. For a full list of sources see the website)