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British Army officers' files - what they contain, and why


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This follows on from a conversation I had recently. I would be interested in what observations people have made, as a consequence of looking at service records, and their views as to the rationale as to what has survived and why. It's the metaphysics, as to speak, behind this which is of interest to me.

If you look at a service record for a Royal Marine OR in WW1, you know what you are getting. There is one page, with Statement of Service, NoK, medals, GCBs etc. It's similar for the ratings of the Royal Navy, too. It could be the case that this is still the case for the Royal Navy.

The British Army WW1 officer files at Kew are an absolute mixed bag, based on what I have seen over the past several years. Several months ago, the "elephant in the room" question did get raised:

What kind of content has survived
Why was it kept
What effect did the September 1940 fire at Arnside Street have?

This latter question is very pertinent. Whilst a lot is said about the "burnt records" for the other ranks, the extent to which "recreated" officer files were cobbled together does not get a mention

I quote from the link given below

  • Officers’ records of service (all that is left now is a miscellaneous file)


This is a comment provided to me, on the question of officer service records, in December of last year


[Posted: 7 December 2020 2105hrs GMT
Author: retired bookseller in Wanstead, former forum member]

It looks to me that you may (may,only) have done the same as me when I started- [made the assumption] that Arnside was for ORs records-the burnt docs.   Alas, the officers files went up as well-  what is represented as "officer files" at Kew are constructs from all over the place- notably accounting records (accountants always seem to survive) and medical boards. Those files where there is a  record of service is usually for the same reason as those service records are in the "burnt docs."-that is, they were the copy kept with medical records.  The details we both want-service details, fitness reports, etc are just not there. 

He's made a similar comment before


[Posted: 7 December 2020 2105hrs GMT
Author: retired bookseller in Wanstead, former forum member]

Officers files are a very hit and miss affair-and they are constructs from other sources as the original files were destroyed in toto in Arnside Street. The WO basically pulled bits and bobs from elsewhere-cheifly officers financial settlement-in the case of dead officers, Committee of Adjustment. Extensive and dead boring. The medical records are extensive as most medical boards have been retained.

I've had a go at trying to pull together a few similar soundbytes on the forum.
The thread from which these subsequent quotes came from are at the foot of this post


On 09/06/2014 at 23:48, spof said:

There are 139,916 files in WO 339 and 77,861 in WO 374. [From a perspective of digitising them,] ...

I also see 2 main problems with the records:

1. They are not a "standard" form. There are lots of little handwritten notes of varying sizes, sometimes birth certificates and normal sized Army forms. To digitise those would require a lot of manual adjustment of the equipment for each page in a file adding a lot to the expense.

2. They usually don't offer a lot of value to genealogists. Unless an officer was commissioned from the ranks, various 'weeding' programmes over the years has removed most information of military or family history value. A lot of the ones I have seen contain little more than the bean counters dealing with overpayments, pensions or other monetary, health and pension or legal issues. ORs who were commissioned will normally have their original attestation papers which are of value....



On 10/06/2014 at 09:26, Justinth said:

Hi Glen

I agree on papers of officers promoted from the ranks, in three cases in recent years they have been a godsend as they had the original attestation forms etc on them. On the files of officers who were commissioned from the beginning I have found some of the detail absolutely relevatory as well, for example revealing that one officer I was looking at had essentially been unfit for the front line and some of the pressure he had put on his son was a bit hypocritical.....




On 10/06/2014 at 20:05, Sue Light said:

The officers' file in WO339 and WO374 are virtually identical in form to the nurses' service records in WO399. There are just 16,000 of those and they were digitised about three years ago now. They contain a vast range of forms, letters, and bits and pieces of every size imaginable, including original BMD certificates and even dog-tags and range in size from about twenty pages to more than two hundred and fifty. As far as I know they were done as a TNA 'in-house' project (David will know) and a very good job indeed has been made of them.

Surprisingly, they are very good value for family history, despite the heavy weeding, and often provide great insights into relatives and next of kin, family addresses, and occupational history - the only source of some of this information that survives. In the absence of so much administrative and organisational information that has been lost in the past, they also provide the professional researcher a unique way to pick up tiny snippets of information that are unavailable elsewhere. There are always gems to be found, and I look on it as slowly piecing together a million piece jigsaw. No one file offers a great deal, but if you can look at enough, together they begin to give a wonderful overall picture......




On 11/06/2014 at 11:55, Chris_Baker said:

Over the last three years my business carried out a project for a university (which I cannot name), in which they required us to obtain copies of several hundred officers records. We did it by photographing them all. It gave us a very good, broad spectrum view of what the records contain and their value for family or military researchers..... There is also a surprisingly high level of absence; records missing that you would expect to be there. Of course, if it is the one record you want then the value to you could be high, but overall the records have been so stripped-out that their value is limited....


Thread on a different topic about officer service records 


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I had neglected to post the link to the thread where the second GWF quote came from. The first quote came from a thread that is non-canon.


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9 hours ago, Keith_history_buff said:

I had neglected to post the link to the thread where the second GWF quote came from. The first quote came from a thread that is non-canon.



I can only give two examples, both are family members -

  • My Great Grandfather, a career gunner and later Major - Although his service records are kept by the MOD rather than TNA I found the content of his officers records odd. Contained in his file were his complete OR service records to 1914 so no problem there. His officers records on the other hand were all handwritten by him, on official Army B 199a forms listing courses, promotions, postings and NOK details but nothing else. Not only that but his record ends in 1919, he continued to serve until 1926 but thats all missing. Was it usual an officer would write his own official service record?
  • My Great Uncle, a career NCO and officer with the DCLI - I received his file from TNA and it contains his OR service records and a great deal of material from his time as an officer. I have to say, it doesn't appear that they were "weeded" at all.


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Some examples of what I have seen on file. I think I am in double figures, in terms of how many records I have looked at whilst at Kew

  • Captain William Robert Wilson of the South Wales Borderers was commissioned from the ranks on 20 November 1912. (I have created a thread about him on here). He was married on 19 Feb 1898 to Eliza Jane (née Gooding). There are no papers whatsoever on his file in relation to his time in the ranks, which contrasts with those records of men promoted from the ranks during wartime. There is a deduced statement of his services, and correspondence in relation to his death in July 1940. Most of the correspondence was in relation to his widow, which did make me wonder if his other papers were affected by the Arnside Street fire. (Archive reference WO 339/8771)
  • George Henry Tatham Paton was born into an upper middle class family. Having recently finished his schooling at Clifton College when war broke out, he was commissioned in the London Regiment. He was later able to get a Special Reserve commission in the Grenadier Guards. He was awarded the MC, and then was posthumously awarded the VC. His application for a commission in the Grenadier Guards has survived. There was no citation for his MC on his file. I can't recall what, if anything, was on file in relation to his VC. I do not recall seeing any papers from his time with a TF commission in the London Regiment. Most of the paperwork was in relation to his effects and accrued pay being sent to his father. (Archive reference WO 339/52435)
  • James McNeill Diamond, an Ulsterman, enlisted in the ranks of the Royal Irish Rifles in September 1914. He was commissioned in the 18th London Regiment (London Irish). All that survives of his time in the ranks are both sides of his attestation form. The one item specific to a soldier of the TF is an Army Form E 624 (Imperial & General Service Obligation) The file is stamped "DECEASED" but with no indication in the file itself as to the year and place of his demise. It documents his cessation of the appointment of Temporary Captain at the time when he was convalescing and would not be returning to his former duties, along with the details of when this was gazetted, which I do not believe was in the FMP LG search. Much of the paperwork is in relation to his wound, subsequent medical boards etc. His Army Form E 356 (QUESTIONS to be answered by a Candidate for Appointment to a Commission in the Territorial Force) is on file. His Arrival Report memo, Protection Certificate carbon copy and Dispersal Certificate are in his file. (Archive reference WO 374/19501)


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I've always understood, don't ask me why, that there a separate set of records of service on which details of promotions, posting, etc were recorded - I've always imagined these to resemble the records of service that survive in many ASC officers' files. 

Equally I've understood that the miscellaneous files, which is what we have, are consolidated collections of correspondence, most of which circulated in separate files round the War Office.  

I've noticed, without ever looking systematically, that many files have been weeded at some point.  This was presumably to reduce the physical bulk of paper requiring storage. Much of what is retained is relevant to potential future claims - hence the retention of endless reports from medical boards; the settlement of deceased officers' estates, etc.

So my assumption, as far as I've thought about, is that the records of service for inactive officers were destroyed by the Luftwaffe and what we are left with is 'case work' which has been subjected to administrative weeding over the years. Note I say 'administrative' weeding - I've never seen anything to suggest weeding for any other reason.

Perhaps when the records of officers who served on after 1923 are released in bulk we will gain a better understanding of the system.


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Officers files were never intended to be records of service. They were referred to as "personal files" and that nomenclature is used by the TNA. From my own work on these files, it is clear that they refer mainly to financial, and sometimes disciplinary matters.  Records of service do appear of course,  for instance when a man has been commissioned from the ranks or when a discharged officer requested such a record after discharge. This normally occurs  when the man was applying for job.

In the case of one well known officer, Lt Col Peter Norman Nissen, inventor of the eponymous hut, there are two pieces of paper in his file. One is his demob certificate, the second notifying the War Office of his change of address. The reason for this is that had had been granted the patent rights to the accommodation hut and a hospital hut. A dispute arose between the government and Nissen over the sale these structures  to the USA, which was eventually settled out of court. 

Instructions for weeders, published in the mid-1932, when much of the weeding took place in regard to officers,  is quite clear about two things a) that officers files could be destroyed after ten years (note "could" not "will") and that the official record of service of an officer was the Army List.


Edited by Terry_Reeves
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