11 tips for finding out someone's military history

4-5 minute read

By The Findmypast Team | April 9, 2021

How to trace military ancestors

Almost every family has a military connection. Here's how to find yours.

Was your grandfather or great-grandfather an Anzac? Would you like to find out more about a family hero? If their military records survive, you can use them to find out so much detail about their lives.

To help you in your quest to trace your family's military past, we've put together this list of tried and tested research tips.

1. Ask your relatives first

The absolute best place to start uncovering more about your family history is by asking your relatives. They might know stories of your family's past, they might know who accomplished what, and they can give you a great jump start in building your own family tree. Chances are that if any of your more recent ancestors served in the military, your relatives will know. Serving in the military is generally seen as an honour within the family and so often war stories and achievements are passed down from generation to generation. It's up to you to determine which aspects of the stories are fact or fiction.

2. Take a hint

Once you start, add to or edit a Findmypast family tree, our intuitive hints get to work, scouring our records (including our military collections) in search of potential matches.

Hints are by far the quickest way to grow your family tree and the depth of our military records means that, often, a hint will provide you with new information from a source you've never seen before.

3. Search your attic

A great way to discover if any of your ancestors served in the military is by looking through your family's heirlooms and memorabilia. Chances are that if your ancestor served, there's a photo of them in uniform, or medals that have been passed down have been stored for safekeeping.

Be sure to look through old photos, postcards, family letters and journals for more clues about relatives that may have served. Finding a letter, for example, might give you clues on which military records to search next by revealing either location of service, or dates on the letter. No piece of information is too small.

4. Browse record sets prior to searching

The best way to yield the most specific results is to search one specific record set at a time. To determine which military record sets would be the best option for you to search, go to our full list of record sets and then click 'Category' to bring 'Military, Armed Forces & Conflict' records to the top of the list.

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You can sort our full list of records by name, category, sub-category and collection size.

You can simply browse through the collections, see which collections cover which years, and decide which records will be the best option for your research.

5. Keep your timeline handy

If you're unsure whether your ancestor served in the military, having significant dates from their lives readily available will make your search easier. As you browse record sets, watch the dates and try to assess if your ancestor would have served or not. One item to keep in mind is registration ages. This will differ by country and conflict and is worth researching in advance for your specific research.

6. Search both sides

In the cases of civil wars and often even revolutionary wars and rebellions, keep in mind that your relatives may have fought for either opposing side, so be sure to check the records for both, even if you suspect they served on one particular side.

7. Use name variants and wildcards

Sometimes names were recorded incorrectly or nicknames were used by those registering to serve. If your searches aren't yielding any results, try casting a wider net with our name variance feature.

Name variant tool on Findmypast

Use the name variant feature to search for alternative spellings.

If you're still having issues getting results, try your search with our wildcard function.

8. Consider offline resources

For privacy and other reasons, not all military records have made their way online yet. For example, British Army service records from the Second World War still sit with the Ministry of Defence and can only be accessed by an application if you fulfil certain criteria. If you can't find information about your military relatives online, don't rule out archives, hard-copy books and other offline resources.

9. Do some local research

There are war memorials in most countries and they often list fallen soldiers or entire battalions. If you know where your serving relative came from, or indeed, where they may have died in battle, there's no substitute for visiting the area to see if you can find out more.

Finding your ancestor listed on a war memorial is not only a poignant moment, it could also help your genealogy research.

10. Don't forget cemetery records

If you know your ancestor served, but are having difficulty locating them in military records, try searching cemetery records. Those who died in action will often be buried in military cemeteries, and even if they're not, their gravestone could still indicate their branch and rank in the military. If you can find their burial record, it can direct your search to other military records. The BillionGraves collections on Findmypast are a great place to start.

11. Check historical newspapers

Searching for your military ancestor in a newspaper can yield some great results. Newspaper articles can reveal where your ancestor served, their military accomplishments, or if they died in a war. You can often find casualty lists or your ancestor's obituary. Newspapers also included draft lists and war stories, so you can learn about the acts of heroism that your ancestor may have been part of.

Do you have ancestors that served in the military? Have you discovered them in our records yet? Tell us what you've found over on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

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Findmypast blog writersThe Findmypast team