Even before the Luftwaffe comprehensively destroyed millions of documents in an incendiary attack on the Army Records Store on Arnside Street in September 1940, the War Office had been systematically weeding and destroying soldiers' files for decades. The records that survive in the soldiers' pension files to 1913 in series WO 97 at the National Archives (and now on Findmypast) represent a tiny fraction of the paperwork that would originally have been generated. In the majority of cases a soldier's file may only contain his four-page attestation paper; that is, if a file survives at all. Files only survive for those soldiers who claimed or might have claimed a pension. So if your ancestor died in service before 1913, forget about finding papers for him.
All of the riflemen listed above died whilst serving with the 3rd Battalion, Rifle Brigade in India in 1898. None of these men has a surviving file because as deceased soldiers they were never going to be making a pension claim and therefore there was no need - so the War Office reasoned - for their files to be retained. Furthermore, these men's names will not appear in the soldiers' effects registers held at the National Army Museum and published by Ancestry because these records only begin in (or survive from) 1901. In fact, the only evidence that these men ever served as soldiers at all will be found in regimental records if these survive or in medal rolls, if they were entitled to receive a medal. And these are big IFs. A full service record will not survive in regimental archives but names might appear in enlistment registers or Part II Orders if these have been retained by the regiments. The enlistment registers were disposed of by the Ministry of Defence many years ago but before they were all dumped into a skip, the MoD did at least give regiments the option to have them back. Many regiments took up this option and this is why, for instance, some have found their way on-line. Findmypast has now published enlistment registers held by The Royal Artillery, Royal Tank Corps and the Scots Guards, and others may follow.
In defence of the War Office and MoD, an un-weeded soldier's file could potentially contain hundreds of separate pages: a multitude of official army forms, correspondence and internal memoranda. If just one document had to be retained, the four-page attestation paper is the obvious candidate as it records the man's movements from attestation to discharge. It also contains details of where he served, medal entitlement, wounds, and next of kin. Finding the space to store hundreds of thousands of multiple-page files must have been a headache, and an expensive headache at that.
Unidentified Rifle Brigade marksman
Returning to the Rifle Brigade deaths, above, burial records for at least some of these men have been digitised and appear within Findmypast's India Office collection. So we can see, for instance, that the first man on the list, J Ashworth, was 27-year-old Joseph Ashworth who died of "ague" on the 4th February 1898 and was buried the same day.
The sad reality is though, that there must be hundreds of thousands of soldiers for whom nothing tangible survives. All this, by way of a preamble to emphasise the importance of the humble regimental number.
Let's go back to Joseph Ashworth. His regimental number was 1572 which, looking at my database of regimental numbers, suggests that he joined the Rifle Brigade in Winchester on the 16th or 17th September 1891. He probably enlisted for a period of seven years with the colours and five years on the reserve and had probably been overseas since 1892 or 1893. If a soldier was serving overseas when his period of colour service was due to expire, he served an additional year with the colours and reduced his reserve service by a year. This suggests that Joseph would, in the normal course of events, probably have transferred to the reserve in 1899 and would have been discharged from the army as a time-expired soldier in 1903. (Note, however, that Joseph would almost certainly have been recalled to the colours in October 1899 and sent to South Africa to fight the Boers).
The Rifle Brigade Chronicle will be useful here and I have just recently acquired a pretty comprehensive collection of these annual publications beginning in 1890 and running right up to 1965. These make nice companions to the King's Royal Rifle Corps Chronicle which begin in 1901 (and I also have a complete run of these from 1901 to 1914).
Just yesterday I completed a research project where all that survived for a First World War soldier was his medal index card and an entry in the British War and Victory medal roll. By analysing his regimental number details (he had two numbers, one with the King's (Liverpool Regiment) and one with the RAMC), I was able to determine when he enlisted, when he would have been likely to arrive overseas, when he transferred to the RAMC and the RAMC unit he served with). This information is crucial because it then allows an individual to consult the relevant war diaries.
So, despite the best efforts of German airmen and Whitehall clerks, if a service record or pension record does not survive for your British Army ancestor, don't give up hope, there may still be a lot more to discover by digging deeper into his regimental number.
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