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how to find your grandfather's military records

11 tips for finding out someone's military history

The Findmypast team
7 November 2019

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

Did your grandfather or great-grandfather serve in the military? 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.

Search military records

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

When doing any sort of genealogy research, the absolute best place to start uncovering more about your family history is by asking your relatives about your family history. 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 generally seen as an honor within the family and so often military stories, war stories, and achievements are passed down in the family, so now it's up to you to see 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 basement

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

Be sure to look through photographs, postcards, family letters, and family journals for more clues about family that may have served. Finding a letter, for example, might give you clues on which military records to search next by 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 A-Z of record sets page and then click "Category" to bring "Armed forces & conflict" records to the top of the list.

From the way our records are sorted, you can simply browse through the collections, see which records cover which years, and decide which records will be the best option for your research.

Findmypast A-Z of records

You can sort the A-Z of records by country, category and sub-category.

Findmypast A-Z of records

Sort by category to see all of our military records.

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 help 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 ages for registration. This will differ by country and conflict and is worth researching in advance for your specific research.

6. Search both sides

Sometimes people forget that Americans served on both sides during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. Be sure to check the records for both sides, even if you suspect your ancestor served on one particular side.

7. Use name variant and wildcard functions

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 the variant name feature, then try with the wildcard function.

Findmypast name variance.

Use the variant feature to search alternative spellings.

8. Consider offline resources

For privacy and other reasons, not all military records have made their way online yet. For example, British Army records from the Second World War still sit with the Ministry of Defence and can only be accessed by application and 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.

Findmypast First World War records

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 is possible that it can direct your search to other military records. The BillionGraves collections on Findmypast are a good place to start.

11. Check historical newspapers and periodicals

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 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.

From Boston Daily Globe August 3, 1917

From Boston Daily Globe August 3, 1917

Plus, don't overlook The PERiodical Source Index (PERSI). It contains hundreds of genealogical publications and you can filter your search by subjects, including military.

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 and Twitter.