Some New Evidence For The Arrangement of WW1 British Army Service Records in Army Record Offices

Here are some new pieces of evidence for the arrangement of British Army Service records before they were sent to the War Office in 1926:

From the C.W.G.C. Archive:

In a note to the Registrar, a member of the Registrar’s Branch discussing the use of regimental numbers found on effects, found via exhumation to help track down the identity of the exhumed, stated that as far as they were aware Record Office service records were kept in numerical (i.e. regimental number) order (see C.W.G.C. Archive WG 219/4 Box 1015 Memorials to the Missing: Nominal Rolls & Battalion Ledgers: Lists Of. R2 I.W.G.C. to Registrar I.W.G.C. (17 March 1923).

In a note from the War Office division responsible for dealing with the management of Record Offices, A.G.8c to the I.W.G.C. Director of Records, Henry Chettle, Major A.R. McAllan from A.G.8c confirms that service records are almost always stored in numerical (regimental number order) and also that the Record Offices have huge numbers of ‘Aftermath’ (the service records of men who had served in the Great War, many on wartime duration only terms and who had in been permanently demobilised) service records. The numbers quoted included 266,000 for the York Record Office, 803,000 for the Royal Field Artillery Record Office and 363,000 (see C.W.G.C. Archive WG 219/4 Box 1015 Memorials to the Missing: Nominal Rolls & Battalion Ledgers: Lists Of. Major A.R. McAllan A.G.8c War Office to Chettle Director of Records I.W.G.C. (? July 1923).

From the National Archives (TNA):

‘…COLONEL FASSON (R.H. & R.F.A. Records) stated that it would not be possible to prepare the nominal rols in the R.H. & R.F.A. Record Office, as difficulty would be experienced owing to the fact that the attestations in the R.H. & R.F.A. Record Office are not arranged according to the units in which men may be serving and owing to the number of units concerned.

CAPTAIN T.G. SPAIN (R.A.S.C. Records) and CAPTAIN T.D. CONWAY (R.A.M.C. Records) stated that the same difficulties applied in the cases of the R.A.S.C. and R.A.M.C. Record Offices…

It was agreed that in the case of the following corps the rolls should be prepared by Officers Commanding Units, checked by Officers i/c Records on receipt, and army number alloted to them:-

R.H. & R.F.A.                                                         R.A.M.C.

R.G.A.                                                                     R.A.O.C.

R.E.                                                                         R.A.V.C.


Additional copies of these rolls shewing the army numbers assigned would be prepared by Officers i/c Records and forwarded to Regimental Paymasters and Officers Commanding Units.

For all other corps the nominal rolls should be prepared by Officers i/c Records, army number allotted thereon and copies of rolls sent to Officers Commanding Units and Regimental Paymasters…’

From National Archives (T.N.A.) WO 32/4821: General (Code 21(A)): Allotment of numbers to men; new scheme: Minutes of a conference held in Room 162, War Office Embankment Annexe, on 13th July 1920, Regarding Proposed System of Army Numbering

This extract reveals the difficulty experienced by the Army Corps in easily putting a unit together with a particular corps number, often because of the very large number of small units involved/attachments to other outside units versus the relative simplicity of the infantry regiments and their battalions.

How the difficulties experienced by Record Offices using Regimental Numbers echo those of today’s WW1 Researchers

For a link to a memorandum from War Office division A.G.1R., the department behind Soldiers Died In The Great War, which describes in details the problems and the few virtues (including the ability pre-WW1 to use regimental numbers to work out the likely seniority within a regiment) please click here. A memorandum in response to the renumbering of the British Army with Army numbers from the 8 August 1920, dated 30 September and produced by the Officer in Charge of Records Royal Army Service Corps provides a fascinating insight into the problems often experienced in researching these numbers (including how higher and lower numbers might be issued in a non-chronological sequence) please click here.

What were Army Book 358/359 and Army Book 216

First mentioned in King’s Regulations 1901 as the ‘Regimental Register of Soldiers’ Services’, the Army Book 358 was first announced in Army Order 225/1900 which stated that:

‘…(d.) Regimental Register of Soldiers’ Services. -1. With a view to a permanent regimental record of soldiers’ services being maintained, a regimental register (Army Book 358) will be kept for each regimental or corps by the officer in charge of the original attestations. The names of all soldiers serving in the regiment or corps on the 1st January, 1901, as well as those who join the regiment or corps after that date, will be entered in the body of the book in order of regimental numbers, and alphabetically in the index at the end of the book…’

National Archives (TNA) WO 123/42 Army Orders (War Office) 1900

A prototype AB 358 page, without the section to record the particulars of a soldier’s marriage (which was part of the AB 358 when introduced in 1901 can be found in National Archives (TNA) PRO 17/7/1 Inspecting Officers’ Committee: Correspondence with Government Departments: War Office attached to a note from PRO dated 10 August 1899.

The AB 358 from 1901 was the main index of service records and source of information short of looking at service records in the Army Record Offices. The following example comes from a transcription of a form filled in at the Labour Corps Record Office at the end of 1918, beginning of 1919. The pencil in parts of the completed search form are shown in italics. The entry shows that that a wrong name had been entered against the 227227 Labour Corps number in the AB 358, although Gage’s surviving demobilisation records in 1919 give his final Corps number as 663848 and orders also survive for Forsyth under the 272227 number.

Labour Corps AB 358

Please note the transcription is based on an image of the document from a National Archives File, the image can be found at Findmypast (pay site):

Many similar forms and notes from Army Record Offices referring to AB 358s can be found in surviving WW1 service records. The AB 358 volume referred to in the slip is volume 134 and with surviving print runs for AB 358s recorded in the Scots Guards volumes which can now be seen online we can get an idea of the many thousands of volumes that would have been in existence by 1920. The print runs show how the massive increase in the size of the British Army vastly increased the need for AB 358s, with records of 100 books sometime before, 2,200 books printed in 1915 (when the number of entries had gone down to 6 soldiers per double page) and 2,000 books in 1917, the last print before the end of the War.

AB 358s used for the August 1920 Army renumbering by the Irish Regiments which were disbanded in 1922 are free to view here (in common with most regiments the books used for the renumbering were AB 358s originally printed in 1917):

Far fewer AB358s were printed in September 1920, with the 600 book run matching the enormous reductions in size of the British Army following demobilisation and the anticipated much smaller postwar Army once demobilisation was complete. The 1920 print run also further increases the space per entry, with entries reduced to 5 soldiers per double page.

Changes in policy and use of the post-war AB358s

In 1923 it was agreed that in the event of War that the details entered in the AB 358 for those on ‘duration-of-war engagement’ would be reduced to Army Number, Full Name, Date of Enlistment and ‘…Date, and (briefly) the cause of becoming non-effective…’ (see The National Archives (TNA) PRO 17/321 War Office General: 1925-1939. H.C. Care War Office to C.T. Flower PRO (28 March 1928). In May 1928 it was proposed by the War Office that the AB 358s would be abolished (Ibid: H.C. Care War Office to C.T. Flower PRO (2 May 1928) and that the duplicate attestations not sent at discharge to Chelsea would be retained permanently instead of maintaining AB 358s. This was agreed by the PRO in May 1928 as a more authentic record than the ‘artificial record made ad hoc like Army Book 358’ (Ibid: Internal PRO minute from C.T. Flower (2 May 1928)) although no change was as yet needed to the schedule as permanent preservation was many years away (Ibid: C.T. Flower PRO to H.C Care War Office (5 May 1928). The decision is reflected in the much reduced detail included in AB 358s from the end of the 1920s onwards.

The AB 358s remained the primary record to be preserved for soldiers discharged before 1928 but after 1928/1929 the primary method of permanently recording the details of a soldier for posterity was to be the attestation papers (presumably for those recruited from either 1928 or 1929?). The change although from a War Office point of view driven primarily by cost considerations (less work for the clerks at the Army Record Offices as reflected in the substantially reduced information available in new AB 358 entries from 1928/1929 onwards) meant that the cost would eventually be a greater one for the Public Record Office. However it should not be imagined that we are talking about the intended preservation of all documents on service files of those enlisted from the end of the 1920s.

That so much correspondence and other papers were preserved in surviving Great War Army service in the so-called ‘Burnt Records’ is an accident of history due to the Arnside Fire, where all salvageable documents on the files were retained due to the overall loss of records including all of the pre-Army Number related AB 358s (see The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Records Destroyed At Arnside Street (list). p. 4). In common with the limited R.A.F. and Royal Navy records of service personnel preserved from the Great War period, it was intended that the entries in the AB 358 registers  (which include more information than their R.A.F. and particularly R.N. equivalents) would be the only permanently preserved service record for other ranks other than the attestation and other papers retained for pension purposes by the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The preservation of documents in interwar and WW2 service files is a separate discussion.

Army Book 359

According to the list of lost records drawn up after the Arnside Fire Army Book 359 was ‘Special Reserve and Index Books’ (Ibid. p. 4) which suggests an equivalent form to the AB 358 for the Special Reserve. It is likely to have resembled an AB 358 but with differences to accommodate the different training and service expected from a Special Reservist. The single example of a mention of a record kept in an AB 359 can be found here:

A now privately held marriage certificate was endorsed with a reference to the marriage of Acting Sergeant 3/10775 Charles Bassett Northamptonshire Regiment being entered in Army Book 359 by a clerk at Warley Infantry Record Office (indicating a section for marriages in the AB 359 just as in the AB 358). The page number for the supposed entry in AB 359, page 185 and the date of 14 November 1914 would indicate that the marriage was recorded in a substantial AB 358 sized register, arranged like an AB 358 by regimental number. In the surviving service record for Bassett his discharge and claim to pension in 1916 are said to have been noted in an AB 358. As his regimental number remained unchanged between 1914 to 1916 the explanation may have something to do with his ending his service at the 8th (Reserve) Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment (perhaps necessitating an entry in an AB 358 as he had moved to a unit outside the Special Reserve) or simply a mistake by the record office either when making an entry on the marriage certificate or the discharge board form A. 46 (a third possibility is error in the website entry for the marriage certificate endorsement) . We need more evidence from surviving Special Reserve service files on the use of Army Book 359.

Army Book 216

The AB 216 was the Territorial Forces equivalent of the AB 358 , although the earliest references I have found to it in Territorial Forces Regulations from 1912 (updated to 1914) in passing and based  on the reference for authority to a 1914 Army Order (A.O. 267 of 1914):

‘…712. A permanent record of services, ages, addresses, attendances at or absences from annual training in camp, in respect of N.C.Os and men will be kept in A.B. 216 by the adjutant, or in the case of units which have no adjutant, by the O.C. All changes of address should be reported immediately to the company commander…’

From National Archives (TNA) WO 279/746 Territorial Force Regulations 1912: with amendments to 1 December 1914. Indexed. p. 172

Together with a slightly earlier 1913 reference to the AB. 216 in the same publication, this time quoting a 1913 Army Order (A.O. 129 of 1913):

‘(5)  On the transfer or discharge of a man, the record of his attendance at each annual training in camp will be entered on his attestation from the record kept in A.B. 216…’

From Ibid: p. 57

With the formation of Territorial Army Record Offices at the outbreak of War obtaining the AB 216 was part of the documents needed by the new Officer Commanding of the particular Territorial Force Record Office (quoting from A.O. 226 of 1914):

‘…16. Before a unit proceeds to its war station its Officer Commanding will transmit, by the quickest route, all the attestations of the men of the unit who have not been discharged, together with Army Book 216 (Record of Services, &C., Territorial Force) to the Officer in charge of Territorial Force Records (care of Officer in charge of Infantry Records at…………….). In the case of units which have a paid orderly room clerk, the latter will take the attestations with him when he joins the Territorial Record Office. In either case the Officer in charge of Territorial Force Records will be advised of the despatch by the Officer Commanding of the unit…’

From Ibid: p. 345

What was Army Book 56?

According to King’s Regulations the “Record of Services and Ages of Non-commissioned Officers and Men’. A far less important document that the AB 358 or AB 216 and presumably lacking the detail of either of these documents.

What was Army Book 72?

A standard book used by the Army for alphabetical listing, arranged by letters of the alphabet. Of interest here as it is often mentioned as being a book used by Officers-in-Charge of Records to record the papers of discharged soldiers in alphabetical order, with the Arnside Fire list stating that one of the series of documents lost was ‘ABs 72 Lists of soldiers’ documents forwarded to the Chelsea Hospital (The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Records Destroyed At Arnside Street (list). p. 4) which dealt with regular service pensions for those whose discharge was not attributable to service in the Great War. The use of AB 72s to alphabetically index discharge papers is referred to here in a 1917 completed copy of a form listing in part the steps to assemble documents by the Officer in Charge of Records on discharge from the Reserve:

‘…3. The Officer in Charge of Records will arrange the documents according to regimental numbers, and enter the names of the men in the alphabetical index, Army Book 72.’

See service file for 102760 Sapper John Gaines Royal Engineers. Transcribed from his surviving service file held by the National Archives (TNA)




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