A.G.1 (R) War Office observations on the problems and few virtues of the pre-1920 British Army Regimental/Corps other ranks numbering systems

The following is a series of excerpts from National Archives (T.N.A.) WO 32/4821: General (Code 21(A)): Allotment of numbers to men; new scheme: Memorandum on the Method of Allotting Regimental Numbers to Soldiers  (15 September 1919).

It is fascinating as a source document for the feelings of the War Office and many of the Record Offices by 1919 about the problems of this system under the stress of war (the same problems often faced today by researchers), but also for the confirmation of the potential of the regimental numbering system before WW1 to be used to estimate the relative seniority of the other ranks in a regiment (another method commonly used by modern researchers).





15th September, 1919

35/Gen.No./2189 (A.G.1.R.)




The Past and Present Method.


  1. Before the War the system of giving regimental numbers to soldiers was to have one series in each Regiment and Corps for regular soldiers, another for those of the Special Reserve and others for the Territorial Force. To take as an example the simplest organization, viz the normal infantry regiment of two regular battalions, one Special Reserve Battalion and two Territorial Force Battalions, there were four series of numbers running concurrently as each battalion of the Territorial Force had its own sequence of numbers. In the larger Corps e.g. R.A., R.E., and R.A.S.C., the matter was more complicated as not only do these corps contain a larger number of Units, but the Units themselves are as a rule smaller than in the case of the Infantry.
  2. It had been remarked at a date prior to the beginning of the war that the system was not altogether sound, as the recognised function of the Special Reserve was to complete the establishment of the regular Units to War Establishment on mobilization. It was pointed out that it was within the bounds of possibility that, on mobilization, two mean might be serving together in the same unit, both bearing the same regimental number. Such an eventuality as the normal reinforcements of a regular unit with Territorial soldiers or the creation of a New Army had of course never been contemplated.
  3. The system did not stand the test of war. In actual practice so great a degree of confusion arose that at last it became necessary during the course of the war, to re-number the whole of the Territorial Force. As an example of the defects incidental to the system it may be mentioned that in the infantry alone, prior to renumbering, one instance was brought to notice of three soldiers in a Scottish battalion all of whom bore the same clan name and the same regimental number; whilst in a Welsh Battalion, where most of the men had such names as Jones, Evans, and Phillips, a case occurred of a youth of 16 being charged with the maintenance of the large family of an older comrade, whose regimental number, Christian and surname were the same as his own.
  4. In the earlier years of the War transfers were of comparatively infrequent occurrence, being only such as are allowed by King’s Regulations paras. 323 to 334; and each proposal was considered separately on its merits. The pooling of reinforcements, the passing of the Military Transfers Act, the employment of men of low medical categories, the creation of new Corps (notably the Machine Gun Corps and, at a later date, the Labour Corps) and the re-construction of other Corps (e.g. Tank Corps, R.E. Transportation) all tended profoundly to alter the situation in regard to transfers. So far from the transfer of a soldier being an altogether exceptional incident in his military career it became almost the normal procedure, the changing military situation and the necessity of employing to the best advantage craftsmen and also soldiers who were unfit for fighting purposes being the sole consideration. Thus it came about that, during the war, transfers were carried out by thousands.
  5. In addition to the work in Record and Pay Offices at home, which is involved every time a soldier is transferred of amending his documents and of dispatching them to the new Record Office, Pay Office and possibly to the new County Association, it was also necessary to alter the soldier’s identity disc and those documents maintained in the field or at the base (Pay Book. Conduct Sheet and Record of Service). Every transfer also necessitated of course the allocation of a new regimental number. At an early stage the entire control of regimental numbers passed from officers in Charge of Records, and whole blocks of thousands of numbers were placed at the disposal of 3rd Echelons. The next stage was to delegate the distribution to Officers Commanding Base Depots, by whom not infrequently further distributions were made. The results, arising often from the haste with which men were transferred in order to send them to the front, was often that identity discs and documents were not altered, that men were unaware whether they belonged to or were merely attached to the unit in which they came to be serving and that they either did not know their regimental numbers or that their minds had become confused through frequent changes. In many cases too it happened that, out of perversity or because they resented having been compulsorily transferred, soldiers who had become casualties deliberately described themselves under their former regimental numbers and Corps. Nor were errors confined entirely to theatres of war. So hurriedly were units raised and sent overseas that numerous instances occurred of duplication of numbers within the same corps, while in 1916 whole batches of men of the Labour Corps were actually sent to France before numbers had been allotted to them.
  6. Having thus briefly reviewed the practical working of the existing system, it is necessary to see whether any improvement is possible with a view to overcoming defects and then to examine the advantages and the disadvantages incidental to a revised method of numbering….

Advantages Claimed for the New Method

…(e) The identification of deceased soldiers by means of their identity discs, clothing, documents etc., would be facilitated; for, no matter whether the name of the regiment had been altered on the disc or not, such a soldier could always be traced…

(f) Considerable sums of public money representing cash payments made to soldiers who have not been correctly described are still awaiting adjustment. Such men many have been paid on acquittance rolls of units to which they were only attached for duty, their correct unit having been omitted; an old regimental number pertaining to a former Corps may have been entered; figures may have been transposed or names incorrectly spelt; prefixes may have been omitted. In these and similar cases identification could almost invariably have been established on reference to the central office had army numbers been in use.

(g) There are in Record Offices a certain number of attestations which cannot be assigned to any soldier belonging to the Corps affiliated to that Office. This invariably arises owing to errors in assigning regimental numbers either on enlistment or on transfer. No such difficulty would have arisen had Army Numbers been in use.

(h) It would be advantageous both to the individual soldier and also to the regimental quartermaster’s department on the transfer of the former to another Corps, of it were no longer necessary to re-number clothing and necessaries.

(i) In Record and Pay Offices liability to error, time, clerical labour and therefore expense would be saved.

Disadvantages of the New Method

…(a) It would be necessary to have a series of numbers extending to seven figures. Such numbers would be unwieldy and it might become necessary to make provision for the increased size of numbers in fresh issues of most of the army forms in current use. Hitherto regimental numbers have not exceeded five figures except in the case of the R.G.A. where six-figure numbers are allowed; but on the other hand, in certain Corps, prefixes (sometimes consisting of two symbols, letters and figures or both) are in use. Thus in the Royal Army Service Corps for example such a regimental number as SS/10999 is the practical equivalent to a seven figure or even (including the oblique stroke) to an eight-figure number.

(b) Prior to the war it was practicable readily to determine the relative seniority of the majority of the men serving in a unit by means of their regimental numbers and roughly to forecast the approximate date of the expiration of their service or of their transfer to the Reserve. This is a small point and if it be thought that the matter is sufficiently important it would probably be found possible to meet it by means of the publication of a short monthly Army Order or Army Council Instruction notifying the highest Army Number given during the preceding month…’

(c)…There is also the possibility in isolated instances of the old difficulty arising of two soldiers, one with an Army and one with an identical Regimental Number, serving together in the same Corps or even Unit…’


Additional excerpts  from Ibid: Proposal to Allot Army Numbers To Soldiers Instead of Regimental Numbers (9/2/20). The excerpt is a useful reminder of the large number of number series used during and before WW1:




The old system under which regimental numbers were allotted to soldiers was as follows:-

In the Infantry  : –

Within each Regiment there was a different series of numbers:-

(a) For Regular Soldiers serving on normal periods of engagement.

(b) For soldiers of the Special Reserve.

(c) For soldiers of the Territorial Force. The renumbering of the Territorial Force was carried out during the war.

(d) For soldiers of the New Army.

(e) For local Battalions e.g., “Pals” Battalion, “Bantams” Battalion, Football Battalions, etc.

In the Cavalry  : –

Within the three Corps of Lancers, Dragoons and Hussars, there was a different series of numbers:-

(a) For each Cavalry Regiment.

(b) For each Regiment of the Special Reserve – King Edward’s Horse and Irish Horse.

(c) For each Yeomanry Regiment – Territorial Force.

In the Royal Artillery  :-

There were many series. In the R.H. and R.F.A. there were, during the war, 7 ordinary series plus 15 T.F. series = 22 series, from the whole of which, numbers were continually being quoted.

In the R.A.S.C.  :-

There was a different series : –

(a) For Supply.

(b) For Horse Transport.

(c) For Remounts.

(d) For Mechanical Transport.

During the war the number of series was increased to nine.

In other Corps  :-

The number of series varied according to their respective requirements…

…(v)     The introduction of a system of Army numbers may involve a slight alteration in the method of keeping Army Books 358, 359 and 216, Record of Soldiers Services. These books are eventually deposited in the Public Record Office, Chancery Lance, W.C.2…’