Researching Servicemen

The information on this website is largely based on indexes and documents published online and therefore makes no claim to be comprehensive. I would welcome additional details about any person from the village who served during World War I.

The amount of information available from online sources for each soldier varies considerably and is not always entirely reliable. Every effort has been made to ensure that the entry for each man is accurate, but please email me if any errors have crept in.

The following pages provide a brief guide to recruitment, army structure and where to start researching the career of an individual soldier – including the snags. Only officers were normally mentioned by name in War Diaries and similar documents but, where they survive, these war diaries allow researchers to find out where the regiment in which their soldier served was active.

Wartime recruitment

Up to August 1914 the regular British Army was a small professional force. A man could join the regulars or become a part-time member of either the Territorial Force or the Special Reserve. Recruitment was voluntary; there was no conscription.

A would-be soldier had to be physically fit, be over five foot three inches tall and be aged between eighteen and thirty eight, though eighteen year olds could not be sent overseas. He had to enlist for a certain number of years, usually seven years full time service followed by five in the Army Reserve. The man had a choice over the regiment he was assigned to.

Before the war men joining the Special Reserve enlisted for six years and could be sent overseas. Those joining the Territorial Force (a boy could join the Territorials at seventeen) were usually attached to a battalion of their county regiment and were not obliged to serve overseas unless mobilised.  However all Reservists and Territorials were mobilised in August 1914.

Evidence of age or name was not then required and many under-age boys enlisted. 

Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, also inaugurated an additional form of service whereby a man could volunteer to serve for three years or the duration of the war, whichever proved longer. These became known as Kitchener's Army. Former soldiers were accepted up to the age of forty five.

Conscription was introduced in January 1916. It initially applied to men aged nineteen to forty one who were unmarried or who were a widower on 2 November 1915. In May it was extended to married men, and the lower age dropped to eighteen. Conscripted men could not choose which regiment they joined.

A conscript could appeal to a tribunal if he believed he should be exempted because of poor health, conscientious objection or because his occupation was considered vital to the war effort. The criteria for these cases were not applied consistently across the country.

Army Structure 1914-1918

A Regiment was a permanent military unit usually with a county or regional affiliation. Its size varied greatly. Most regiments began the war with two battalions of the regular army and two or more territorial battalions.  They all also raised battalions for Lord Kitchener's New Armies.  

A Battalion is a military unit of between three hundred and twelve hundred soldiers. In 1914 an infantry battalion at full war establishment was supposed to comprise 1,107 officers and men, but most battalions, whether regular army or territorial, were not up to strength. Regular army battalions were quickly brought up to full strength by reservists, and territorial battalions by the first influx of volunteers. Over the course of the war the strength of a battalion varied greatly through casualties and transfers. In 1917 the average infantry battalion contained only 450 officers and men.

Regiments never fought as regiments; their battalions were usually attached to a Brigade. This was a major tactical military formation typically composed of three to six battalions plus support troops. Three or more brigades constituted a Division.

Tracing a soldier’s career

There are a great many websites and books devoted to WW1 servicemen, many of them specific to an area or a regiment and some to specific categories, usually officers. The following brief list includes only the most wide-ranging or most relevant to Cottingham.

The principal national sources of information for tracing an individual serviceman’s career are:

Where they survive in full, these records include a physical description of the soldier, home addresses and other personal details, and military career. Sadly, nearly two thirds of WW1 soldiers’ service records were completely lost or very badly damaged by enemy bombing raids in WW2 so the chances of locating records of a particular soldier are less than 50%.

Identifying an individual soldier is further hampered by inconsistencies and inaccuracies within the record. A common problem, for example, is men enlisting under a given name other than the one they were registered with at birth. Using a middle name, nickname or even a completely different one was far from uncommon. Some records also give only an initial and a surname. Until conscription it was not necessary to produce evidence of age or even of one's name in order to enlist.

Surviving records are mostly held at the National Archives at Kew where they can be searched free of charge. They can be more conveniently explored on payment of a subscription through various websites including:

The National Archives has recently begun digitising further WW1 material including unit war diaries and soldiers’ wills; these can be downloaded for a small charge from:

If a soldier is known to have died while serving, the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are freely available online and sometimes have personal information:

Further online sources of information include:

Roll of Honour / War Memorial

Many local communities have researched and published details of servicemen killed in their village, town, place of work, county etc. These are listed at:

Leicestershire County Council has a very large collection of names on its Roll of Honour though at the time of writing the website is being redeveloped and will not be available again until July 2014.

Regimental records

Information on individuals is sometimes published by the army regiment(s) in which they served. Some regiments are developing an online database but others have very little available. To find out what exists online, either google the name of the regiment or look at the regimental records guidance at National Archives.

There are also a number of independent websites have been set up by an enthusiasts with a special interest in a specific regiment.

Particular mention should be made of the Leicestershire Regiment website as many men from Cottingham and Middleton, especially regular soldiers and territorials / reservists were part of the Leicestershire or Northamptonshire regiments. Other men were sent to or transferred into more distant regiments as the War went on and many battalions were largely destroyed.

Northamptonshire Record Office

Northamptonshire Record Office is planning to launch a blog about WW1 resources for which it has responsibility later in 2014. For further information see the NRO website:


Local newspapers often published soldiers’ obituaries. Many are available online through National Archives and Findmypast but unfortunately these do not currently include the Evening Telegraph which can only be accessed locally.  

The Course of the War

There are a huge number of websites and discussion forums providing detailed information about wartime operations, troop movements, battles and similar events. These may help identify where a soldier was likely to have fought. Good places to start looking are:

The Long, Long Trail

On This Day

The Great War Forum

The Great War

National Army Museum


There are also a great many books and regimental histories about the war, though not all are currently in print.

Useful guides to records include:

“First World War Army Service Records: A Guide for Family Historians” 4th edition 2008 by William Spencer and published by National Archives.

“Army Service Records of the First World War” revised edition 1996 by Simon Fowler, William Spencer and Stuart Tamblin

Particularly relevant to many Cottingham soldiers are:

“The Northamptonshire Regiment 1914-1918.”
Published by the Naval & Military Press 2005

“History Of The 1st and 2nd Battalions: The Leicestershire Regiment in the Great War.”
Naval & Military Press (New edition of 1928 edition) 2002

“Their Name Liveth For Evermore: The Great War Roll of Honour for Leicestershire and Rutland.”
Michael Doyle, 2009 (Five volume set) .