National Archives piece together the records of 140,000 First World War officers

By Richard Moss | 21 August 2014

Volunteers have helped The National Archives piece together the paper records of nearly 140,000 officers who served in the First World War

a photograph of an army officer on a motorbike
Lieutenant Reginald Frederick Le Mesurier. One of thousands of officers whose records have been pieced together by volunteers at The National Archives.© The National Archives
They include the poignant letters written by Rudyard Kipling regarding his missing son Jack and even  bandages and x-rays of the wounds officers received during their service in the trenches, and now thanks to the efforts of volunteers, they are available for the public to explore.

Following three years' of work, the data of nearly 140,000 surviving paper records of officers who served in the First World War, have been listed by the National Archives.

The extensive cataloguing project now makes it even easier for people to uncover the stories of relatives who served in the War and research the stories of some of the famous names caught up in it.

The archive includes the details of Lieutenant Maurice Dease, one of the first British officer casualties of the war and the first posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross, awarded for his actions at the Battle of Mons on August 23 1914. The release of his details mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle.

Also within the archives are records for famous writers, poets, actors and future political leaders or their family relations.

Joseph Conrad’s son, Alfred Borys Conrad, was under 21 when enlisting and had to have his application signed by his father. He was twice buried by shells blowing him up during the war which affected his mental health.

Surprisingly, there is also an Officer’s record for Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia, who was made an honorary British Field Marshall; it contains an order for a regulation baton engraved with his name.

The file for Lt John Kipling, the son of Rudyard Kipling, shows that he was missing presumed dead after being killed in the field on September  27 1915. The file contains several signed letters from Rudyard Kipling enquiring anxiously about his son.

Other famous names include Oscar Wilde, whose eldest son Cyril is listed as killed in action May 9 1915. His personal effects were sent to his brother as his next of kin. And Clement Atlee, the future Labour Prime Minister, whose records reveal service in the ranks in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia where he suffered severe wounds caused by a ‘shrapnel bullet’ through the left thigh, with fragments entering his right buttock and groin area.

Thirty five volunteers working with staff at The National Archives spent around 6,000 hours painstakingly entering the data, checking names, regiments and numbers for each of the 139,912 documents.

Service records for the First World War are notoriously difficult to complete as military service records were kept by the War Office separately from correspondence files. More than half of the service records were destroyed in September 1940, when a German bombing raid struck the War Office repository.

However, an estimated 2.8 million survived the bombing or were reconstructed from the records of the Ministry of Pensions. This means that there is a roughly 40% chance of finding the complete service record of a soldier who was discharged at some time between 1914 and 1920.

One of the volunteers, Mike Dodd, described being able to take part in viewing, sorting and recording information from some of the records of Officers who served during this period, as “a great experience and a privilege”.

“Reading the original accounts of the war, it’s no wonder so many of those who came back wouldn't talk about their experiences at all."

David Langrish, Records Specialist at The National Archives described how, with “over 200km of paper records and an estimated 6 million on the First World War alone… we rely on the kind and generous support of volunteers who help us to make history accessible for everyone.”

Click below to launch a gallery of images

See the National Archives online guide to searching the record of British Officers online at

See the National Archives digital platform, First World War 100, which has been created to guide people through its vast collection of historic records, letters, wills, maps, photographs, illustrations and artworks.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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I'm researching the early motorcycle despatch riders and I was intrigued to see the image of Lt Le Mesurier on his Triumph. I'd be very interested to know more about the source of the image
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