November 29th, 2011

Understanding the Historical Background of Your British Ancestor

It is important to understand the historical background of any era when conducting research, but even more so in Britain. It is even more so when seeking military records, as understanding how the British forces were organized at certain times can help you to know what records are available and where to find them expediently. A prime example would be the period of the British Civil War, which took place between 1642 and1649. This period serves as an important genealogical landmark, as before this time there were no regular armies in Wales and England. Prior to this period armed forces had previously only been raised as they were needed, and it wasn’t until 1645 that Parliament drafted legislation which would lead to the formation of the New Model Army.

The New Model Army was the first regular army in England and Wales and effectively fought against the armies of Charles I. Later in 1707, the Union of England and Scotland saw the Scottish forces added. There are military records dating back to 1660 that genealogists can access, and even some fragmented documentation from earlier periods can be found. The first permanent Navy was established by Henry VIII, and some naval records fro 1617 are available. The bulk of those that have serious genealogical worth though, are from the period following the English and Scottish Union. Keep in mind though that the records from these eras are mainly records of organizations, not the documents of individuals.

Understanding how the individual military units were organized can give you a major advantage when it comes to researching. Knowing for instance that infantry soldiers were organized first into regiments and were subsequently divided into battalions, companies and platoons, you can go right to the appropriate records rather than searching aimlessly in a pot-luck manner through endless mounds of paperwork. Cavalry were divided into squadrons, the same as Air Forces would later be, while artillery units were formed into batteries. It is interesting to note that in the earliest times of the permanent army of Britain, the various subdivisions were named after their commanders. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the numerical system of naming platoons and such was introduced.

You may however encounter a military unit that uses both the commander’s name, and a numerical designation. You might also find multiple commanders names linked to a specific unit, or vice versa. Commands changed over the years as commanding officers were killed in battle or transferred between regiments. It is therefore good practice to focus on both a commander’s name, and a numerical designation when searching for an ancestor’s military records. If your ancestor was an officer there is a greater chance that you may find an individual record of him, as unless you know the unit in which your relative served, it is notoriously difficult to find records for a soldier, as they generally have not been well indexed.

The divisions, designations and the names of individual units have changed over the centuries, so it is important to know as much about both the military and historical background of your ancestor as possible. This is especially true if your relative was a member of a private militia as opposed to serving in the government army.