Known as "WO 97" at The National Archives, these most frequently viewed records are now online at findmypast.co.uk for the first time ever. The collection comprises over 6 million full colour images of the service records of soldiers in the British Army in receipt of a pension administered by The Royal Hospital Chelsea, and who were discharged between the dates 1760 and 1913.
Many of the soldiers listed may have served in some of Britain's most significant wars, including the Battle of Waterloo (1815), the Crimean (1853 - 1856) and both Boer Wars (1899 - 1902). The records only list those soldiers who either completed their full service in the army or who were wounded and pensioned out of the army. The records do not include those killed in action or army deserters or officers. Signatures of prominent officers such as that of Robert Baden-Powell can, however, be found on some soldiers' service records.
Each individual soldier's record consists of a bundle of a minimum of four pages, full of fascinating personal details, and could be up to 20 pages long! The details that can be found in these records are invaluable to family and military historians, providing a rich and colourful story of our ancestors' lives, with a level of detail that is hard to find in any other historical records.
Information the records may list
* Date and place of birth
* Name and address of next of kin
* Chest size
* Hair colour
* Eye colour
* Distinguishing features
* Rank and regiment
* Occupation before joining the army
* Kit list
* Medical history
* Conduct and character observations
* Countries where, and dates when, the soldier served
* Date the soldier signed up and date of discharge
* Service history including promotions, campaigns and countries where they fought
* Details of marriage and their children's names, baptisms and dates of birth
As well as being some of the most detailed records available to family historians, the records not only include servicemen born in the UK, but also throughout the world, with many soldiers born in India and even the Caribbean. These records are also invaluable to Irish, Scottish and Commonwealth researchers, as many men that joined the British Army from these countries throughout the centuries did so for a number of reasons; personal or economical. Indeed, almost 18 per cent of the soldiers listed in the records were born in Ireland so the records are consequently a fantastic new resource for anyone with Irish ancestry.
For two years FamilySearch's scanning team has been working at The National Archives scanning images of each individual page of these historic records. Findmypast.co.uk has then transcribed and incorporated them within a searchable database, enabling people to go online for the first time and search these records from their own home. The first quarter of a million records from this significant collection have gone online today, covering the period from 1883 - 1900 and comprising around 1.4 million images. The remaining records will go online over the next 18 months.
Debra Chatfield, Marketing Manager at findmypast.co.uk, said: "The Chelsea Pensioners' British Army Service Records are a wonderful resource for family historians. Unlike many other military records, which often only provide information about Officer Class soldiers, these records are of 'ordinary' soldiers. These fascinating, detailed records enable you to find out so much about your soldier ancestors, even including what they looked like, long before the invention of photography. The colour images of handwritten records provide amazing insights into the lives of our military ancestors."
William Spencer, Principal Specialist: Military, Maritime and Transport Records at The National Archives commented: "The online publication of these soldiers' records serves two key purposes: to provide worldwide online access and to preserve, in a new way, some of the most popular, and thus the most heavily handled records in The National Archives.
The detail in these extraordinary records will enable users to search for specific individuals or men who served in a specific regiment of the British Army - a task which has not been easy until now."
David Rencher, Chief Genealogy Officer at FamilySearch added: "The Chelsea Pensioners' Records are one of the collections that can provide rich context to one's family history puzzle - indeed, you can get an actual description of your ancestor's height, weight, hair and eye colour. As this collection grows, it will be a surprise treasure for those around the world with ancestors who served in the British Army. FamilySearch has played an essential part in making these records available to a wider, international audience."