historical archival research

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Service record research

Service record research

A service record from the British armed services form an immensely engaging part of my research work. Individuals, institutions and media organisations often seek my expertise in decoding a service record. Over the past ten-years I have been researching conflicts from the 1700s to the present day. This can be using military service records issued by the Ministry of Defence.

Getting a service record

For some, the army, navy or air force service record is an important task to engage with their ancestor. For those that are seeking to find a service record for an ancestor, going to the Ministry of Defence website is the best place to start. Here is a link:


If you are seeking an ancestor that served prior to the First World War then a paid website might help you also.Their service record, enlistment or discharge papers may be available online via this paid service. Once you have this record, I can help you understand it more fully. Please contact me by clicking here.

Decoding a service record

The service record itself is often made of abbreviations for different places, duties and units which contain the relevant information. Looking at the service record for the first time can be rather bewildering but decoding is my speciality so please get in touch if you require assistance by clicking here.

If one analyses the service record then one can see which unit an individual served with, where and for how long. The service record can include where an individual enlisted, where they resided, casualty status and some medical information. A service record usually includes promotions, reprimands and periods on leave. The service record can be analysed by oneself and there are websites that can help you with some of the terminology for you. For some this can be a frustrating task. Using my expertise can help you and make it an easier one. Please click here to get in touch.

Once the service record has been decoded then I use the information to explore the catalogue at the National Archives. This will yield the available files for the period of the service record. Usually the vast majority, if not all, of the period of service has a file. It is common, however, at the start or end of a service record to have little detail. When personnel are training or demobilising record keeping was not a priority. This is because of the grouping of personnel from many different units.

Undertake the research of a service record with assistance

If it is the case that you would like to undertake the research yourself then I can take you through the service record decoding and then provide you with the file references for the National Archives. Once again, the information in the files at the National Archives can be difficult to interpret so please let me know if you need assistance with this stage here.

A note on a service record for different periods

During the conflicts over the nineteenth century, including the Boer Wars, information on an individual tends to be limited to location, pay and their enlistment details which can have a signature and next-of-kin details.

Those service records for the First World War have more detailed unit activity than the nineteenth century. These files at the National Archives are often referred to as “war diaries”. However, during the bombing of London during the Second World War some military records for the First World War were destroyed but many did survive.

For the Second World War the “war diary” is usually made up of monthly reports with generally more information than World War One. Each report tends to have a section on major events of unit activity.  A section on the number of people in the unit is also usually present. Sometimes there is a section with relevant documents for that month.

Finding photographs researching a service record

Photographs can be found in the war diaries from time to time when researching a service record. These come in several broad categories. Reconnaissance photos are found in planning documents in the monthly reports in the “war diaries”. For example, landscapes or buildings feature often. In units with specific tasks, such as engineering or service corps, photographs of construction or transport are present. In a recent case I researched in February 2018 there were photographs liberating North Africa during the Second World War. It was not practice for individual photographs to be taken for unit “war diaries”.

Other documents found researching a service record

Other documents are often attached to the monthly reports in the “war diaries” such as maps, movement orders or exercise or operation documents. In moments where an individual is training, one can see, for example, some of the exercises that they participated in. In those times of front-line service then one can see how the unit they were serving with formed part of larger military operations. There are sometimes excellent reports of engagement with enemy forces within the war diaries. Written after the conclusion of an operation, these provide much detail. One can also see maps and more routine aspects of military activity, such as movement orders. These sometime contain lists of the equipment and vehicles that required to be transported. This is often very illuminating as one can appreciate the scale of the tasks involved.

Before you start research on a service record…

Before starting the research on a service record it is important to recognise that the war diaries are not comprehensive sources of information. They do not record the daily activities of every person serving in the unit. Neither do they record the names of all those serving but officers do tend to be named. Despite this, the “war diaries” remain the most detailed source of information for those seeking to find out what their ancestors undertook as part of their active service.

If an individual with an army service record has served for several years then there can be a number of files to examine. With most army service records of around four years, particularly for the Second World War, there are usually around 1,000 pages. Part of my research service is to take photographs of these and send them as a digital download.

Please get in touch for help with a service record

Please get in touch here if you would like more information here on stage in the process of obtaining, decoding and researching a service record and I will be happy to help.


Dr Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Newark WaterfrontOver the last three years it has been my pleasure to have been working at the University of Nottingham with the Newark Heritage Barge CIO as part of the Connected Communities programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) on the project ‘Trade and Traffic on the River Trent c1850’. Dynamic work of the Newark Heritage Barge, and historians at the University of Nottingham, developed interest in researching the River Trent in more detail. For those that do not know much about the Newark Heritage Barge then you can visit the site by clicking this link here.

It was clear when I first visited Newark a few years ago for the project that there were already groups of people active in the community that were passionate about preserving the heritage of their local waterways.

Dr Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Newark Waterfront

It had not always been so. Their determination to create interest stemmed from a period of stagnation. If one visits Newark it becomes immediately clear that the River Trent largely defines more than the name the town. A number of attractive bars, restaurants and modern flats either side of the castle are converted from former vessels or premises used to store and sell the goods carried on the river.

It was therefore apt that the sun shone brightly on these lovely buildings on the 27 June 2015 when the waterways heritage day took place to showcase current research and projects. The day itself was started with a morning hosted by Wendy Freer who is an expert on the life of people living and working on Britain’s waterways during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Philip Riden, who steers the project, took to the podium first to share his expertise on the history of the waterways in the East of England before 1600. His talk delivered an excellent backdrop for the audience to appreciate the extent to which these have contributed to the historical development of the region. Rob Wheeler then took the helm to guide us around the rivers and canals surrounding Lincolnshire from the start of the early modern period.

r Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Crane for Leicester Trader

When in the water, Newark Heritage Barge can be many things at different times: a meeting point for boat enthusiasts, a floating centre for education and waterways heritage museum. This rather intriguing characteristic was not missed by the department of design at De Montfort University you can view through this link here. Rosemarie Fitton and Nicky Harding from the department explained how they directed a project whereby students submitted designs that the barge might utilise in the future. I do not think I was alone in relishing the prospect of some of the incredible designs becoming reality.

Robin Stonebridge from the Chesterfield Canal Trust then spoke about their impressive project to build Dawn Rose a cuckoo boat. This type of craft is unique to the Chesterfield Canal and was different because of the fact it used a sail to navigate up the River Trent to Torksey. Perhaps the most striking fact was that Dawn Rose was made only using hand tools as would have been available at the time similar craft were built. You can click a link to find out more information here.

After a light lunch – and many thanks to Margaret – there followed a heritage walk on the river bank to the dry dock where the Newark Heritage Barge, named Leicester Trader, is undergoing repairs. The walk itself has been designed by the Newark Heritage Barge and takes in the stretch of the river predominantly in the centre of Newark, past the castle and town lock, up towards the old Trent Navigation Company building which has recently been converted into a licensed premises.

Dr Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Les Reid

Leicester Trader is currently out of water having some significant repairs. For those not in-the-know, a boat has to undergo an inspection every 7 years for safety and insurance reasons. I was immediately struck at how big she looks out of the water. Skipper of the Leicester Trader, Les Reid, then took us through the process in detail.

It remains to me to thank everybody that attended and, of course, cross my fingers that such interest can be maintained once Leicester Trader returns to the River Trent. I am sure any of you that are reading this blog and are interested can get in touch with me here, at the University of Nottingham or the Newark Heritage Barge directly. After several years of the project there are hopes that it can continue. I shall, of course, keep you informed of any progress here.

As an independent archival researcher working in the United Kingdom it is quite exciting when the surroundings in which we work change. I have been visiting the research facilities at the Imperial War Museum over the last decade. The first time that I had the pleasure of researching there was during my doctorate on the role of the British military authorities in dealing with refugee crisis that was presented to the Allies during the occupation of Europe following World War Two. There was an amazing array of primary sources at my disposal. First, I accessed some written diaries of officers and units that dealt with the refugees in the early stages of contact to see how the initial phase of controlling movement and providing emergency assistance was carried out. Next I listened intently to the oral history recordings of those involved in the more shadowy world that emerged in Italy regarding the way in which many suspected or guilty of assisting the Axis cause were masquerading as refugees in camps to try and evade justice for their actions during the war. All of this was in the top of the museum in a wonderful library under the turret one can see from the entrance. Finally, I was rather interested in the ways refugees were portrayed in the media of the time which led me to the annex to view those wonderful black and white newsreels.

Since then I have got rather used to those surroundings but things have changed. The IWM has had a re-fit as many of you will know. Plush shop, café and red toilets are not the only additions. A new research room located on the upper floors is rather lovely too. It has a small locker area outside before one enters a crisp and light room. There are around four clean white benches that stretch across beside a clinical bookshelf packed with volumes of military history. Some things have not altered, however, namely efficient staff delivering the files that I needed. On a more solemn note, the material I view here is often very moving. In my view, war is a subject that I research to seek to understand more fully because it is probably the most extreme form of human activity. Clients usually seek my services to find out what experiences their ancestors went through that led them to act so radically differently from before they left for active service. Silence between many service personnel and their loved ones regarding what occurred is a common occurrence that curiosity often pursues to break. Given the impetus behind my work, these new conditions at the research room provide an apt setting for me to focus.    

A number of interesting projects recently

Over the last few months I have been undertaking a number of interesting projects and working at the National Archives and elsewhere. As you might expect there has been much interest in matters relating to World War One from far afield. It has been particularly moving reading the personal correspondence of soldiers that lost their lives which have been archived. Researching the post-war settlement has proved very challenging owing to the amount of material that one has had to go through. Most recently I have been researching aspects of the diminishing role of Britain in the commonwealth.

Talking about the Trent

I tweeted last weekend before and after I spoke at the Nottinghamshire Local History Association annual general meeting to thank those that invited me to speak and those that listened to me. Philip Riden spoke expertly before me about the wider aims of the project and, after lunch, Dr Wendy Freer brought the working conditions for those on the river to life. Finally, Les Reid of the Newark Heritage Barge took the audience through the history of his floating heritage centre; one of the last working Trent barges named ‘Leicester Trader’.

National Waterways Archive in Ellesmere Port

It was very pleasant to return to the National Waterways archive at the National Boat Museum in Ellesmere Port. For those that have not had the chance to visit the museum it provides an opportunity for you to see the boats in their natural environment among some working locks. Volunteers play an important role and many were working on a plethora on different areas. As usual I took a quite a considerable amount of space on tables in the main reading room with all of the documents that I had pre-ordered. My picture was taken with the mountain of records, which, I was told, would be featuring on their blog. It would be prudent, then, to thank Linda Barley and all the other staff and volunteers for having me for the week.

Research material examined varied greatly. During the first day a number of old adverts from carrying companies caught my eye because of the quite wonderful designs on many of the covers. Thumbing through some thick manila envelopes I came across the mortgage certificates for a number of vessels that were working prominently on the river after the First World War.

It was then time to get stuck into some of enormous ledgers owned by a number of carrying companies that were operating on the River Trent. Along the side of the ledger one could see the highly detailed marbled patterns of red, blue and green that allowed one to see if any pages had been torn out. The thick maroon leather spines left their potent dye on the white covering upon my copy stand. It was apt in this case to compare the cover with their contents as they will provide enthusiasts of the River Trent valuable insights into the local businesses interacting with the larger companies that were overseeing the carriage of materials in the immediate post-war years.

Even this researcher has to comment that the trip north provided me with an opportunity to go back to Parkgates for fish and chips with a memorable view through the low-lying mist over the marshes to my native Wales. During  in a long overdue visit to Chester I noticed that the hot topic of conversation locally were the vastly improved visitor figures since the cathedral stopped charging for admission. Alas, as I arrived in the evening, I did not have the chance to look inside nor walk the famous city walls. The centre was busy enough for a Tuesday evening though.



Trade and Traffic on the River Trent, 1850 to 1970

Aside of my freelance work, I am a Research Associate at the University of Nottingham on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project ‘Trade and Traffic on the River Trent and associated Waterways, 1850 to 1970.

This research has so far taken me to a number of repositories including the National Archives and the David Steel Archive at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port. Many documents relating to the Trent Navigation Company form a key part of the project.

One of the most exciting dimensions has been collaborating with Friends of the Newark Heritage Barge who have outstanding knowledge on the working of the river itself and the changes over the last fifty years.

The project will yield a number of publications that will be forthcoming over the course of 2014.