The luck of the draw
I’ve noticed over the years that your chances of finding a surviving service record in WO 363 and WO 364 depend as much on the name of the regiment as they do on Lady Luck. I always thought it would be worthy of further study to see just how many records survived for each regiment, and also to understand exactly how the records were stored in that fated warehouse on Arnside Street when, in 1940 during the Blitz, the Luftwaffe dropped their bombs on it and destroyed millions of British Army records. I’ve always presumed that records were stored regimentally – and probably in regimental precedence order – rather than alphabetically by surname. How else can one explain why so few records for one regiment survive, whilst for another, it seems that every other record is virtually intact?
Now that Findmypast has thoroughly indexed WO 363 and WO 364 we probably stand as good a chance as ever of finally understanding the total counts for these regiments (bearing in mind that record a) might consist of one singed page, whilst record b) might comprise 100 pages of pension papers).
To test this theory I decided to run some searches on county regiments local to where I live. I chose the Essex Regiment, the Lincolnshire Regiment, the Norfolk Regiment and the Suffolk Regiment. Including garrison battalions, by 1918 the Essex and Suffolk Regiments numbered 18 battalions each whilst the Lincolnshire and Norfolk Regiment numbered 13 battalions each.
Use wildcard searching!
I always use wildcard searching when looking for service records and if you’ve ever typed Essex into the regiment field and then been staggered to see that no results come back, you’ll understand why wildcard searching is so important. Typing Essex*instead brings up all regiments that begin with the word Essex. This means that you’ll get results for Essex Regiment and for Essex Yeomanry. I’m just interested in Essex Regiment and so to exclude the yeomanry I type Essex* Reg*.
It doesn’t matter how many wildcards you use, either. For instance, if you are looking for a man who served in the West Riding Regiment you might think that typing in West Riding Regiment would bring you the results you seek. Wrong. Think again. The regiment is indexed as the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) and so an asterisk before West and after Regiment would have done the trick. I tend to adopt the lazy approach and only type partial words and so here I enter *wes* rid* (and am rewarded with over 47,000 results). Note too that you can use a wildcard after one letter or after multiple letters. In the searches below you’ll see that I typed Norf*Reg* when searching for Norfolk Regiment results. Had I just typed Nor* Reg* I’d have got results for the Northamptonshire Regiment as well.
And the winner is…
Anyway, back to my mini survey of surviving documents in WO 363 and WO 364. Here are the results:
Essex Regiment (Ess* Reg*) – 32,215 results
Lincolnshire Regiment (Linc* Reg*) – 32,814 results
Norfolk Regiment (Norf* Reg*) – 22,677 results
Suffolk Regiment (Suf* Reg*) – 27,156 results
Given the strength of these regiments and the number of battalions that each fielded we can see that, statistically, you stand more chance of finding your ancestor’s service record if he served with the Lincolnshire Regiment, than you do if he served with the Essex Regiment, Norfolk Regiment or Suffolk Regiment (in that order).
My perception, when I was building my own database of regimental numbers, was that the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (13 battalions by 1918) had fared particularly badly in the 1940 bombing. Testing that theory for the first time now I see that the regiment (*Corn* Li*) returns just 12,455 results which, if nothing else, at least proves that my fears were well-founded.
And here’s another thing. Whilst it is possible to find men with surviving records in British Army Service Records 1760-1915 and British Army Service Records 1914-1920 (and my great uncle Bert, pictured above, is one of those men), I presume that in many instances, pre 1914 records were attached to First World War service papers and all destroyed together in 1940.
If you’re feeling strong have a look at this list, reproduced on The Long, Long Trail website, which details exactly what went up in smoke during that bombing raid on Walworth. It makes quite depressing reading.
*Image copyright [2/4th Lincolnshire Regiment territorials, Luton 1915]: Paul Nixon, 2014.