Soldiers wills, and a calendar

There was much press coverage last week of the fact that HM Courts and Tribnals service, through the Probate Office, have released a large number of soldiers’ wills. Most coverage focused on the First World War, but I’ve read in a few places that the coverage is actually wider than that.

The original Ministry of Justice announcement can be read here, and here is the direct link to the search page. You have to create an account to actually order the wills, though you can do initial searches without. Each will costs £6, typicaly they are images of the envelope in which the will was stored, a War Office cover page, and the single page from the man’s paybook on which he could draw up a will. However, some are said to include more extensive letters. Search results show forenames and surnames, regimental number (but not regiment or corps), and date of death. In order to search, you must give a minimum of surname and year of death, and the advanced search link allows more precise dates to be entered, and forenames and regimental number (useful if you’re looking for a Smith).

I have so far searched for the men named on the original roll as being killed. Of those 24, I’ve found 5 wills. However, one of those killed was an officer, and officers’ wills are not included in the collection; one was a New Zealander, whose will was administered through the New Zealand probate system (there is some digitisation going on there too); and one served with the Royal Navy, whose affairs were dealt with by the Admiralty rather than the War Office so are again not in this collection. I thought I had also found the will of Ernest Plowman, but it turned out to be the wrong man – I should have checked the service number more closely, though the date of death was correct (in fact, there may have been a War Office muddle at the time, as the date of death of the other Ernest Plowman is shown as a few days earlier on CWGC). I’ve also found the will of my great-great-uncle, so the odds of finding a will you’re looking for are relatively good. Typically they don’t add huge amounts of extra information, but they do confirm next of kin (assuming they are the legatee), and may also reveal the existence of a sweetheart or fiancee. If no other service record survive, they may also offer a clue as to when a man went overseas, as the wills were typically drawn up at that point, or when they were actually posted to a unit in the field. It can also generally be assumed that they are written in the man’s own hand, which is not the case with most army records (if he was head of a household in 1911, his own writing can also be seen on the 1911 census).

Sharp-eyed visitors to the site may have noticed some calendar entries appearing on the right of the front page. I’m currently adding those named on the original roll as having been killed, on the centenary of their death. I will probably add the other men I’ve identified too, along with key dates such as the start of major battles and the like. Only the next three dates are shown, but the full calendar can be accessed here.


7 thoughts on “Soldiers wills, and a calendar

  1. davidunderdown95 Post author

    I should have made it clear that these wills cover men regarded as being domiciled in England (so far as probate is concerned, this also includes those who lived in Wales, such as my great-great-uncle).

    Irish soldiers’ wills are available (free of charge) via the Irish National Archives’ Soldiers’ Wills website.

    Scottish ones have been catalogued online by National Records of Scotland, and they have a guide to the wills, and how to search them, online, but the wills themselves have not yet been digitised.


    Hello David,

    Thanks for the Soldiers Wills information, I just done a search on the three Burgess Hill names and two have wills! I’ve just placed an order. I now need to search the remainder of the 38 Sussex ringers.

    Best wishes


    >________________________________ > From: halfmuffled >To: >Sent: Wednesday, 4 September 2013, 14:04 >Subject: [New post] Soldiers wills, and a calendar > > > > >davidunderdown95 posted: “There was much press coverage last week of the fact that HM Courts and Tribnals service, through the Probate Office, have released a large number of soldiers’ wills. Most coverage focused on the First World War, but I’ve read in a few places that the cov” >

    1. davidunderdown95 Post author

      I meant to say in the post that although the site says it may take up to 10 days for delivery, the 2 orders I’ve placed have only been 2 or 3 days, and reports from others are similar.

  3. geoff

    Hello David,

    Interesting release, I wonder what other data is hidden away? Probably not much. I did some checking on the number of wills available. Taking the top 8 surnames in CWGC for UK casualties 1914-18, I get 39,198 casualties. A bit of ‘web scraping’ revealed these have 12,655 wills. So about 32%, but the CWGC figure would include Irish and Scottish men who’s wills are elsewhere. Given the figure of 230,000 wills stored, I can’t see the percentage being any higher – the numbers would not add up. But it seems most people are finding around 20% have wills. My research on 3 local memorials was around 18%. Looking at some yearly figures (based on a smaller sample that the 39,198), 1914 is about 12%, 1915 27%, rising to 34% by 1917. An interesting increase for a war that was not to end anytime soon. Checks on WW2 data would suggest the rate for this period is around 21%. £6 is reasonable for the family historian but a bit steep for the military historian, sadly I did not find wills for the men I really needed to.
    I noticed a few transcript errors in the forenames and one number in the regiment numbers of a particular WW2 unit. Since the search requires a forename and you cannot search on regiment number, there may be a very small number who cannot be found due to a surname error. Perhaps the search function will change as a result of feedback they are requesting. But my feedback email was returned undelivered!



    1. davidunderdown95 Post author

      Thanks Geoff,

      So far as additional online resources go, there are the additional pension cards being processed by WFA; also the MH 47 Military Service Tribunal records (admittedly only covering Middlesex; the proposed crowd sourced (limited) transcription from the WO 95 war diaries is likely to extract mentions of personal names. I’m also aware of record cards held by HSBC archives covering war service of Midland Bank staff that are being digitised. There are one or two other things in early stages of discussion which may be significant.

  4. geoff

    I meant to write: “Since the search requires a surname…”
    I have requested one of the WFA pension cards, the only additional information added for my lost RFA driver was his service number. But always best to leave no stone unturned, it has paid off sometimes. I’m now looking at absent voter’s lists for Worcestershire.


    1. davidunderdown95 Post author

      Mistranscription is certainly a potential. Issue, it’s not clear if it’s possible to use wildcards in the search at all – that would be a fairly obvious enhancement, and probably wouldn’t have too much performance impact once the initial flurry of interest has died down.


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