Tracing Service Careers in my Family

(Note: I wrote this piece as an assignment for the Correspondence Course in Genealogy run by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies.)

The majority of service that I know about in my ancestry is confined to the two World Wars. Within our family archive there are photographs of men in uniform, medals, service records, medal index cards, a diary and an RAF-issue bible. I also have the first and second edition of a book which has been written about one of the branches of my family tree. Oranje-Nassau: een biografish woordenboek [Orange-Nassau: a biographical dictionary] by Reinildis Van Ditzhuyzen provides biographical entries on the Nassau family tree, of which I am descended through my great grandmother. Details of early military service mentioned below have been taken from my translation of the first edition.

Royal Air Force - Second World War
I have three ancestors who served in the RAF during the Second World War. The first was my grandfather, Roy Frank Preece (1919-2001). I knew quite a lot already about his service due to family stories and there were artefacts in our family archives that backed these stories up. For example, there is a photograph of him in RAF uniform soon after he joins the Reserve Unit, a copy of an Active Service Edition of the New Testament issued by the RAF, a photograph of him in the servicing squadron at RAF Bruntingthorpe from 1945 and his 1939-45 Defence Medal and War Medal.
The second ancestor is my great uncle, Frank Ernest Charles Forney (1922-2006). All I have to indicate his service is this photograph of him (on the left) whilst still in training. It is dated 1945 and the white band or ‘flash’ in his cap denotes that he was training as aircrew. The third ancestor is my 1st cousin, twice removed, Herbert John Nassau (1912-1969). Again, all I have is a photograph of him in RAF uniform (on the right) which is dated 14th March 1942.  I had previously ordered a copy of my grandfather’s service record and this provides me with further details: he enlists in April 1940 and is allocated service number 993532. He trains as an aircrafthand/flight mechanic for airframes and progresses through the RAF’s Technical Training Schools before joining No. 8 Group to support Bomber Command in Abingdon. He then spends time with 13 Maintenance Unit at Henley and No. 29 Operations Training Unit at North Luffenham, again supporting a Bomber unit, and moves with them to Bruntingthorpe. By 1943 he has been promoted to the rank of Corporal and in 1945 is awarded a 1st class good conduct badge. He finishes his service with No. 10 Operational Training Unit at RAF Graveley which, by this point, was purely a maintenance base. The next step would be do to the same for my great uncle and obtain a copy of his service record. Due to his Swiss heritage surname I imagine that there would not be that many possible record matches for a Frank Ernest Charles Forney. However, I could find out his service number by looking through the National Archives’ index to airmen’s service records which is available on their website. Similarly I can look up Herbert’s service number. However, I do not know who his current next of kin is (only they can order copies of service records) and so I will not be able to take his research forward at the moment. Following this there are unlikely to be any records related specifically to either individual which would tell me more. Therefore, I would next need to look at records which will provide a contextual background to their service:
  • Operations Record Books (ORBS): these records of daily activities and events kept by each unit (held at the National Archives in AIR28) could tell me what was going on at each station, for example at Abingdon or Bruntingthorpe. ORBs held in AIR29 cover the Operation Training Units and Schools of Technical Training which my grandfather attended and so could help me understand what was going on during his time there. Depending on the service of my great uncle I might need to focus my search on ORBs for the squadrons that he served with (although considering that he was still training in 1945, at the end of the war, it is unlikely that he saw any active service and so his service record may only record time spent in Training Units)
  • Some of the initials on my grandfather’s service record I coudn’t identify. Tomaselli (2007, p.103-105) recommends looking at the RAF Confidential Lists. The index will include these initials and the List should then tell me what the unit was and where it was based.
  • As part of the King’s Regulations of the RAF it was a requirement that all groups had to complete summary forms. Those for Units, Forms 540, should be available at The National Archives and would describe what each unit was doing. (Spencer, 2008, p.69).
Army – Second World War
I know of one ancestor who fought with the Army in the Second World War. Herbert Nassau’s brother, Frederick Herbert (1919-1990), also had a photograph taken on the 14th March. His entry in Oranje-Nassau says that he served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Signals. Under Field Marshall Montgomery ‘Freddie’ fought at Alamein in 1943 and was later captured as a Prisoner of War. During the war he also sustained a serious back injury which left him unable to walk upright for the rest of his life. This short paragraph raises lots of questions; how/why did he become a Lieutenant? What happened at Alamein? Which Prisoner of War Camp was he held in and for how long? What injury did he sustain and how?
  • Step one would be to order a copy of his service record (again that will mean identifying his next of kin for permission). However, in its absence there are other records I can look for. Knowing that he served with the Royal Signals I could contact their Regimental Museum to see if he appears in any of their records. As an officer he should also appear in the Army Lists and this would at least tell me at what point he became a Lieutenant.
  • If Frederick did spend time in Egypt (the location of the battle of El Alamein) I should be able to use published sources to find out what happened at the battle.
  • I have searched the Selected Prisoners of War Records 1715-1945 on Find My Past and the British Army Prisoners of War 1939-1945 database on Ancestry and not found an entry for Frederick. My next step could be to look at HMSO (1990) Prisoners of war: British Army, 1939-45 to see if he is listed there. There are also some records available at the National Archives (and via their online catalogue) which might contain a reference to him.
  • Frederick marries in 1945 – whatever happened to him he was clearly back home by this point. The occupation column of his marriage certificate may give me concrete evidence that he served with the Royal Signals, depending on how specific it is!
Army – First World War
I have three ancestors who served with the Army during the First World War: three of my great grandfathers (my fourth was a conscientious objector, as was his son in the Second World War) and another 1st cousin, twice removed. In terms of service I know the most about my great grandfather, Frank Herbert Philip Forney (1897-1964). This photograph isn’t dated but is likely to have been taken at the beginning of his service, as was common. I have a copy of his service/pension record which I found on Ancestry along with his medal roll index card. He enlists as a Private in the 13th Kensington Battalion of the London Regiment in June of 1914 (number 1658), aged only 16 and a half, although he lied saying he was already 17. He was ‘embodied’ on 5th August 1914. A transfer date from April 1915-16 is given for the same Corps but the Unit is unclear. He was discharged in April 1916 after a service of just under 2 years due to no longer being physically fit. The military history sheet in his record shows that he was in England from enlistment until the beginning of November of that year. After only a short, four month training period, he was then sent to France as part of the Expeditionary Force and spent two months there before returning to England. He received the Victory Medal (which we have engraved with his name and regiment number), the British Medal and the Silver War badge and the medal roll (available on Ancestry) indicates that he was discharged due to sickness. The transfer recorded in April 2015 may then relate to a period of time in hospital.

I also have two undated photographs (below, on the left) of my great grandfather Victor William Magnadge Preece (1889-1958). Victor’s service record appears to have been one of those lost during the Second World War, however, I do have a copy of his medal roll index card which states that he served as a Gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery (number 75895) and then in the Royal Engineers (number 250067) earning the Victory and British medals. Through Ancestry I also have a copy of an extract from a book published by London County Council titled Record of service: in the Great War of 1914-18 by members of the Council’s staff (Victor was on their payroll as a teacher) in which it lists him as having served as a Sapper from 1916-19 in the R.G.A. and R.E. spending two years and 3 months in France. Unfortunately the photographs are not clear enough for me to be able to distinguish his cap badges and so determine which unit he was with at the time. Also in our collection of photographs is this (below, on the right) of my great aunt’s uncle, John/Jack Martin (1898-?). His cap badge appears to be that of the Machine Gun Corps. Tracking his service record down, or medal index card, will be tricky. Known as Jack he is recorded on the 1901 census as John and so could have enlisted under either name. The surname Martin is fairly common and so, it will only be if his service record survives, that I will be able to narrow down possibilities by looking at his next of kin and birth details and seeing if his address matches that recorded in the 1911 census.
The First World War Army ancestor for whom I don’t have any photographs is my great grandfather Frederick Savage (1896-?). I do have his service papers and medal roll index card which show that he enlisted with the Army Service Corps (Territorial Force) in June 1913 aged 17, re-enlisting with the Regular Corps in November 1915 for active service. He was given the role of Driver. He served until demob in June 1919 spending a period of time from the end of January 1916 in the Mediterranean. We have a copy of his diary which adds a little further detail on this point of his service. In it Frederick refers to helping get the horses (along with his own) on board the ship that would take them to active duty and then looking after them on the voyage. From online research I have found that the largest element of the ASC was the Horse Transport Section and that soldiers who served within this section usually had the letter T at the beginning of their number, which Frederick does. His diary provides a brief account of his time on board ship from the end of January 1916. His entry for the 11th February states that they were told for the first time that they were headed for Salonika. They landed on February 14th and camped in tents. There are only four further, very short entries in his diary – sadly for us he didn’t continue it. Across the entries, however, he often refers to doing things for the “skipper”, such as dealing with his clothes and making his bed – perhaps he was his batman.
  • The first step for each of these individuals would be to locate their service records and medal roll index cards. The only person I have yet to do this for is Jack Martin.
  • The next stage would be to locate war diaries for the units in which they served. I should be able to find the war diary of the 13th Kensington’s from the National Archives’ website and this will tell me what the unit was doing during the time that Frank was with them. I will only need to focus on the period from November 1914 (when he was sent to France) until January 1915 (when he returned to England). This might include information about an event that caused his return home either through illness or injury. Victor served with the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Royal Engineers, however, without knowing which Division he was with it is impossible to know which diaries are relevant. It might be best to view the original medal roll index to see if this is more specific, or to search the records held by the two Regiment museums to see if they can help. Similarly I do not know which company of the Army Service Corps Frederick Savage served with. I may be able to narrow this down by looking at histories of the ASC to see which units went to Salonika and then look at the diaries, and contact their Regiment Museum, to see which went at the same time as Frederick.
  • It would also be worth looking at local newspapers to see if any of my ancestors are mentioned.
Army – Career Soldiers
Oranje-Nassau contains entries for six of my ancestors who spent time in the army. These ancestors also appear on a pedigree roll I have for this branch of the family which also includes some details of military background. William Henry van Nassau (5th Earl of Rochford) (1754-1830) became a Lieutenant in the Foot Guards in 1773 and, three years later, was promoted to Captain. He was discharged the following year aged 23. His uncles Henry van Nassau-Zuylestein (1692-1741) and Maurice van Nassau-Zuylestein (1685-1722) became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Dragoons (Light Cavalry) and a Colonel in the infantry. William Henry van Nassau-Zuylestein (2nd Earl of Rochford) (1682-1710) was made a Colonel in the British military around 1703-4, the aide de camp of the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Marlborough, and by 1707 is a Colonel of the Dragoons. According to his entry Marlborough calls him “a promising young man”. In 1710 he is promoted to Brigadier-General. He is killed by “the thrust of a sword” at the Battle of Almanza the same year. His father, William van Nassau (1st Earl of Rochford) (1649-1708) serves in the Dutch army during the Revolution of 1688 and is Adjutant General in command in the forwarding army. He “distinguishes” himself at the Battle of Neerwinden against the Frnech in 1690 where he is wounded and captured as a Prisoner of War, although is soon exchanged. In the English Army he is promoted to Lietenant-General in the 1690s with an annual salary of £1,460. His own father, Frederick Nassau, Lord of Zuleistein is a General of Foot in the service of the States General.
  • Unfortunately the entries aren’t specific enough to mention which Foot or Regiment each of my ancestors served with. Records from this period would be held with the Regiment but without knowing which are relevant I cannot contact any particular museum. BMD records for this period are limited to parish registers and it is unlikely that these will be very specific in giving an occupation, although it would still be worth checking since they would be well-known in the community.
  • Records definitely worth checking would be the Army Lists in order to trace their career. It would be necessary to search via the index first as I don’t have regiment details yet. Once a regiment is identified I should be able to trace their careers through muster rolls and pay lists. If any of them purchased their commissions then there should be a record in the Commissions Books held at The National Archives (Watts and Watts, 2009, p.19).
  • The early military careers which took place in the Dutch army are likely to be very difficult to follow. However, due to the nobility of this line in my family tree many of these individuals have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These might give further details of their military exploits which I can then supplement with published sources about the Battles in which they fought.
Royal Navy – First World War
There are two entries in Oranje-Nassau relating to service in the Navy – my great grand uncle Herbert Arthur Nassau (1892-1932) who served in the Naval Auxiliary Forces and his brother Frederick Frank Rochford Nassau (1889-1959) who was with the British Naval Flying Service. This is the only information I have about these two. There were various auxiliary forces for the Navy so the book entry does not provide much to go on. He could have served with the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the Royal Naval Division, the Royal Marines, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary or the Mercantile Fleet Auxiliary. Greenwich Maritime Museum has a research guide to help but without being able to narrow it down to a particular service there would be a lot of records to go through. Therefore, I have started by exploring the records available online.
  • My subscription with Ancestry has given me a ‘hint’ for a Herbert Arthur Nassau from a Passenger List from Liverpool to New York arriving on 8th November 1918. The list is for “aliens” serving on board as crew members and Herbert is listed as being a Canteen Steward. Other than his full name, nationality and age there is no additional information to confirm that this is my ancestor, although if it is, then his First World War service may have taken place prior to this trip.
  • A Google search for ‘Herbert Arthur Nassau’ brings up an entry from the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War Project. This contains a brief entry for Herbert and shows that he was a Merchant Navy Seamen and appears in a collection of index cards recording the issue of the British War Medal and the Mercantile Marine Medal to merchant seamen and officers in the First World War. The medal card is held by the National Archives and should give me some information about his service including his number and with whom he served. I can then use a guide produced by the Greenwich Maritime Museum to further identify relevant records.
  • A quick search on Ancestry in the Naval Medal and Award Rolls brings up an entry for Frederick. This give me his rank/rating – A. M. 2 – and his number – F.226669 – along with a mark denoting which medal he earned. Ancestry has also provided me with a matching record hint in its collection of Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services, 1853-1928. This record tells me that he served from October 1916 until he transferred out and into the RAF. He served on four ships during his time with the Royal Naval Air Service and is listed in Find My Past’s results for British Royal Air Force, Airmen’s Service Records 1912-1939 which I can pay to view. From these two documents I should be able to outline his full service.
As with any family history research it is important not to underestimate the usefulness of speaking to family members. I know from speaking to my Dad, for example, that my great uncle Frank Ernest Charles Forney trained as a navigator and that his arm amputation (which I’d always assumed was as a result of an injury during this time) had nothing to do with the war but was the result of an unfortunate incident involving Wood Green tube station. Likewise, after initially being unsuccessful in my search for details of the First World War service of my other maternal great grandfather, I discovered from my grandmother that he was a conscientious objector and spent the duration of the War as a Special Constable. Whilst any family stories should always be backed up with research and evidence the information you learn can significantly help in guiding your research into particular areas.


Spencer, W. (2008) Air force records: a guide for family historians. Richmond: The National Archives.

Tomaselli, P. (2007) Tracing your Air Force ancestors. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Family History.

Watts, M. J. and Watts, C. T. (2011) My ancestor was in ... the British Army: how can I find out more about him?. London: Society of Genealogists.

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