During the Second World War, each British Army officer had a unique personal number and each soldier serving in the ranks a unique army number. This page looks at why the numbers are so important and how they can help you to research those who served in the British Army. The article is divided into the following sections:
- What was an army number or personal number?
- Why are army and personal numbers so important?
- How different corps and regiments numbered their soldiers
- A transcription of Army Order 388 of 1920 which led to the creation of army numbers
What was an Army Number or Personal Number?
Army and personal numbers were brought in following the First World War to help simplify army administration. During the First World War, British Army officers didn’t have a number and other ranks had a regimental number. Though officers did have a long number which covered their service file and correspondence this number doesn’t appear on their medal records, London Gazette entries etc. Regimental numbers were not unique and each corps or regiment numbered its own other ranks. If a soldier was transferred between regiments or corps they received a new regimental number. In addition, there were often multiple men with the same regimental number in each regiment or corps.
To simplify the system, after the war, the British Army allotted each officer a personal number and each soldier who served in the ranks an army number which was unique to them. In addition, a soldier would not receive a new number if they were transferred to a different regiment or corps, as they now kept the same number throughout their service. Army Order 388 of 1920 led to the “substitution of regimental numbers for army numbers” and I have transcribed the passage below. The process took many months to complete and the latest example of a substitution of a regimental number for an army number I have found is May 1921.
In 1920, soldiers were given an army number from the number block allocated to the corps or regiment they were then serving in. For example, if they were serving with the Royal Army Service Corps, they were allotted a number from 1 to 294,000. These number blocks are shown in the table below. All new recruits after the introduction of army numbers until the formation of the General Service Corps in 1942 were allotted a number from the first corps or regiment they joined after enlistment. Therefore, an army number will let you know which corps or regiment your soldier joined first. However, many soldiers were transferred between corps or regiments so you will need a service record to research them. If an officer was commissioned from the ranks, then their army number was replaced by a personal number. Also, if the soldier was conscripted as a Militiaman pre-war, their Militia army number was replaced by an army number from the first regiment or corps they were subsequently posted to.
Below is a page from Martin Thomas’ Army Book 64 Soldier’s Service and Pay Book, a document which has often survived within families. Thomas’ army number was 15426852 from the block allocated to the Royal Artillery and he enlisted at Belfast on 21 October 1939. While Thomas’ Army Book contains a lot of useful information, I would need to order his service record from the Ministry of Defence to research his service career in-depth.
Why are Army and Personal Numbers so important?
Army and Personal Numbers are important as they allow you to begin your research into an officer or soldier’s service career and order their service record if you’re eligible. I have written a separate article on ordering a service record here: A Guide to Ordering a British Army Service Record. Unfortunately, there are few records available online and except for an officer, a search will often yield no results. Follow the steps below to start your research:
- Search the surname and number on FindmyPast’s “Military, armed forces & conflict” section. FindmyPast is a subscription site and has a free trial period. FindmyPast has digitized a large number of useful records for the British Army during the war, primarily relating to casualties and prisoners of war.
- Search the surname and number on the National Archives’ Catalogue.
- Search the number on The London Gazette which has a very unreliable search system. The London Gazette will be of most use to you if you’re researching an officer as it will provide their promotion dates.
- You can also search the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website if you don’t know whether they survived the war or not.
To research either an officer or other rank who served during the war, you really need to get hold of their service record. Clicking on the banner below will take you to FindmyPast which is the only website I recommend for Second World War British Army documents.
Army Number Allocations
The table below records the number blocks allocated to each corps or regiment. However, a soldier could be transferred very quickly after joining a corps or regiment. I have broken the numbers up with commas to make them easier to read.
Number Block Regiment/Corps Notes
1 to 294,000 Royal Army Service Corps 100,694 joined on 27 October 1939
294,001 to 304,000 The Life Guards 304,001 to 309,000 Royal Horse Guards 309,001 to 721,000 Cavalry of the Line 420,524 joined on 18 April 1939
721,001 to 1,842,000 Royal Artillery 840809 joined on 18 October 1934 and 1,542,685 on 21 October 1939
1,842,001 to 2,303,000 Royal Engineers 1,918,116 joined on 9 January 1940, 2,013,314 on 16 May 1940 and 2,148,295 on 15 May 1941
2,303,001 to 2,604,000 Royal Corps of Signals 2,604,001 to 1,646,000 Grenadier Guards 2,646,001 to 2,688,000 Coldstream Guards 2,688,001 to 2,714,000 Scots Guards 2,700,930 joined on 19 March 1942
2,714,001 to 2,730,000 Irish Guards 2,730,001 to 2,744,000 Welsh Guards 2,737,083 joined on 18 July 1940
2,744,001 to 2,809,000 The Black Watch 2,809,001 to 2,865,000 The Seaforth Highlanders 2,820,762 joined on 20 January 1937
2,865,001 to 2,921,000 The Gordon Highlanders 2,921,001 to 2,966,000 The Cameron Highlanders 2,966,001 to 3,044,000 The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 3,044,001 to 3,122,000 The Royal Scots 3,122,001 to 3,178,000 The Royal Scot Fusiliers 3,178,001 to 3,233,000 The King's Own Scottish Borderers 3,233,001 to 3,299,000 The Cameronians 3,299,001 to 3,377,000 The Highland Light Infantry 3,377,001 to 3,433,000 The East Lancashire Regiment 3,433,001 to 3,511,000 The Lancashire Fusiliers 3,511,001 to 3,589,000 The Manchester Regiment 3,523,591 joined on 29 April 1929 and 3,528,418 on 3 March 1936
3,589,001 to 3,644,000 The Border Regiment 3,644,001 to 3,701,000 The Prince of Wales's Volunteers 3,701,001 to 3,757,000 The King's Own Royal Regiment 3,757,001 to 3,846,000 The King's Regiment 3,846,001 to 3,902,000 The Loyal Regiment 3,902,001 to 3,947,000 The South Wales Borderers 3,947,001 to 4,025,000 The Welch Regiments 4,025,001 to 4,070,000 The King's Shropshire Light Infantry 4,070,001 to 4,103,000 The Monmouthshire Regiment 4,103,001 to 4,114,000 The Herefordshire Regiment 4,114,001 to 4,178,000 The Cheshire Regiment 4,178,001 to 4,256,000 The Royal Welch Fusiliers 4,256,001 to 4,334,000 The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers 4,334,001 to 4,379,000 The East Yorkshire Regiment 4,379,001 to 4,435,000
The Green Howards 4,435,001 to 4,523,000 The Durham Light Infantry 4,523,001 to 4,601,000 The West Yorkshire Regiment 4,601,001 to 4,680,000 The Duke of Wellington's Regiment 4,618,210 joined on 15 December 1939
4,680,001 to 4,736,000 The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry 4,736,001 to 4,792,000 The York and Lancaster Regiment 4,736,001 to 4,792,000 The Lincolnshire Regiment 4,848,001 to 4,904,000 The Leicestershire Regiment 4,860,142 joined on 16 October 1939 and 4,865,511 on 17 October 1940
4,904,001 to 4,960,000 The South Staffordshire Regiment 4,960,001 to 5,038,000 The Sherwood Foresters 5,038,001 to 5,094,000
The North Staffordshire Regiment 5,049,368 joined on 13 April 1938
5,094,001 to 5,172,000 The Royal Warwickshire Regiment 5,172,001 to 5,239,000 The Gloucestershire Regiment 5,172,001 to 5,239,000 The Worcestershire Regiment 5,328,001 to 5,373,000 The Royal Berkshire Regiment. 5,342,646 joined on 3 April 1940
5,373,001 to 5,429,000 The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry 5,429,001 to 5,485,000 The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry 5,485,001 to 5,562,000 The Hampshire Regiment 5,562,001 to 5,608,000
The Wiltshire Regiment 5,556,871 joined on 23 December 1937
5,608,001 to 5,662,000 The Devonshire Regiment 5,622,992 joined on 19 October 1939
5,662,001 to 5,718,000 The Somerset Light Infantry 5,718,001 to 5,763,000 The Dorsetshire Regiment 5,763,001 to 5,819,000 The Royal Norfolk Regiment 5,819,001 to 5,875,000
The Suffolk Regiment 5,875,001 to 5,931,000 The Northamptonshire Regiment 5,885,823 joined on 15 January 1940
5,931,001 to 5,942,000 The Cambridgeshire Regiment 5,942,001 to 5,998,000 The Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment 5,950,654 joined on 17 January 1940.
5,998,001 to 6,076,000 The Essex Regiment 6,076,001 to 6,132,000 The Queen's Royal Regiment 6,132,001 to 6,188,000 The East Surrey Regiment 6,188,001 to 6,278,000 The Middlesex Regiment 6,213,936 joined on 15 June 1940.
6,278,001 to 6,334,000
The Buffs 6,334,001 to 6,390,000 The Royal West Kent Regiment 6,348,678 joined on 18 April 1940
6,390,001 to 6,446,000 The Royal Sussex Regiment 6,398,805 joined on 3 April 1935
6,446,001 to 6,515,000 The Royal Fusiliers 6,802,501 to 6,814,000 The Inns of Court Regiment 6,825,001 to 6,837,000 Honourable Artillery Company (Infantry) 6,837,001 to 6,905,000 The King's Royal Rifle Corps 6,905,001 to 6,972,000 The Rifle Brigade 6,968,297 joined on 23 March 1938
6,972,001 to 7,006,000 The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 7,006,001 to 7,040,000 The Royal Ulster Rifles 7,019,927 joined on 11 September 1940
7,040,001 to 7,075,000 The Royal Irish Fusiliers 7,075,001 to 7,109,000 Royal Dublin Fusiliers 7,109,001 to 7,143,000 Royal Irish Regiment 7,143,001 to 7,177,000 Connaught Rangers 7,177,001 to 7,211,000 Leinster Regiment 7,211,001 to 7,245,000 Royal Munster Fusiliers 7,245,001 to 7,536,000 Royal Army Medical Corps 7,266,836 joined on 19 September 1930
7,536,001 to 7,539,000 The Army Dental Corps 7,539,001 to 7,560,000 Royal Guernsey Militia and Royal Alderney Artillery Militia 7,560,001 to 7,574,000 Royal Militia of the Island of Jersey 7,574,001 to 7,657,000 Royal Army Ordnance Corps 7,657,001 to 7,681,000 Royal Army Pay Corps 7,681,001 to 7,717,000 Corps of Military Police 7,717,001 to 7,718,800 Military Provost Staff Corps 7,718,801 to 7,720,400 Small Arms School Corps 7,720,401 to 7,732,400 Army Educational Corps 7,732,401 to 7,733,000
Band of the Royal Military College 7,733,001 to 7,757,000 Corps of Military Accountants 7,757,001 to 7,807,000 Royal Army Veterinary Corps 7,807,001 to 7,868,000 Machine Gun Corps 7,868,001 to 7,891,868 Royal Tank Regiment 7,891,869 to 8,230,000 Royal Armoured Corps 7,917,817 joined on 5 September 1940
10,000,001 to 10,350,000 Militia 10,123,572 joined on 15 July 1939
14,000,000 + General Service Corps From 1942 recruits began their initial training with the Corps. 14,649,782 joined on 15 July 1943 and 14,797,015 on 29 June 1944
W/1 - W/500,000 The Auxiliary Territorial Service W/25101 joined on 6 November 1939
Army Order 388 of 1920
Substitution of Army Numbers for Regimental Numbers. 1. With reference to paragraph 1899, King’s Regulations, as amended by Army Order 453 of 1914, it has been decided to substitute a system of army numbers in place of regimental numbers.
2. With effect from the date of this Army Order, army numbers will be allotted on one continuous series, as under:
(a) To all soldiers serving in the Army and the Territorial Force on that date, with the exception of the Labour Corps.
(b) To all soldiers serving in the Army Reserve.
(c) To all recruits who may in future enlist into the Regular Army, the Militia, Special Reserve, and the Territorial Force.
(d) To all men who may re-enlist, who had not been previously allotted an army number.
(e) To all soldiers who may be transferred from the Royal Marines.
(f) To all deserters who may rejoin, and who have not already been allotted an army number.
3. Army numbers will be allotted by officers i/c records.
4. A soldier will retain the army number originally allotted to him throughout his service, irrespective of whether he may subsequently be posted within a corps or transferred to another corps. An ex-soldier who may re-enlist will resume the army number which he previously bore.
5. The London Regiment will be considered a corps for the purpose of this Army Order.
6. Appendix I to this Army Order contains particulars of the blocks of army numbers which are allotted to corps.
7. As the Royal Army Service Corps is divided into four main branches, the following prefixes to Army numbers will be used to denote the branches in which soldiers of that corps may be serving:
M= Mechanical Transport
8. In order to carry out the numbering of serving personnel of the Regular Army, the following procedure will be adopted:
(a) With the exception of the corps enumerated in (b) officers i/c records will prepare nominal rolls (in the form prescribed in the Appendix II to this Army Order) of all soldiers serving with corps affiliated to their offices, and will allot thereon army numbers. Copies of the rolls will be forwarded by them to officers commanding regular units and regimental paymasters.
(b) In the case of undermentioned corps officers commanding regular units will, on receipt of this Army Order, render to officers 1/c records nominal rolls, in the form prescribed in the Appendix III to this Army Order, of all soldiers borne on the strength of their units (including detached men):
Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery. Royal Garrison Artillery. Royal Engineers. Royal Corps of Signals. Royal Army Service Corps. Royal Army Medical Corps. Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Royal Army Veterinary Corps.
On receipt of these rolls officers i/c records will allot a number to men enumerated on the rolls and will forward completed copies to officers commanding regular units and regimental paymasters.
(c) Officers commanding regular units will publish in Part II Orders particulars of army numbers allotted. Such orders will show both regimental and army numbers. They will also enter the army numbers in duplicate attestations and all other documents relating to soldiers.
(d) Both the former regimental numbers and the new army numbers will be recorded in the pay and mess books and acquittance rolls rendered after army numbers have been allotted, as under:
(i) In the case of the corps mentioned in sub-paragraph (b) above for a period of two months.
(ii) In the case of all other corps for a period of one month.
9. Officers i/c records will allot army numbers to all soldiers who have already joined the new Territorial Force, and whose attestations they hold. They will forward nominal rolls showing the allotment of army numbers to officers commanding units and regimental paymasters. The former will publish the army numbers allotted in Part II Orders.
10. The renumbering of the Army Reserve will be effected as follows:
(a) Officers i/c records will forward to regimental paymasters nominal rolls (showing former regimental numbers and army numbers allotted) of all men serving in the Army Reserve.
(b) Officers i/c records will recall the identity certificates of the men referred to in (a), delete therefrom the words “Regtl. Number” and the number already recorded, and insert instead the words “Army Number” and the new number allotted. In returning the amended certificate to the reservist, a slip will be attached directing his attention to the new army number allotted to him.
11. The necessary amendments to the Regulations will be published in due course. In all Regulations, Army Books, and Army Forms, pending revision, the term “Army Number” should be substituted for “Regimental Number.”