Soldiers' and Airmen's Wills

Soldiers' and Airmen's Wills

image of a soldier's will, 1914The soldiers' and airmen's wills have been made available online as part of the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.  The poignant documents include the last wishes of 26,000 ordinary Scottish soldiers. Most of them were killed in action, died of wounds or went missing on the Western Front. A smaller number served at Gallipoli, Salonika or in Mesopotamia.

Almost all the wills were written in their pay books by soldiers below the rank of officer, who served in the renowned Scottish infantry and cavalry regiments, as well as in many other British regiments, and all the army corps that were on active service. Also included are a few men who joined the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF.

In addition to the wills from the Great War, there are about 4,750 wills of Scots soldiers serving in all theatres during the Second World War, including some women auxiliaries, and several hundred from the Boer War and Korean War, and other conflicts between 1857 and 1965.

You can search these records:

This guide provides further information about the different types of will.

What are the Soldiers' Wills?

The soldiers’ wills were usually found in pay books retrieved on the battlefield, or recorded on forms in Army record offices in Britain, or in the absence of a will, in letters home in which soldiers might mention their last wishes. They are generally very brief and do not mention individual possessions. They contain limited personal or service history information.

The soldiers' wills belong to a special series (SC70/8) among the records of the Edinburgh Commissary Office. After the War Office had settled the estate of a soldier who died on active service, including entitlements to pay and pension, they sent the Scottish wills to the Commissary Office in Edinburgh. Most were not recorded in the commissary registers of the Commissary Office and the sheriff courts.

What are the Airmen's Wills?

This small series (SC70/10) contains the wills of 61 RAF officers and men, including aircrew and balloon operators, 1939-1950. Several complete pay books are preserved.

How are the Wills Arranged?

The wills are arranged in the War Office's original batches rather than by regiment or in strict chronological order. For example, wills of soldiers who died in the Boer War may be found in SC70/8/21-22, and in a later batch, SC70/8/1288-1290. The only grouping is by the initial letter of the soldier's surname within each batch.

The original War Office lists of each batch and the covering letters are preserved in SC70/9. The letters sometimes contain additional information regarding withdrawn or untransmitted wills, but this has generally been included in the catalogue description. Other administrative papers are also to be found in SC70/9.

Types of Will

There are several distinct types of will. Apart from the first type described below, the Army forms were designed to be filled in before the soldier was under orders for active service. The completed wills were mostly filed in a local military record office until requested by the War Office when a soldier died. See examples of formal, informal and nuncupative soldiers' wills.

  1. Informal will from pay book (Army Book 64), soldier's service record and pay book (Army Book 64) part I, or Soldier's Small Book.  The most common kind of soldier's will: unwitnessed, written and signed by the soldier when under orders for active service, or during active service. He could write another will when issued with a new pay book, and if he died his most recent will would be retrieved from his pay book whenever possible. Known as a 'Short Form of Will'.
  2. Formal will from soldier's service record and pay book (Army Book 64) part I Witnessed will, written and signed by the soldier on Army Form B.243 (naming one beneficiary) or B.244 (more than one). Both types allowed for the naming of executor(s). During WW II these forms continued to be used, but a similar form, Army Form B.2089, was also introduced and was commonly used in Pay Books instead of B.243 and B.244.
  3. Formal will: Army forms B.243 and B.244. Witnessed will, written and signed by the soldier. A foolscap version of the Pay Book form, used in both World Wars.
  4. Formal will: Army form B.2089. Witnessed will, written and signed by the soldier, similar to B.243 and B.244. A foolscap version of the Pay Book form, used in WW II.
  5. Formal will: Army form W.3297. Witnessed will, written and signed by the soldier, for naming one or more beneficiaries but not executors. Usually on a half foolscap sheet, this type was much less common, but was used in both World Wars.
  6. 'Civil' wills - informal and formal. Either unwitnessed or witnessed wills, written on non-Army stationery. Some follow the wording of the Army forms, but many were probably written at home. Only a few appear to have been drafted by a lawyer.
  7. 'Nuncupative will'. If any of the above types of will was missing, the War Office accepted evidence from soldiers, family or friends concerning what a soldier had stated verbally concerning his wishes or had written in his will. This type was known as a 'nuncupative will'. Typically the documents consist of official forms and related correspondence.
  8. Letters. The other main form of evidence in lieu of a will was a letter from soldier in which he expressed a testamentary wish. The War Office classified such a letter as a 'nuncupative' will.  This type of will was more common for WWI than WWII.
  9. Recorded wills. Some wills were withdrawn for recording in the Commissary Office or a sheriff court. Documents kept in place of them may consist of correspondence, receipts and a certified copy of the will. Relevant details may be found in the catalogue if the recording of a will has been identified. Others may be searched for in the annual index known as the 'Calendar of Confirmations'. For more advice on this go to our guide on wills and testaments.
Further Reading

A fuller discussion of the contents of the soldiers' and airmen's wills, and the cataloguing project, can be found in Tristram Clarke, "Scottish soldiers' wills, 1857-1965", 'Scottish Archives', volume 10 (2004)

You can find a guide to the abbreviations used at military awards and decorations of the United Kingdom on wikipedia