Soldiers' and airmen's wills

Search soldiers' wills
Search soldiers' wills

Background information

What can I learn from soldiers' and airmen's wills?

How to search soldiers' wills

Understanding the content of soldiers' and airmen's wills

Further reading

Background information

The soldiers' and airmen's wills 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 or at Gallipoli, Salonika or in Mesopotamia. Also included are a few men who joined the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force.

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.

In addition to the wills from the First World 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 South African War and Korean War, and other conflicts between 1857 and 1965.

Soldiers' wills

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. They were generally recorded in a special series of records (National Records of Scotland, SC70/8) among the records of the Edinburgh Commissary Office.

Most of the wills are for rank and file soldiers, up to the rank of warrant officer, who were ordinarily resident in Scotland. The collection also includes a few wills for men who were promoted from the ranks.

Airmen's wills

A small series of records (National Records of Scotland, SC70/10) contains the wills of 61 RAF officers and men, including aircrew and balloon operators, 1939-1950. Several complete pay books are preserved. These are not available online yet. For more information see the National Records of Scotland's online catalogue entry on the airmen's wills.

What can I learn from soldiers' and airmen's wills?

You can find out the battalion, regiment, rank and service number of the soldier, as well as the name of the person who is the beneficiary of the will. You can also find out the date when the will was made and the date of death of the soldier.

Nuncupative wills are personal letters from the soldier, colleagues or near relatives which express or bear witness his wishes. These wills may include information about the soldier’s experiences during the war as well as details of how he wishes his property to be distributed.

How to search soldiers' wills

Search soldiers' wills. You can search on some or all of the following index fields:

  • Surname
  • Forename
  • Year of death - please note that a small number of soldier's and airmen's wills have no date of death.
  • Service number
  • Rank
  • Regiment
  • Place of death

The search form includes tips for each field with links to more detailed research guides where appropriate.

Some soldiers’ wills were also recorded alongside the wills of civilians in the relevant sheriff court records. It is always worth checking both series for a soldier, but please note that:

  • not all soldiers left a will;
  • not all that were written have survived; and
  • for estates worth less than £300 it was not compulsory to record a will and obtain confirmation (probate).

Understanding the content of soldiers' and airmen's wills

There are several distinct types of will which are described below. The completed wills were mostly filed in a local military record office until requested by the War Office when a soldier died.

Types of wills

  • Informal wills were often recorded in the soldier’s pay book or his Small Book. These are most common kind of soldier's will. They are generally unwitnessed, written and signed by the soldier when under orders for active service, or during active service. A soldier could update his will when issued with a new pay book and, if he died, his most recent will would be retrieved whenever possible. This type of will is known as a 'Short Form of Will'.
  • Formal wills witnessed, written and signed by the soldier on purpose designed Army Forms. These were designed to be filled in before the soldier was under orders for active service. Various forms were used during the First World War and the Second World War.
  • 'Civil' wills could be either unwitnessed or witnessed wills and were usually 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.
  • If no written will could be found, 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 was known as a 'nuncupative will'. Typically the documents consist of official forms and related correspondence.
  • 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 the First World War than the Second World War.
  • Some wills were withdrawn for recording in the Commissary Office or a sheriff court. For further information consult our guide on wills and testaments.


For examples of soldiers' wills from the Second World War, read our features on Scottish soldiers' wills from D-Day 1944 and Scottish Soldiers' wills - Arnhem and Market Garden 1944.

Further reading

The contents of the soldiers' and airmen's wills are discussed more fully in Tristram Clarke, 'Scottish soldiers' wills, 1857-1965', Scottish Archives, volume 10 (2004).

A list of abbreviations can be found at military awards and decorations of the United Kingdom.