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Tuesday 26 May 2015

Soldiers' and airmen's wills, 1857-1964

This guide tells you about Soldiers' and Airmen's wills in the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), which have been recently catalogued. To search for a specific soldier's or airman's will go to the 'How to search for a soldier's or airman's will' page.

What are the soldiers' wills?

The wills consist of special forms removed from soldiers' pay books, other army forms, or other documents. They are generally very brief and do not mention individual possessions. They contain limited personal or service history information.

About 31,000 wills survive, of which approximately 26,000 date from the First World War (WW I) and 4,700 from the Second World War (WW II). The rest belong to the period between 1857 and 1966. The wills were written by men up to the rank of warrant officer. About 100 wills exist of officers who were commissioned from the rank during WW I, and a few from WWII. There are wills of some Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel from WW I, and of six women serving with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during World War II.

The soldiers' wills belong to a special series (SC70/8) among the records of the Edinburgh Commissary Office, which received them from the War Office because the men were domiciled in Scotland. 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. There is no arrangement by regiment, nor any 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.

However, the NAS online catalogue permits searches to locate an individual soldier, so in practice the arrangement is not an obstacle. To search for a specific soldier's or airman's will go to the 'How to search for a soldier's or airman's will' page.

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 The letters sometimes contain additional information regarding withdrawn or untransmitted wills, but this has generally been included in the catalogue description.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.

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'.
See an example of a will from a pay book.

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.
See a 1914 example of this type of will on form B.243.
See a 1939 example of this type of will on form B.2089.

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.
See an example of a nuncupative will.

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. More common for WW I than WW II.

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' vol. 10 (2004), pp.69-92 (published by the Scottish Records Association).

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