The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Military Records - WO97

Attestation Documents

by Ian Sewell

This article was originally published in the April 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society

The WO97 records at the Public Records Office (PRO) are the attestation documents for all soldiers that served and were discharged from the army between 1764 and 1913.

The records are broken down into 5 groups:

1. The oldest records 1764 to 1854 have been indexed by the PRO and the records have been microfilmed, so transcription of these was the easiest but the recording of these men’s records was a very haphazard affair and many give very little information about the soldiers other than which regiment he served with and how long. In fact although some of the names were in the index I was unable to find the soldiers record in the film.

2. From 1855 to 1872 was the most difficult to search as these records are stored by regiment and no index exists for them. This meant that each regiment had to be searched individually, some 135 boxes, though they were the most interesting as more information about the soldier was given, such as medical records and character references.

3. From 1873 to 1882 the records are alphabetical by branch of the army, some 16 boxes.

4. Whilst the records of 1883 to 1900 and 1900 to 1913 are all alphabetically listed requiring the searching of 12 boxes of records. Thus in total to complete this task 163 boxes and 30 film rolls were looked at.

In total there are 295 records that are interest to the society. Of these the breakdown by the four names and variants as follows:
















These records only cover those soldiers who survived their service and were discharged from the army for whatever reason. If the soldier died in service then there will not be any discharge records, although a couple of records did exist for soldiers that died in service.

As has been said, the quality of information varied considerably often depending of the date of discharge and the length of service; the longer the service the more information was usually obtained.

Sometimes additional records like the persons death certificate were also present giving information as to what the soldier did after discharge – the majority of these cases were when the soldier had emigrated after discharge and information was being sent regarding pension payments.

Some 30 (c.10%) of the soldiers served in the Cavalry and 52 (c.17.5%) served in the Artillery with rest serving in the army.

It is often assumed that soldiers in the 19th Century joined regiments that were local to them; the image of the recruiting party coming past the fields luring the labourers off to join the army. This is partly true but often a recruiting party would have no links between the county name of the regiment and the county in which they recruited. Thus as we would expect, the birthplaces of the soldiers, which were given in nearly all instances, matches the known distribution of the society names. Thus Cumberland, Durham and Essex were well represented in the Sewell name and Kent in the Sole and Solley names.

There are 5 Saul's that originated from Ireland, as well as 7 Sewell’s and 3 Solley’s.

Some of the more exotic birth places included the West Indies (Frederick Saul – Barbados, Henry Sewel & Augustus Sewell – Jamaica), Nova Scotia (Wilfred Sewell), the Philippines (George Saul), the Cape of Good Hope (William Solley) and Aurangabad, India (Alexander Sewell, who father is given as Lt. Col. Sewell of the 5th Hydrabad Infantry).

Many soldiers were sworn to the army and then assigned to a regiment at a later date. Either the regiment could not attract soldiers in its own right or just happened to be short at that time. The regiments served, as has been said, covered the all arms of the military, including the Guards (10 foot and 7 cavalry), the Army Medical Corps (2), Army Service Corp (5) and less well known units like the West Indian, Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Canadian Rifles.

There were also a large number of Scottish regiments, such as the Argyle & Southern Highlanders (1), the Highland Light Infantry (5) and the Kings Own Scots Borderers (2) though only one of the men was actually Scottish – James Solly who served in the Scottish Borderers. Wales is represented by the Welch Regiment (1) and the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers (1) though neither soldiers were born in Wales – Lancashire & Oxfordshire respectively. Ireland is similarly represented by the Royal Irish Fusiliers (1) and Royal Irish Rifles (1) but again neither man actually came from Ireland, in fact they both came from Kent – William Solly & William Sewell.

Where religion has been specified the vast majority were Church of England, there were however 7 Roman Catholics, 5 Presbyterians, 11 Wesleyans, 2 Baptists and one Unitarian, Arthur Sewell from Guilford.

Originally the term of enlistment into the British Army was for an unlimited period. But war, combined with the ravages of disease meant that relatively few discharge papers exist for soldiers in the 1765 to 1854 period, some 38 of interest to us. Often the discharge was on medical grounds with the soldier being ‘worn out’ by the many years he had served. As the years progressed the army instituted fixed periods of enlistment, the second and third terms of which the soldier could opt for on completion of their first term. This in turn resulted in an increase in the numbers of soldiers surviving to discharge. Towards the end of the century a term of 12 years was instigated with the first 5 years being on active service and the remaining 7 being in the reserve from which you could be called up from in times of war. This is in fact what happened during the Boer war when many of the soldiers were recalled to service to fight. In addition during this war men were also signed up for 1 year’s service. So as the years progress the number of soldiers being discharged on medical grounds decreases and the number completing their term of service increases.

In total 153 (c. 52%) soldiers completed their service, the terms and numbers are:

Number of Years Served












Some 88 (c.30%) of the soldiers were discharged on medical grounds of which only 6 were due to wounds received in battle. These were: William Sewell from Waterloo, William Saul from a village in Flanders (1814), Robert Sewell from Toulouse (1814), John Saul from Sebastopol, and Richard Sewell from the Crimea. The most famous though was another William Sewell who as part of the 13th Light Dragoons was part of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and survived to be discharged, though with crippling head wounds.

The two recorded men that died in service were Alfred Sewell from Birmingham who died of Pneumonia on 6th November 1896 in England and George Sewell from Knowle, Warks who died of cholera in India on the 19th October 1892. Sadly for his wife Rhoda, who he married in 1885, without permission, both of their children also died leaving her alone.

From 1873 the cause was often not given in these papers but some of the more interesting include: included 3 caused by secondary syphilis, 7 soldiers ‘worn out’ and William Saywell who broke his fibia and tibia playing football. Thomas Saul spent 16 years with the 5th Dragoon Guards without seeing any overseas action, reaching the rank of Sergeant Major. On the break out of the Boer war he re-enlisted with the Imperial Yeomanry and went to Africa only to be discharged after a less experienced comrade accidentally shot him in the leg, whilst cleaning his gun. Other reasons to be medically unfit include gonorrhoea, hepatitis, varicose veins and various pulmonary and vascular diseases.

Four men were discharged after it was found that they had lied on their application: George Frederick, Frederick Charles & Ernest William Sewell all lied about their age giving it as 18 years and Thomas Sewel was discovered to have been Peter Sellwood who had been discharged from the Royal Marines eight days earlier. Another fifteen of the men were discharged soon after joining as they were considered unfit material for the army. This was both from a physical and a character point of view with some men not being able to provide references of suitable quality.

Discharged at their own request (from about 1880 on), often with payment, accounted for another 12 soldiers, whilst 9 soldiers were discharged with ignominy for reasons such as desertion and theft. Albert Saul was discharged from the 9th Lancers in 1892 for gross insubordination but later in 1899 re-enlisted in the Royal Artillery under the name Thomas Larkham. He was found out though and his records contain his confession but do not say whether his was discharged from his current regiment for this crime. Other instances where the soldier was discharged include Albert John Sewell for gross indecency whilst serving in South Africa; John Henry Soul for striking a superior; John Sewell for theft and striking a superior and James Solly for threatening language.

As can be imagined by being in just about every regiment in the army at some point the Society names have taken part in most of the campaigns of the British Army since the Peninsular campaigns of Wellington. I was especially pleased to find that there were 5 veterans of the battle of Waterloo: William & Isaac Sewell and Henry Sooley of the 52nd Oxford Light Infantry, Thomas Solly of the Royal Artillery and Samuel Sewell of the Rifle Brigade. In addition the well known campaigns fought in and medals awarded include: The Crimean War (1854-56) with the battles of Alma, Inkerman and Sebastopol; the Indian Mutiny (1857); the Zulu Campaign (1879); Egypt and Sudan (1882-91) and The Boer War (1890-1906) with Relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley et al. Also represented are the less well know campaigns: The Maori Wars in New Zealand (1845-7); the China Wars (1840-1900); the Ashanti Campaign (1874-1900) and the Indian Northwest Frontier (1895-1902). Unfortunately the only bravery award I found was Francis Soule who was mention in dispatches in the Boer War, as mentioned by Tony Story in Vol. 2 No. 18 of Soul Search.

This is only a small part of the information to be found in records and I hope everyone will enjoy reading them as much as I did. I also hope that some members will be able to discover a link to either a known or unknown member of their families from these records. I will end with my personal favourite piece of information that comes from Frederick Sewell from Chelmsford who completed 12 years with the Royal Artillery and is recorded to have married one Ada Hutching “without heart”

Ed: We are very grateful to Ian for the considerable work involved in extracting this information. Details will be made available on the CD-Rom or contact your co-coordinator if you require some specific information now.

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