Guest post by Robbie Mitchell.
The National Records of Scotland hold a collection of wills of soldiers who served during the First and Second World Wars, of which about 26,000 relate to the 1914-18 conflict. These wills were written by ordinary Scots – some written when they were about to go overseas, others composed on the morning of a battle – most of whom were married, and so they help form a connection with the family they left behind whilst serving during the War. The wills are normally dated from when they were called up to active service, but that is not always the case.
The wills in the collection mostly relate to those who served with Scottish Regiments – for example, there are 2,500 wills relating to Gordon Highlanders – but other services are included, such as the Machine Gun Corps, Royal Field Artillery, the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF). 85% of the Wills relate to soldiers who served on the Western Front, while the remainder concern those who served in other theatres of operation, such as Mesopotamia and Salonika; the wills also include those of six recipients of the Victoria Cross during World War 1. Soldiers who survived would have probably kept their own will, while their service records would have been retained by the Army.
Not everyone left a will; the authorities encouraged it but did not make the writing it compulsory. For those that did write a will, the Army encouraged them to use a standard form of text, which usually began with the words “In the event of my death, I give the whole of my property and effects to…” The most common kind of soldiers’ will was the “Informal Will from his Pay Book (Army Book 64)” – this was non-witnessed, written and signed by the soldier on a form in his pay book, when under orders for active service, or during active service. He could write another will when he was issued with a new Pay Book, and if he died his most recent will would be retrieved from the pay book – if that was possible. This was also known as a “Short Form of Will”.
A more formal witnessed will, written and signed by the soldier, was on “Army Form B.243” (naming one beneficiary) or “B.244” (more than one), which allowed for the naming of executor(s) and were favoured by certain Regiments. The Scots Guards almost exclusively used Form B.243 for their Wills, retaining copies at the Regimental depot in London – this means 37% of their Wills have survived, compared to just 19% of the King Own Scottish Borderers. Another version of the formal will used was “Army Form W.3297”. This was also a 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 by soldiers in both World Wars.
As well as the formal Army wills, there were civil wills – informal and formal, non-witnessed or witnessed, wills written on non-Army stationery; some follow the official wording of the Army forms, but many were probably written at home. Though only a few appear to have been drafted by a lawyer, around 9,000 civil wills relating to soldiers were deposited in Sheriff Courts throughout Scotland. Many informal wills are handwritten in a style which differed from the recommended standard format, and some used this to make personal or political statements. Some were written in the style of a letter, and such letters would also be treated as documentary evidence of a Last Will & Testament. Within the National Records of Scotland, there are around 100 informal wills relating to Privates who rose through the ranks and became Officers.
In some cases, the surviving wills are only fragments recovered from the bodies of dead soldiers prior to their burial. If a will was completely 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 was known as a nuncupative will, and is more common for those wills from the First World War than the Second World War. Sometimes nuncupative wills came with certificates of authenticity completed by those soldiers dying from wounds or illness in hospital, while other substitute evidence might have been testimonies from comrades or family members who had seen the will being written.
Further information on how to locate soldiers’ wills can be found on the National Records of Scotland website.