Using the Legion of Honour for Genealogy
Mort Pour La France

The Military Archives at Chateau de Vincennes

Battle painting

The military archives at the wonderful old Château de Vincennes are, for the most part, the domain of military historians more than genealogists. The rule for genealogists researching an individual is: "prior to the Revolution, his file will be at the national Archives; after the Revolution, his file will be at Vincennes." However, it is not quite so simple.

A better rule might be: "For officers, search in Paris, for the rank and file, search in the département." Essentially, knowing  dates and rank are even more important. This is because files may or may not have been kept for officers or soldiers and may be in different locations. Thus, to find the military records of a person in France, we recommend the genealogist answer these questions before starting out:

  1. When did the person live?
  2. What was his name? Where was he born? Where did he live when he was aged 20? 
  3. Was he an officer? 
  4. In what branch of the military did he serve? 

The primary division in French military records, as with all French historical documentation, is before the Revolution (referred to as Ancien Régime) and after the Revolution (moderne). It is true that, generally speaking, most records of the Ancien Régime, including military records (but not records concerning the colonies) are housed at the Archives nationales and that military records from 1792 are housed at the Centre Historique des Archives à Vincennes. Yet, all is qualified by the questions above, and here is why:

  • Before 1716, except for nobility, there are no military records of individuals and it is impossible to put together a file of an individual's military career. So, if you know your ancestor was in the French military as an ordinary soldier before 1716, do not bother looking for any sort of military file.
  • From 1786, lists of soldiers began to be recorded. To find a person, you must know in advance the captain and the company name. These lists are at Vincennes and must be requested by company name and year.
  • From 1786 to 1875, alphabetical lists for each company began to be placed at the end of volumes of soldiers names, making it somewhat easier to find a name. Even when found, almost no information other than name and rank is given. These lists are at Vincennes and must be requested by company name and year.
  • From 1875, these lists are kept in the Archives départementales of the department where the company was formed.  This is why it is so important to know where your ancestor was living when aged 20, for that was the mandatory enlistment age during the nineteenth century. He would have gone to the local centre to report and his records will be in the archives of that department. Recruitment records are in Series R.
  • For all soldiers born between 1847 and 1913, the records will be at the Archives départementales
  • If the soldier were born between 1914 and 1954, the records will be in the south of France at the Bureau Central d'Archives administratives militaires  in Pau.
  • If the soldier  served in Algeria from 1858 to 1932, the records will be with the overseas archives at Aix-en-Provence. If in Algeria from 1933 to that country's independence, the records will be in Pau.
  • If the soldier died in battle during one of the two World Wars ("mort pour la France") he or she will be on a list at Vincennes. This is also online and will be described in the next post.
  • Before 1940, it was not required to keep personnel files on military personnel, so even using all of the above, unless you are seeking an officer or a noble, there will be very, very little.

If, having done all of your homework, you determine that what you seek will be at Vincennes, here is how to go about it. 

Still at home, you must reserve the files you wish, AT LEAST:
  • 72 hours in advance  for the army
  • 10 days for the gendarmerie 
  • same day for the air force and navy (but we most strongly recommend reserving at least a day in advance)
Reservations may be made by telephone, post, and e-mail. To reserve, one must have a reader's card number, or state that it will be the first visit. Reader's cards are issued, without charge, at the information office on presentation of a photo ID and the completion of a form.  At the same time, remember to reserve a place in the Reading Room, the Salle de Lecture, which is NOT air conditioned, but is, as you can see in the photo, rather charming. As at other archives, you must leave most of your things in a locker (which is free but requires a 1€ coin to be operated), putting your notebooks, pencil and camera in a plastic bag (which is provided) before entering the Reading Room.

 

The main website is the Service historique de la Défense. In the panel on the left of that screen, click on Archives individuelles - Guide du Chercheur to read the instructions. (Update March 2013 - the site was recently hacked and is not fully checked and back online. We have tried to update the links.)
Reading room
 

These are among the most complicated of archives that we know. Please do all of your preparation in advance to avoid disappointment and frustration.

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Service historique de la Défense
Chateau de Vincennes
Avenue de Paris
94306 Vincennes Cedex

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Métro line 1 - Chateau de Vincennes

tel: 01 41 93 20 95 or 01 41 93 20 85

website:  http://www.servicehistorique.sga.defense.gouv.fr/



©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

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