How to go beyond service records when researching Anzac ancestors
So, you've found your World War 1 relatives' service records in the National Archives of Australia. Now what? Therese Lynch explains what other records can bring your Anzac ancestors' incredible stories to life.
If you're researching World War 1 ancestors, you've probably found your way to the National Archives of Australia (NAA) at some point. NAA holds individuals' military service records for that conflict. However, did you know that there are other records that contain additional information about military personnel not found in service records?
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Here's a list of the records to look out for, what you can expect to glean from them and tips for getting the best from them.
Embarkation rolls contain information as at the date individuals departed Australia by ship. These documents have many columns and usually reveal:
- Ship’s name
- Regiment’s name
- Full name
- Regimental number
- Trade or calling
- Marital status
- Address at the date of enlistment
- Next of kin and his/her address
- Date of enlistment
- A.M.F. unit serving in at the date of enlistment
- Pay details before and after embarkation
The Australian War Memorial (AWM) has digitised the World War 1 embarkation rolls and linked them to each individual’s name in their online catalogue. Where previously you needed to know in which unit an ancestor served, you can now simply search by their name. The embarkation roll will be one of the records returned. If you can’t find a family member in the embarkation rolls, it's possible they served out the war in Australia.
You can also analyse embarkation rolls to see who else served in your ancestor’s unit and what, if anything, they had in common. For example, my great-great-uncle Michael Roney, aged 43, was the oldest by far in his Light Horse unit when he departed Australia and, in most cases, was old enough to be his colleagues’ father.
I always wondered if he really expected to serve on the front line in France when he enlisted in 1915. But as a member of the Militia pre-war and a coach driver and horse trainer in civilian life, his skills were exactly what the Army needed. No safe or cushy job at home as a recruit trainer for great-great-uncle Mick, he embarked on HMT Ulysses with the 13th Light Horse Regiment then transferred to the Artillery in Egypt. He spent the war in an exceptionally dangerous role in northern France where he drove horse teams pulling large guns and ammunition supplies to and from the front line.
The Nominal Roll was created at the end of the First World War for each individual who served abroad. It was created to assist in the repatriation of more than 300,000 Australians. The nominal roll lists:
- Name (including honours)
- Regimental number
- Last held rank
- Unit where served at the time of death or at the end of the war
- Date of enlistment
- Non-effective entry i.e. killed in action (KIA), died of wounds (DOW), discharged abroad or returned to Australia (RTA)
Findmypast has transcribed the nominal roll, while the original records are available at the AWM.
Having a formal portrait photo taken in uniform was popular with World War 1 service personnel. The AWM has thousands of photos of military service personnel in its online collection and I found several of my own family members who served. The photos are indexed and easily searchable on the AWM website.
When looking for photos, I recommend searching the collection rather than for people. The former will return photos of the individual if any exist in the collection. Searching for people will return non-photographic records.
I also recommend doing two searches – one for the whole name and another for just for the surname. Many photos in the collection often list only a person’s rank and surname, e.g. Sgt Roney. I found two different photos for great-great-uncle Michael Roney. If I had stopped looking when I found his formal portrait photo in uniform, I would have missed the second one where he was in camp at Broadmeadows and listed only by his surname.
Honours and awards – recommended and granted
Again, we have the AWM to thank for digitising and indexing these records which can be found through a name search on the website. It's important to differentiate between recommendations and awards. Many people were recommended for their actions and bravery in the field, but comparatively few recommendations were approved for military honours and awards. While a family member might have been recommended for an award, it does not mean they received the recognition.
World War 1 repatriation records
The NAA holds 600,000 repatriation records for First World War servicemen, servicewomen and their families who applied for pensions or other assistance after the war. The records include medical, hospital and pension details. The information in this collection is not found in the service records for military personnel.
The repatriation files are not yet digitised, however, they can be found through a name search at the NAA. The NAA provides a copy service or, if you live in the same locality where the file is held, you can ask to view the files without charge in their Reading Room. When I visited Melbourne, I was able to view and photograph my own grandfather’s extensive repatriation file which covered his war-related health issues from 1920, through his World War 2 service, to his death in 1972.
Australian Red Cross Society records
Two of the three types of Red Cross files held at the AWM are relevant to individual service personnel, namely:
- The Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau
- Records of the Australian Red Cross Prisoner of War Department
Details of investigations into people who did not answer roll call after a battle are contained in these files. An investigation usually occurred when a soldier was missing and/or his body not found after a battle. A search by name in the AWM’s People collection should locate the Red Cross file if one exists.
I found my own family member, George Connel Roney, in these files. George went 'over the top' on the first day at the Battle of Fromelles in 1916 and his body was never recovered. Among other things, his Red Cross file held a chilling account of a Company Commander stating their objective against an enfilade of German machine gun fire.
After reading this account, I understood why more than 5,000 Australians were killed, wounded or captured on that day alone. In George’s case, none of this information appeared in his service record.
While a serviceman or woman’s service record will usually show if they were court-martialled and the reason for it, details of the proceedings are found in a separate file. There were two types of Court Martial – a General Court Martial and a Field General Court Martial.
World War 1 court martial records appear to be split between the NAA and the AWM, however, all can be located through a name search in the NAA catalogue. Some of the records have been digitised at the NAA, however, those with the AWM are all in hard copy only. Both institutions provide a copy service or the records can be viewed free of charge in their respective Reading Rooms. While all the Court Martial records appear to be in Canberra, the catalogue entry lists whether an individual file is at the NAA or AWM.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is an excellent site with digitised and indexed records about the final resting place of British and Commonwealth service personnel who were killed in action or died as a result of their wartime activities. The CWGC's Debt of Honour is searchable online at Findmypast.
Where no bodies were recovered, the CWGC records the location where a name appears on a memorial.
Some grave registration records on the site include the soldier’s parents’ names and addresses.
Trove’s digitised newspaper collection is a key resource for researching serving personnel and wartime events in Australia. Many newspapers reported enlistments and farewells to local soldiers going to and returning from war.
Letters from soldiers at the front were often published particularly where they mentioned friends and colleagues from the area. Casualty lists were published as were obituaries for service personnel killed in action or who died as a result of their war wounds.
Local Red Cross and fundraising events, often to support the soldiers’ comfort fund, were also reported by newspapers across Australia and often mentioned people by name.
War unit diaries
A war unit diary is a regularly updated official record kept by military units of their activities during wartime or other active service. Located at the AWM, war unit diaries are not personal diaries. They do, however, often contain more, or at least different, information and detail than is found in service records.
There are two levels of war unit diaries - one each for battalion and division. This means for an individual soldier or officer there are two different series to research as each battalion belonged to a division.
To use these records you will need to know the name of the unit where your relative served. This can usually be found in their service record at the NAA. Where a person served in more than one unit during the war, you'll need to research the war diary for each unit.
I found the war unit diaries from the beginning of World War 1 particularly enlightening for my family research. When the regiments and battalions were formed, they provided information about my ancestor's early Army activity that was not in their service record. They were recorded by name, despite only holding the rank of Private (or equivalent) at the war’s outset.
The depth of information in war unit diaries varies according to the dedication and commitment of the battalion or division’s clerk at the time. Some of the diaries are written in great detail while others, frustratingly, contain very little information. Nevertheless, as a minimum, you can track your Anzac soldier around the theatre of war.
Official History of Australia in the Great War of 1914-1918
The Official History of Australia in the Great War of 1914-1918 (the Official History) is a 12-volume epic edited by World War 1 official war correspondent, Charles Beane. Largely overlooked as a family history resource, it's a marvellous tome that has been digitised and is online at the AWM.
While few people are mentioned by name, it's an excellent place to find context and details about your First World War ancestors' experiences. From the regiments getting organised at the outset of the war, to the shores of Gallipoli, to the dreadful mud on the Somme, to the lack of food, water and dealing with malaria in Egypt and Palestine – it’s all there in the Official History. It covers Australia’s Army, Navy and Flying Corps activities as well as the Army Medical Corps.
In a section about the 4th Machine Gun Squadron of the Light Horse, I was delighted to read a detailed description of the action that resulted in my great uncle Lt Jack Frawley being nominated for the Military Cross. A photo of the battlefield was also included with the text. This is the sort of detail you don’t get from a military service record.
Browsing the digitised version of the Official History is straightforward. Each volume has a separate index and is broken down into 20 or more digestible chapters. All have links to a downloadable PDF file.
It was written for the average person – not military types. Despite the dry title, it is an easy, even compelling read more than a century after it was written.
The London Gazette published details of Australian military honours and awards during World War 1. To make navigating the publication's archives quicker and easier, Findmypast has digitised images from the paper and made them searchable. I found my great uncle Peter Frawley’s award of the French Medallie D’Honneur in the London Gazette supplements on Findmypast.
Do you know your Anzac history? Like Therese, we'd love to hear if your discoveries on Findmypast have helped you make sense of the past and shaped who you are today. Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org to share your family stories.
About the author
Therese Lynch is the owner of Your Family Genealogist and a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. A former senior public servant, she combines her passion for genealogy with a love of helping people get started or progress their own family history journey. Therese holds a Diploma in Family History from the University of Tasmania. She often uses her blog to inform readers about little known or under-utilised resources. In non-Covid times, Therese pursues her other passion of travelling as frequently as possible, preferably to lands rich in ancient history followed by visits to Ireland and England to continue her own family history research.