How to Research your Grandfather’s War Service in 7 Easy Steps
The last decade has seen a surge of interest by ordinary Australians in the wartime activities of previous generations of family members who served in the Australian armed forces during World War I.
Many young Australians now travel to overseas battlefields as a ‘rite of passage’ and to honour the memory of relatives who never returned home and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Interest in Australian military history, and in the ANZACs who formed an important part of this legacy is growing every day.
A large number of families are now researching the service of family members to gain a better understanding of what a grandfather or great grandfather may have experienced, what he did and where he served wartime.
A total of 331,814 Australians went to war during World War 1 and another 600,000 served during World War Two and which has seen many Australians today become very interested in the hard fought campaigns of their descendants.
Are you looking to discover the military service of a relative or uncover the details of a hard fought battle?
This research guide, based upon years of experience in searching for information about Australian soldiers, is a quick and easy reference to finding out about the war service of ANZACs – the Australian soldiers who courageously served during World War I.
In seven easy steps, you will be shown how to:
Find a soldier’s service details
Locate what battles and campaigns he may have fought in
Details of wounds and illnesses he may had
Find out where he may have died and been buried Interpret information found in their service records How to track down photos of your soldier
And it may even reveal the occasional secret or two!
Step 1 – Identify the soldier
The more starting information you have about a particular soldier, the easier the research becomes. A name and a service number is usually enough to get started and if you know what unit they served in then that’s even better! A lot of soldiers joined the AIF and if you only have a common name such as John Smith than you will potentially be looking through a LOT of records so the more starting information the better.
The best place to start in looking up a World War 1 soldier is the highly recommended ADFA AIF Database.
Select the Click here to search
You will then be taken to the search page where you can search by Name, Regimental Number or Address.
Bear in mind that if you only have a common surname to search with, you will probably have lots of pages to scroll through.
An example of the type of information you will find is below: John MONASH
Date of birth: 27 June 1865
Occupation: Civil engineer
Address: 36 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria
Marital status: Married
Age at embarkation: 49
Next of kin: Wife, Mrs V Monash, ‘Iona’, St Georges Road, Toorak, Victoria
Previous military service: 13th Infantry Brigade
Enlistment date: 19 September 1914
Rank on enlistment: Colonel
Unit name: 4th Infantry Brigade Headquarters
AWM Embarkation Roll number: 23/4/1
Embarkation details: Unit embarked from Melbourne, Victoria, on board HMAT A38
Ulysses on 22 December 1914
Rank from Nominal Roll Lieutenant General Unit from Nominal Roll 4th Infantry Brigade Promotions Major General
Unit: Australian Corps
Promotion date: 10 July 1916
Temporary Lieutenant General
Promotion date: 1 June 1918
Recommendations (Medals and Awards)
Mention in Despatches
Awarded, and gazetted, ‘London Gazette’, second Supplement, No. 29251 (5 August
1915); ‘Commonwealth Gazette’, No. 133 (28 October 1915). Mention in Despatches
Awarded, and gazetted, ‘London Gazette’, Supplement, No. 29455 (28 January
1916); ‘Commonwealth Gazette’, No. 44 (6 April 1916). Recommendation date: 15 October 1915
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Recommendation date: 15 October 1915
Mention in Despatches
Awarded, and promulgated, ‘London Gazette’, 4th Supplement, No 29664 (11 July
1916); ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No 176 (30 November 1916). Recommendation date: 28 January 1916 and 13 July 1916
Knight Commander of the Order of St.Michael and St.George
Recommendation date: 4 October 1917
Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Recommendation date: 1 January 1918
Recommendation date: 3 October 1918
Croix de Guerre
Recommendation date: 3 October 1918
Recommendation date: 12 November 1918
Croix de Guerre (Belgium) Recommendation date: 12 November 1918
Distinguished Service Medal (American) Recommendation date: 25 November 1918
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St.Michael and St.George
Recommendation date: 1 January 1919″ Mention in Despatches
Awarded, and promulgated, ‘London Gazette’, Second Supplement No. 30448 (28
December 1917); ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 57 (18 April 1918). Mention in Despatches
Awarded, and promulgated, ‘London Gazette’ No. 30706 (28 May 1918);
‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 165 (24 October 1918). Mention in Despatches
Awarded, and promulgated, ‘London Gazette’ No. 31448 (11 July 1919);
‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 124 (30 October 1919). Fate Effective abroad (still overseas)
Order De la Couronne – Grand Officer
Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 91
Date: 23 July 1919
Croix de Guerre (Belgium)
Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 91
Date: 23 July 1919
Legion D’Honneur ; Grand Officer (France) Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 191
Date: 12 December 1918
Croix de Guerre (France)
Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 119
Date: 17 October 1919
Another good place to also start is the Australian War Memorial’s website. The following are good places to seek information about your soldier:
World War I Nominal Roll
This is the list of all the Australians who served during W orld War I. www.awm.gov.au/nominalrolls/ww1/
World War I Roll of Honour
This is the list of all the Australians who served during World War I and died on active service – either through illness, disease or Killed in Action.
World War I Embarkation Roll
This is a list of all the troopship departures from Australia – find out when and where a soldier departed from.
World War I Troopships
Troopship information – what ships transported the troops and when during World
Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Files
If your soldier was wounded in action, there may be information here about them. www.awm.gov.au/redcross/index.asp
It’s an Honour
This is a good place to find information about any Australian soldier who may have received a decoration for gallantry or meritorious service.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
And if the soldier was killed in action, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will assist you with a gravesite location:
Step 2 – Find Their Service Record
You should now have enough information to really get stuck into your research.
The Australian National Archives contains all the Australian World War 1, World War
2, Korean War (and soon Vietnam War) service records of Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen!
Fire up your favourite web browser and go to this link:
Next click on: Search as a guest
This will take you to the NAA’s General Search page. From here you will be able to search for a soldier’s service record.
Simply enter his surname and service number and hit Search.
This is where it’s important to have more information than just a name as it will reduce the amount of records you will need to scroll through. Entering a date range such as 1914-1918 or 1939-1945 in the Date field will also help reduce the number of records to go through.
After you have done this, it will take you to the Search Results page where you can click on Display to show the records it found.
Here you can click on View digital copy to look at the original service record.
Note: 99.9% of World War 1 records have been digitised but many World War 2 and Korean War service records are still not digitised. What this means is that you will either have to have to travel to the NAA In Canberra to access them or request a copy (there is a cost involved for them to digitised the records and they will then be available online or get them printed out and sent out – again for a fee).
When you have accessed the service record, you will be able to view attestation (ie enlistment) papers, see where a soldier went, if he was wounded or was sick, what ships he was on and details of hospitalisation and if he was awarded any medals.
Private correspondence from the soldier to the government can also generally be found here (though on occasions you may come across sealed records – these are mostly correspondence or mundane items that have not reached the 30 year mark to be unsealed).
Note: Any offenses committed, punishments received or other activities such as instances of venereal disease are also recorded – not all soldiers were well behaved!
His discharge information or Killed in Action documentation is also found here as are any letters written about the person’s service.
Another great related resource is the National Archive’s Mapping our ANZACs website: http://mappingouranzacs.naa.gov.au/
It’s a map interface to Australian service records and again worth checking out.
It should be noted that service records were most hand written and some handwriting can be difficult to read though many also have typed versions as well.
Many soldiers joined the AIF under false or different names so it is something to be aware of if service information is not able to be found for someone who served during World War I.
Step 3 – Identifying units and campaigns
Now that you have accessed their service record, you will have some idea as to what they went through and the next step is to try and expand this by discovering what their role was during the war and where their unit served and what campaigns they were involved in.
This is where the Australian War Memorial’s website comes in handy.
A wide variety of units of the navy, army and air force have served Australia in times of conflict. Here, you will find profiles of some of these. Each includes a short history of the unit, details of its casualties, decorations, battle honours, commanding
officers, and, in the case of technical units, the specifications of the equipment it used. Within each profile you are able to search the Memorial’s collections for items relating to the unit: photographs, works of art, film and sound recordings, personal records, and relics.
This will give you a good overview of the unit. Click here to search: http://www.awm.gov.au/units/index.asp
Note: Not all units will be found here – some of the smaller ones will not be mentioned.
Step 4 – Further Reading
Now that you have a good idea of the campaign they were involved with and in what unit(s) they served in, the next step to gain an expanded knowledge is to peruse a unit history book. Many units (but sadly not all) had books written about their war service either by ex officers, unit associations or historians.
They are the best place to read about the campaigns the unit was in and they usually mention medal recipients, officers and other notable personalities.
Many also contain a nominal roll which is the list of soldiers who served in that unit and a roll of honour (list of the deceased). You will probably find your man (or woman!) listed in the nominal roll.
Many unit histories were published originally in small numbers and are quite rare but now have been reprinted and readily available.
Regimental Books has Australia’s largest range of unit history books which can be securely purchased from their online shop:
Step 5 – War Diaries
It is also worth looking for a unit’s official war diary to gain an understanding of the unit’s activity – many were hand written by the commanding officer as well and these can be a great source of information.
They can be found at the below links:
World War 1 – Official War Diaries
World War 2 – Official War Diaries
Korean War – Official War Diaries
Malaya and Vietnam – Official War Diaries
Step 6 – Finding Photos
Thanks to the internet, there are now many places to search for pictures of a World War I soldier.
This is a great resource for looking for pictures of a soldier – it will check the Australian War Memorial collection and also those of various state libraries – highly recommended!
Australian War Graves Photo Archives
This is a good place to search for a gravestone picture. http://www.australianwargraves.org/
The National Archives trove database of books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives is a great place to search for pictures and possibly even old newspaper articles that may mention a soldier.
ANZACs Online is an online museum which displays photographs, diaries and letters, which relate to the many Australians who served in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I.
The aim of this museum is to allow for these items of our Australian military history are both preserved and be made freely available as a shared resource, for current and future Australian generations alike.
This is a good place to search for pictures of soldiers. http://anzacsonline.net.au
Step 7 – Service Record Interpretation
The services records of Australian soldiers can run from a handful of pages to well over a 100, depending on the rank and service of a particular soldier.
A service record will generally include:
The paperwork that was completed by a soldier at the time of enlistment and represents the information gathered by the army and generally includes personal particulars, previous military service, criminal convictions and the state of a soldier’s health.
All service records will also include a Discharge Form that will include the details of the discharge from the army, casualty information if he was wounded or killed and any medal entitlements.
It is common to see three stamps to represent the issue of the 1914/15 Star, British
War Medal and Victory Medal. Only Gallipoli veterans or soldiers with service prior to
1st January, 1916 are entitled to the 1914/15 Star – for post 1/1/1916 enlistees, this non eligibility is indicated by an N/E written on the 1914/15 star stamp.
Casualty Form Active Service
The casualty forms are where all the details of a soldier’s service can be found – enlistment, training, transport overseas, leave, sickness, wounds, deaths, crimes, punishments, promotions and return to Australia.
These are all hand written but typed copies generally are also found.
Other forms such as court martial proceedings can also be found in a soldier’s service record.
Bonus – Service Record Abbreviations
To assist in the interpretation of service records, the following abbreviations can be found useful.
AAH Australian Auxiliary Hospital AAMC Australian Army Medical Corps AANS Australian Army Nursing Service AASC Australian Army Service Corps
AB/Dvr Able Bodied Driver – rank no longer used
ADBD Australian Divisional Base Depot ADH Australian Dermatological Hospital AFA Australian Field Artillery
AFC Australian Flying Corps
AGBD Australian General Base Depot AGH Australian General Hospital AIBD Australian Infantry Base Depot
AIF (1st AIF) Australian Imperial Force (WWI)
AIF (2nd AIF) Australian Imperial Force (WWII) AL Rwy Australian Light Railway
AM Aircraft Mechanic – rank no longer used AMGBD Australian Machine Gun Base Depot AMTS Australian Mechanical Transport Service
AN&MEF Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force
AOC Army Ordnance Corps
ASC Army Service Corps
ASH Australian Stationary Hospital also Australian Special Hospital
AVES Australian Veterinary Evacuating Station
AVH Australian Veterinary Hospital
AWL Absent without Leave
BEF British Expeditionary Force
BGROC Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company
CCS Casualty Clearing Station Con Dep Convalescent Depot Coy Company
DAC Division Ammunition Column also Division Artillery Column
DCM District Court Martial
DD Details Depot
Den Cps Dental Corps
DSC Divisional Supply Column
EEF Egyptian Expeditionary Force
EMM&B Coy Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company
F Amb Field Ambulance
FAB Field Artillery Brigade
Far Farrier – rank no longer used FCE Field Company Engineers FTD Full-time duty
GDD General Details Depot
GSR General Service Reinforcements
GSW Gun Shot Wound
HMAT His Majesty’s Australian Transport
HS Hospital Ship
HT Hired Transport also Horsed Transport
ICC Imperial Camel Corps
LGROC Light Gauge Railway Operating Company
LH Bde Light Horse Brigade LHFA Light Horse Field Ambulance LHR Light Horse Regiment
LHRR Light Horse Reserve Regiment LHTR Light Horse Training Regiment LoC Lines of Communication
L/Sgt Lance Sergeant – rank no longer used
M Vet Sec Mobile Veterinary Section
MD Military District
MEF Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (Gallipoli) MG Coy/ Sqn Machine Gun Company/Squadron M/I Marched In
M/0 Marched Out
MT/Dvr Mechanical Transport Driver – rank no longer used
Mtd Reg Mounted Regiment
NYD Not Yet Determined/Diagnosed
PO Petty Officer (Navy) – rank no longer used
PUO Pyrexia (fever) of unknown origin
RAA Royal Australian Artillery
RAE Royal Australian Engineers
RANBT Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train
RBAA Reserve Brigade Australia Artillery
RMT Unit Remount Unit
RSD Railhead Supply Detachment
SAN Sect Sanitation Section
SB Siege Battery
STS Sea Transport Staff
S/Smith or SS Shoeing Smith – rank no longer used
Sjt Serjeant (variant of Sergeant) Sqn Squadron
SW Shrapnel Wound
TMBty Trench Mortar Battery also LTMB, MTMB, HTMB (Light, Medium or Heavy
Trench Mortar Battery TOS Taken on Strength Tp Troop
Tun Coy Tunnelling Company VDC Volunteer Defence Corps Vet Sect Veterinary Section
Whr Wheeler – rank no longer used