This is Week 16 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. In honour of Anzac Day coming up this week, the topic is War service records. Once again this week, the topic will be a cross-over between online and offline resources. Please do join in with this series and add your thoughts.
Online with World War I
We have been very spoiled with Australian World War I service records being digitised and made available online through the National Archives of Australia (NAA). All we have to do is put a name in the search bar, limit it to a period (1914-1919), and Bob’s your uncle, up come the list of names with a digitised symbol on the right hand side for you to click on.
Might I make a suggestion if you haven’t already tried this? As well as looking at your own ancestor’s records, have a look at any of his siblings/cousins etc or perhaps anyone with the same unusual name (obviously Smith just isn’t going to work). My grandfather’s service record includes pages from two of his brothers’ service records. Only looking at one record might not give the full story.
Then of course, there are the other options for that period, available online through the Australian War Memorial (AWM): Red Cross, Roll of Honour, and Honours and Awards through the biographical database. Also don’t forget to search the collections which might pick up additional information eg my husband’s great uncle is mentioned in the write-up of another man’s medals.
But what of those records beyond the internet which is after all what we’re supposed to be looking at?
Boer War Service
There are search facilities with AWM and the NAA but my understanding is that many of these records are available through the state archives, or even libraries. If you have a relative who fought in the Boer War, you might want to explore these options. This is a useful information sheet.
Post World War I Service Records
There are other records which are still only available by ordering from the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA). They are the World War II service records, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf. Let’s assume you want to find out which members of your family served in World War II. You again enter the family name, plus a first name if necessary. It then presents you with the options available and you can choose the correct person. If you’re just using it to fill out information on your families you may want to stop there because you will have acquired some useful extra detail.
I find this search useful to determine a preliminary birth date, while it’s not yet available through BDM searches, even by year. It may also tell you (with varying reliability) where they were probably living when they joined up, their place of birth, and possibly their spouse’s name as next of kin. Not bad for a quick haul. Of course with WWII we’re also more likely to pick up female family members.
However if it’s your direct ancestor, it’s still worth your while to obtain the full service history from DVA by providing the details (or a printout) found from your search. Why would you bother? Well just think about what you find in your World War I records, and it’s easy to see the benefits. Combine it with other sources like war diaries, photographs and oral histories and you can build a comprehensive picture which tells of your relative’s experience.
For last year’s Anzac Day post I told the story of one of my family members, based on a combination of his Korean service records and the digitised war diaries. You can read it here to see just how you can build a picture from these record sets, probably more so where the person was killed in action.
It’s true that not all of us can manage to get to see the original records in the archives, but with online catalogues it makes it possible to draw up a list that you might want to look at if/when you’re lucky enough to be on site. If it’s a very specific item, you may just be able to order it directly, for a fee (still cheaper than airfare+accommodation).
I’ve already mentioned the AWM collections search but also have a look at what NAA has available through this link. Of course Ancestry and Findmypast also have overseas service information which you may want to explore.
I hope this post has provided some strategies for building up your relative’s military service history to incorporate into your family story.