How to research your WWI digger: A Seven-Step Basic Guide
Step One: The Australian War Memorial (AWM) website’s ‘Search for a person’ tool is a good first port of call. It allows both a simple or advanced search depending on how much information you have at hand. If the information you have is sparse it allows you to go fishing by placing the surname only in the search engine. https://www.awm.gov.au/people/roll-search/all/?preferred_name=&service_number=&unit=&conflict=0&op=Search
Having identified your digger, from here you can follow links that will allow you to view his nominal and embarkation rolls (which provide his date of enlistment, his departure from Australia and the Transport he left on) as well as honours awarded and any Red Cross Files that might exist and usually do for soldiers who were killed or wounded and can contain gems such as letters from a soldier’s unit to relatives with details of the circumstances in which a soldier may have been wounded or killed.
Step Two: Having identified your digger, stick with the AWM site. Go to the collections tab and select private records and First World War from the Related Conflicts menu and search with your soldier’s name. https://www.awm.gov.au/search/all/?section%5B0%5D=collections&filter%5Btype%5D=Private+Record&filter%5Brelated_conflicts%5D=First+World+War%2C+1914-1918
If there are any diaries, journals and letters you might find them here. If there are none, it is worth recording the names of soldiers from the same battalion as their experiences can provide context for your soldier’s experiences but either way it will require a visit to Canberra.
Do the same with the photographic records. If there is no portrait of your digger, which is likely, he may appear in a group shot if you are lucky. You can also search for his Battalion/unit which will provide some specific context of the Battalion/unit’s life.
Step Three: Check the indexes of Official Australian Histories of the First World War. In Bean’s six volumes on Gallipoli, France and Belgium there are references to some 5-6,000 individual soldiers. If you are lucky enough to find a reference to your soldier it will place him at a specific moment in the history of the Australian Imperial Force.
Step Four: Go to the National Archives website and search for the service record of your digger. Most but not all are available online. Advanced and basic searches can be undertaken.
The soldier’s service record is the most comprehensive record available about your digger and contains the following:
The attestation paper which was completed on enlistment and gives details of next-of-kin, employment, marital status, age, place of birth and physical description.
The service and casualty form known as ‘Form B103’ which shows movements and transfers between units, promotions, when and how the soldier was injured and where treatment was received.
Military correspondence between the Department of Defence and the soldier’s next-of-kin which may include notification of wounds or death, occasional information about the soldier from others within his unit, notification of awards and medals, and correspondence from the family with questions about the whereabouts of the soldier.
Step Five: If your digger died in service or was listed as missing you can locate his grave or name on a memorial by searching his name at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead.aspx
Step Six: Having identified your digger’s unit it is possible that there is a unit history of that unit. Collections of these can be found in most major state libraries and the Australian War Memorial. They can also be purchased privately and some reprints are available through specialist military bookshops. These along with the official records provide detail of the military actions in which your digger might have been involved in. Victorian battalion unit histories have been digitalised by the State library and can be accessed via the link below.
Step Seven: Go to the TROVE search engine of the National Library of Australia’s website. This is a fantastic research tool that accesses newspapers throughout Australia. The letters of many soldiers were published in local and major newspapers as well as photographs of men who had become casualties. Search for your digger’s name and select all newspapers for his state within the appropriate date range for his service.
These seven steps allow you the ease of researching from your armchair at home. You will have to visit the AWM if diaries, letters or journals are held there. There are other WW1 collections at various state libraries which are worth checking out but for most the relevant records will be found in the collections mentioned.