Guest post from Anne-Marie Conde, National Archives of Australia WW1 Curator
World War I service records (1914–1920) are a magnificent resource for family historians and anyone interested in war and its enduring impact on Australian society.
These records are held by the National Archives of Australia and now on Ancestry – click here to start searching today. In the collection you will find the records of Australian men and women who served in the first Australian Imperial Force (AIF). A Base Records Office was established in Melbourne in October 1914 to coordinate the recordkeeping for all AIF service personnel. It had links to records offices in London and Cairo for the duration of the war.
Service records consist of a collection of documents created by the AIF about each person who enlisted. While they were not intended to be a day-by-day account of a serviceperson’s career, they do contain a fascinating wealth of detail. You can follow a person’s journey from their enlistment to their assigned unit, departure from Australia and the major places in which they served, through to their return to Australia or, perhaps, their death.
Family historians will find the ‘attestation paper’ particularly useful. Usually found at the beginning of the file, it was a form filled out by each person who enlisted in the AIF. By signing it, they ‘attested’ to the truth and accuracy of the information they gave.
For instance, James Holmes Fleming enlisted in July 1915. Here is the first page of his attestation paper:
James had to answer 15 questions about himself, including his name, age, place of birth, occupation (‘trade or calling’) and whether he had had any prior military service. James also had to name his next-of-kin.
This was the person who would receive notification of his injury or death. James nominated his father, Mr George Fleming of Elphinstone, Victoria, as his next-of-kin. Researchers may find information such as this invaluable in linking different people from the same family. The enlistee’s address and the address of their next-of-kin are important clues for researchers seeking to follow the fortunes of a particular family.
The attestation paper established aspects of the person’s physical appearance – their height, weight, complexion, eye colour and so on – and whether they met the standards of physical fitness required for military service. The form may have been filled out by the enlistee or sometimes the recruiting officer would take down the answers, but the enlistee had to sign his or her name twice. Here you can be certain that you are seeing the handwriting of your relative.
Most soldiers were issued with a service number, also known as a regimental number. James Fleming’s was 3107.
However, researchers need to be aware of some of the trips and traps with service numbers. Firstly, officers and nurses were not issued with service numbers on enlistment, so some people never had them. Secondly, service numbers are not unique to one person. Each unit in the AIF allocated numbers from 1 upwards, meaning that many people could have the same number over the five years of the war. And finally, for various reasons a person could be issued with more than one number. So, while service numbers are useful, they are not a definitive way of establishing a person’s identity.
After the attestation paper, the amount of information contained on a service record varies greatly but most contain a Casualty – Active Service form (‘Form B103’). This record can be difficult to read, as you can see from the first page of James Fleming’s B103:
But with a bit of patience, you can learn about a person’s movements, promotions, demotions, illnesses and wounds, and periods of leave.
Sometimes – but not always – you will find letters from family members anxious about the whereabouts of their loved one, or enquiring about medal entitlements or the return of a soldier’s effects after he has died. Here again you can find names and addresses and, perhaps, gain a personal insight into their lives.
Finally, the last page of a service record will usually contain a record of the campaign medals to which a serviceman or woman was entitled. To make things easy for the staff keeping the records, a stamp was made in the shape of each of the major medals – the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. The person’s file would be stamped as each medal was issued. ‘NE’ indicated that a person was ‘not eligible’. For instance, although James Fleming enlisted in 1915, he did not leave Australia for active service until early 1916, so he was not eligible for the 1914/15 Star.
He was severely wounded late in 1918, but he made it home to his family in May 1919.
This is where his file ends – details of post-war life are generally not on a service record, although sometimes there may be correspondence even up to the 1960s, or later, concerning details of someone’s service. James’ wounds caused him ongoing health problems and he died in 1930, aged 47.
You can also search other collections that the National Archives of Australia have shared with the world via Ancestry. Search the Fremantle Passenger Lists, 1897-1963 – click here! This is a collection of passenger records of arrivals at Fremantle, Perth Airport, and other Western Australia ports. The lists, which are arranged chronologically, recorded passengers arriving from other Australian states and overseas and can include names of passengers passing through those ports en route to other ports within and ports outside Australia.