Soldiers taking cover in a trench in France during World War I. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H83.103/49.
Soldiers taking cover in a trench in France during World War I. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H83.103/49.

Make 2020 the year you discover your Anzac ancestor. Cassie Mercer offers some tips and tricks on how to start.

Have you always wanted to discover more about your Anzac ancestor? Perhaps you’ve only heard rumours of a family link with a soldier and would like to investigate if the tales are true. Maybe you have a medal, or a hastily scribbled postcard sent from the front that is now a cherished family heirloom. No matter the reason, now is a perfect time, as we hunker down in our homes and as Anzac Day approaches, to spend some time researching your family. Here’s what you need to know if you’re starting out.

What are the military Service Records?

The first place to start looking for details of your military ancestor is the Australian WWI Service Records, 1914-1920 or the New Zealand World War I Service Records.

Service records generally include ‘attestation’ papers (the forms filled out on joining the military), which included details such as age, place of birth, physical description such as height, next of kin and marital status. These records are a great place to start learning more about your Anzac. You’ll find details of the unit in which they were assigned, where they trained and when they departed Australia or New Zealand. Throughout the war these dossiers were updated with details of movements and transfers between units, promotions and details of injuries as well as copies of military correspondence between the Department of Defence and the soldier’s next-of-kin notifying of wounds or death, awards and medals. While details are usually kept very brief, they are a great resource to establish the whereabouts of your ancestor during the war – when they enlisted, where they fought, any injuries that occurred. Think of them as the foundation in which you can then build on your ancestor’s story with other records.

World War 1 victory parade in Melbourne, 1919. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H99.100/67.
World War 1 victory parade in Melbourne, 1919. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H99.100/67.

Read their war diaries

Thousands of men and women who were part of the war effort kept a diary detailing their experiences on and behind the front. They make for extraordinary reading – the reality of war and the fragility of life is documented on each and every page. Many diaries have no been digitised, such as the collections by the Australian War Memorial and State Library NSW. Even if your ancestor didn’t leave a diary, it’s worth looking for a diary written by someone in their unit or someone who performed similar duties to understand more about your ancestor’s wartime experience.

Research World War I as much as you can

Ancestry’s Australia WWI Military Book Collection encompasses a wide range of topics such as military campaigns in foreign countries, histories of military units, and other interesting topics. With more than 14,000 records in the collection and all of the books coming from Australia they will give great context to what your ancestor experienced.

Think outside the square

There are many other records available to family historians to look for their Anzac. Medal rolls and soldier portraits can be goldmines of information, for example. And if you are convinced that your ancestor served in World War I but you can’t find them in the Australian or New Zealand records, then they may well have joined under the colours of an Allied country – some 50,000 Australians did just that. Try searching the British military records, or those of other commonwealth countries such as Canada and South Africa. Ancestry has a wealth of UK military records, including service records, discharge papers, war diaries, rolls of honour, and war graves registers.

Luckily we are well served with military records in Australia and New Zealand, so don’t give up. Start with the service records and branch out from there. Good luck!


Cassie Mercer

Cassie Mercer founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s in Ireland, one was a highwayman and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.

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