Research Guide

Here's a rundown of how I undertake my research into Australian soldiers of the First World War, in case anyone else out there is keen to do the same. Every bit of this research can be undertaken from home, with just an internet connection to take you to all the historical documents you need.

1. Finding a name

Use these records to: Decide an individual to research; to see their unit/ company, their next of kin, their date of embarkation to war, and on embarkation rolls, their address, their next of kin, religious denomination, and a number of other pieces of information.

If you have a relative who served in the First World War, or you have a specific person you're already chasing, then you can skip the first step here. But for me, I'm choosing random people from history, and I find their names in a few different places.
a) Embarkation rolls- the lists of those who embarked on military transport ships to go away to war. You can search by name, or Browse By Unit, if you know which battalion you're looking for. My focus is mainly on the 11th Infantry Battalion.

b) Nominal rolls- the lists of those who served in the war and returned. If your soldier died in the war, odds are you won't find him here.

c) War memorials- lists of names are inscribed on the memorials, remembering those who fell during the wars. Virtually every town in Australia has them.
d) Discovering Anzacs- this website by the Australian government's National Archives lists names by town, and provides links to other information. It's a user-generated collection, and anyone can add information to it. I'm doing my bit by linking in the research I'm doing on individual soldiers. If you have family information or memorabilia from a WWI soldier, you can submit copies or pictures to the website to have it included.
Once you have a name, you can get started in investigating that person's story.

2. Finding the military records

Use these records to: Uncover the service history of your soldier. Everything else will revolve around this. Service records include full name, date and place of birth, next of kin, attestation papers (including medical exams which describe height, weight, colouring, distinctive features), and casualty record (a record of their war service, including dates of arrival, places of service, promotions, injuries, medical treatments, disciplinary actions, discharge from service, medals awarded, and much more).

These records will guide you in where else to look for the rest of the story.

The First AIF Project Database is a brilliant resource- it's a searchable transcription of the information from the embarkation rolls (plus a few other sources), and it can help narrow your focus if you only have a surname or limited details available. You can search by name or by address- sometimes it helps to put in the surname only, plus the state or town as the address. That allows you to narrow the field, but saves you from missing people who might have been a bit vague with their location on enlisting.

With few exceptions, the records of Australian soldiers who served in the First World War have been digitised and made publically available by the National Archives of Australia. You can find the search button on the main page- go to Name Search, input the surname of the person you seek, choose World War I as the category, and if the result returns a lot of hits, you can refine your search with additional information (like first and middle names). As an alternative, you can go to the Basic Search page and enter name details- this will pull up any additional files that may exist, such as repatriation and post-war medical and pension records, though it may require some scrolling through unrelated detail.

When you find the person you seek, next to their name is a little image of a page of text, and you can click that to view the digitised record. There are some exceptions that have not been digitised.

3. Back to the beginning

Use these records to: Dig deeper into where your soldier came from- who their parents, siblings, spouses and children were, where they lived, what they did- what the life they left behind was like.

From the war records, you can follow the trail of crumbs to understand the soldier's life. You'll find a date and place of birth, and details of the Next of Kin- sometimes a wife, sometimes parents, sometimes siblings or other relatives. Reading through the file will often provide you with more detail, as many files include letters to the War Department from relatives, or notes about changes in next of kin due to deaths in the family.

Some of the records you can access online to learn more about your soldier's life are:
a) Births, Deaths and Marriages historical records (here's the link for Western Australia- free to search, but you have to apply for more detailed information. It covers births to 1932, marriages to 1936, and deaths to 1971)
b) Census records from Australia and overseas (usually paid access, some have free trials)
c) Genealogical records through places like There's a subscription required for home use, but Ancestry is free to access at Western Australia's public libraries.
d) Post Office Directories, which list names and occupations, addresses of homes and businesses, or give names of people living at houses (remembering you already have the address of Next of Kin through the war records).

4. Filling in the details- from the Front

Use these records to: Learn more details of their individual experiences during the War, and put those experiences in the context of history to understand what part their service played in the War as a whole.

The Australian War Memorial holds a pretty amazing collection of material, much of which is accessible for free online. From the small details to the bigger picture, it's an excellent place to look for:
a) Photographs of your soldier and/ or his battalion- search by name, unit number, location, or any other detail and you may hit paydirt
b) The Unit diaries of the battalion in which your soldier served, which, once you have his casualty record (see step 2), allows you to see what action he was involved in during significant moments in his service- including when he was injured, or, in so many tragic cases, killed.
c) The Red Cross made inquiries into soldiers who were injured, killed, or listed as missing in action. You can search those files by name here.
There have been books written about a number of different battalions, and those can also be a great source of information. If you're researching Western Australia, two examples are Legs Eleven (11th Battalion, by Bedford) and The Blue and White Diamond (28th Battalion, by Browning). These are available at libraries, too.

In the tragic event of your soldier's death, another source to seek information about their final resting place is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

There's obviously also Wikipedia and the rest of the internet, where you can find information about the overall battles and the way they tied into major action in the War.

5. Home front and beyond

Use these records to: Learn more detail about individuals, their lives, and their families, particularly to understand the impact war had on the home front, and to see what the ultimate fate was of those who made it home.

One of the most exciting sources for Australian history on the internet is, in my humble opinion, the collection of digitised historic newspapers pulled together by the National Library of Australia at Trove. There are almost limitless uses for this source, and I've been able to do everything from read the morning papers my characters would have read from 1914 to 1917, to finding notices of births, deaths and marriages of those soldiers I'm researching, to finding photographs of soldiers, letters directly from them, and news of their lives after the war, and the lives of their families.

Check it out here- hundreds of newspapers from around Australia from the early 19th century through to the 1950s (copyright doesn't allow more recent issues to be digitised- yet! But year by year, more are added).

Search there for your soldier's name, and for the names of their family members. Add in where they lived, and any other details you might have. Zero in on dates that you've gained from other sources. You'll get an extremely detailed picture of the way people lived and thought by doing this- and you'll see the impact shattering families across Australia as the men fell throughout the war.

If your soldier returned from the war, and lived on in Australia, you can also check out the cemetery board records for their ultimate date of death and resting place. Sadly, this applies to all soldiers who returned from the war- our last surviving veteran passed away not long ago. The Metropolitan Cemeteries Board of WA records can be found here.