Imagine creating more than 400,000 individual files, nearly 1.5 million letters, and 170,000 telegrams and cables.
Such was the volume of work handled by the Base Records Office, the government institution set up soon after the outbreak of the First World War to keep track of the Australian Imperial Force heading overseas.
Every volunteer had a file with an attestation form (name, religion, next of kin, etc.) and details of his/her enlistment, embarkation, promotion and fate – injured, missing, deceased or discharged.
For those who had been injured or killed, the office also administered pensions and claims, discharges, personal effects, wills and burial arrangements.
And, there were the broader administrative matters – official correspondence, statistics, stores, and undeliverable mail.
The office was initially set up as a military apparatus but it quickly became the vital link between men on active service, the authorities, and relatives back home.
Apart from dealing with thousands of letters every day, it handled public inquiries from throughout Australia, often being the bearer of bad news.
While many families will never know the fate of their loved ones – the Defence Minister, Senator George Pearce, praised the office for delivering the news ‘with prompt and sympathetic attention’.
Base Records was initially headquartered in Melbourne, in Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Road, under the command of Major James Lean and just two clerks.
It covered the destinies of 360,000 men, under circumstances of the most difficult character … It does not receive much public attention … but its records will need to be preserved. – The Newcastle Herald
The team had little understanding of the scale and complexity of the workload that lay ahead, the difficulties involved, and the security and sensitivity required.
Within a year, as the war effort escalated, the office had relocated to new premises and had a staff of 55, including one woman.
Another move followed in 1917 to accommodate 300 staff, including 133 women, and supplementary offices were set up in Cairo and then London.
Historian Peter Stanley writes in The Lost Boys of Anzac (2014) that Base Records quickly became Australia’s largest records organisation at the time, the ratio being one staffer to every thousand files – a ‘staggering achievement’.
Base Records ran in shifts from 9am to 8.30pm and could work around the clock, on call for the long casualty lists that came via telegram from London.
Its task was enormous: apart from meticulous record-keeping, clerks deciphered telegrams, pieced together fragments of information, and issued information to the public.
The Newcastle Herald reported: “It covered the destinies of 360,000 men, under circumstances of the most difficult character … It does not receive much public attention … but its records will need to be preserved.”
The files were transferred to the Australian War Memorial and the office itself followed in 1938.