Do you have a military ancestor in your family? Would you like to know more about their service to Australia? Retracing their footsteps might be easier than you think.
To help you on your way, we’ve compiled an easy route to finding out more.
Simply start by just asking a few questions in your family: Do I have a relative who served in the military? Where did they serve? What was his/her name? And what became of him/her?
Just asking these simple questions can lead you on a fascinating journey from the local library or RSL to the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Memorial.
Many Australians compile their family’s story and images in a booklet or online gallery. For others, the ultimate tribute is a journey of remembrance, literally retracing their ancestor’s footsteps through former battlefields overseas — the Western Front, Gallipoli, Kokoda, Malaysia or Vietnam.
At these locations, descendants walk the terrain, visit significant sites, piece together clues, and leave mementoes. They return to Australia with a deeper understanding of their family’s legacy, having connected with the past, and linked personal experiences with public stories.
Their story is your story — and it’s yours to discover and pass on. Just Ask.
Where to start?
Since the First World War, almost two-million Australians have worn the nation’s military uniforms with pride, so many of us have a military ancestor. Why not ask a relative or family friend about the possibility?
Pick their brains: Ask them where and when they were born, who were their parents and grandparents, and where their family’s stories come from. Take notes or use a recording device to preserve the story and then you can go back to it later. Maybe they have some old memorabilia, such as a letter, a souvenir or a certificate.
With all of these clues, you can begin your research online; even a basic search on Google can yield results. Sharing the story on social media can also help, whether it’s on your personal page or an online forum. You can encourage your friends and family to get involved too.
Family History Websites
Stories can change over time, so your next step after a family chat is proving the existence of a military relative by gathering documentary evidence. Once you have some basic clues, you can use family history websites such as Ancestry. There are others as well, such as My Heritage, Find My Past and Family Search.
To coincide with Just Ask and the centenary of the First World War Armistice, Ancestry is offering 100 hours’ free online access from 9–12 November 2018. (There will be free access to millions of records from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom from 12.01am (AEDT) on Friday 9 November until 4.01am (AEDT) on Tuesday 13 November 2018.)
Such websites have catalogued archives from throughout the world — certificates for births, deaths and marriages, electoral rolls, census data, immigration information, and military service records.
They also offer DNA tests which enables you to use your test results for an ‘ethnicity estimate’ of where your ancestors might have come from the in the past 1000 years. The real breakthrough in DNA though, bearing in mind privacy considerations, is that it matches participants with others who have taken a test.
Military service records in Australia are generally held by the National Archives of Australia — more recent files are retained by the Department of Defence. You’ll be surprised what you can find.
Australia has comparatively strong record-keeping practices and our holdings are well preserved. The best starting point at the National Archives is an attestation form which gives all the basic details for someone who enlisted. There might also be a medical record or a repatriation file from when they returned home. If they were injured or missing in action, look out for findings from a Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry. The National Archives is based in Canberra, but there are repositories in each state and territory and you can view digitised records online or pay a nominal fee to have them copied and mailed to you.
It might seem odd to be looking further afield at this point, but military graves were initially managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Now they are administered by the Office of Australian War Graves, part of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. So, look online at the Commission’s database and see if you can find a grave location and service number for your relative. By this stage, you might have hit a brick wall with your research, so it’s useful to revisit everything you’ve already gathered. It’s highly likely there’s some small detail you didn’t recognise before.
Learning more about where they served
Family history isn’t just about lineage — you need to be aware of historic happenings to fill gaps in your story. If you know a place where your relative served, key it into the database of the Australian War Memorial and see what comes up. There might be photographs or diaries from their unit. You also need to use your imagination: think about where your ancestor came from, why they signed up for the unit they joined, and what they might have been thinking and feeling as they set off for foreign shores.
Another remarkable resource for tracing your family history in Australia is the National Library of Australia which has a platform called Trove. Here you will find almost everything from historical newspapers (including local ones) to books, photographs, maps and archives. You can research broadly (e.g. a significant battle) or specifically (your relative’s name). Bear in mind, people weren’t necessarily known by their full name in the past, so it’s worth using their family name and town of origin or their unit name.
The Anzac Portal is a website designed to provide education and community awareness for the Anzac Centenary 2014-2018. It has a range of resources to support classroom teaching about Australia’s wartime history. There’s also information about commemorative events, research tips, a bibliography, and other websites that might be of use, including cultural institutions and community groups.
In real life
Historians say they need to get their boots dirty. At some point, it’s worth stepping away from the computer and sitting down with the materials you’ve gathered. If you know your relative lived in a certain place, you might consider travelling there and taking a look around. Piecing together a life can be easier than trying to recreate a single episode, such as a period of military service. If you visit the person’s place of origin, there might be a useful book in the local library, an honour board at the RSL, a war memorial in the centre of town, or a public place named after their unit. Maybe there’s already a community history project underway that you could tap into?
Still stumped? Some family histories can be very complex and challenging. Deciphering military code and antiquated handwriting can also be an art. Maybe yours is a job for the experts? If so, there are plenty of professionals who can help. You can locate them on family history websites, your local library or genealogy societies.
Look further afield
National Library of Scotland
The National Library of Scotland is renowned for its map collection, including military maps. Maps from the British War Office are zoom-able and they’re overlaid with modern GPS coordinates. This is very useful if you’re trying to piece together a person’s movements or if you’re planning your own journey.
The Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front spans most of the 200km stretch where Australians served during the First World War, from the Channel Coast of Belgium to Montbrehain in France. It informs and guides people of all ages, fitness and travel time. Visitors can view key locations, visit interpretive centres, and tour points of interest. The trail builds on the existing efforts of French and Belgian communities to commemorate Australian service, some of which date back to the 1920s.
The hub for Australians making a journey of remembrance to the former Western Front is the Sir John Monash Centre located alongside the Australian National Memorial (1938) at Villers-Bretonneux, 90 minutes north of Paris. This award-winning centre tells the story of more than 295,000 Australians who served on the Western Front and some 46,000 who gave their lives. It offers a high-tech experience based on a digital app. A visit to the Centre provides a broader context for the personal experiences of ordinary Australian men and women; it is a national story told in their words. The Centre is named after Sir John Monash, the Australian general who broke the impasse on the Western Front and led the Allies to victory, from the Battle of Hamel to Armistice.
Sharing your story
Writing history is a collaborative experience and it’s rewarding (and fun) to share your story with others. Maybe your family and friends have insights that you haven’t noticed yet, or perhaps other descendants have materials that can benefit your project. If you’ve got a story to share, why not email us at [email protected]