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Tracing your First World War ancestors

A troop ship about to depart from the dock, with streamers extended between soldiers and their families and friends
The Australian transport vessel HMAT Medic prepares to leave the wharf at Port Melbourne. (AWM PB0578)


Posted on 17 November 2017

Many Australians have an ancestor who fought and died on the Western Front. After all, 295,000 Australians served in this part of Europe and 46,000 died.

The Australian Imperial Force moved to France from Egypt in March 1916 and was tasked with halting the Germans’ advance towards Paris and the coastal towns, putting an end to the Great War.

Great acts of courage, mateship and sacrifice prevailed despite the horrific circumstances, and many of these stories are coming to light, thanks to historians and keen family history researchers.

Increasingly, Australians are eager to know more about their forebears and trace their footsteps across former battlefields, drawing on publicity surrounding the centenary commemorations and easy access to digital records.

A good starting point is the Australian War Memorial which has millions of items, accessed with a powerful search engine and helpful guides at the Memorial’s Research Centre.

It is as simple as entering the name of the person you’re researching, refining the results (narrowing them to a particular conflict), and then browsing the results. Having his/her service number is very useful.

From here, you can view personal service records which are held by the National Archives of Australia.

These provide basic events and dates, while unit histories can fill in some of the details.

You can supplement this research with published unit histories and newspaper reports, available at the National Library of Australia or via Trove.

The genealogy website, Ancestry, also has a tab where you can search for First World War ancestors.

There are detailed records on soldiers’ enlistments and embarkations, where they served and fought, and much more.

Service dossiers include documents for men and women in the AIF, the Australian Flying Corps, and the Australian Army Nursing Service.

There are enlistment papers, documents describing illnesses or injuries, promotions, burial details, and photographs including portraits and headstones.

You can also browse diaries that document operations and personal experiences.

If you want to find out more about a person who died in action, you can trace his or her grave through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which lists the names and places of commemoration for 1.7 million men and women.

By following this path the story of your military ancestor will soon emerge, rich with detail.

A studio portrait of two soldiers, one seated and the other standing, both in uniform
Private John William Byron (standing) with his brother, Alf
Attestation paper for South Australian man John William Byron. Family history research discovered that he named his sheep property in New South Wales after HMAT Bakara, the ship that returned him to Australia.

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