‘Just Ask’

For many Australians, Anzac Day is a time of reflection and commemoration, as we remember all those who have served our nation.

8 April 2021

It is also a time to acknowledge their service and sacrifice, and recognise their bravery.

More than two million Australians have proudly served our nation since Federation and, tragically, more than 102,000 Australians have died in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

Anzac Day often prompts people to start wondering about the experiences of their family members. Learning about their service and sharing their story is one way we can commemorate our service personnel. All you need to do is ‘Just Ask’.

We saw this last year, when the coronavirus pandemic meant many of us had to look at new ways to commemorate. For some it meant looking in to their family’s military history. 

Finding out more about your family’s military history is relatively simple – you don’t need to be an expert or spend hours researching. A simple first step is to have a look at the Anzac Portal’s Researching Australians at war page. You can also go to the Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia websites and search using your relative’s name. Many visitors are amazed at how much they can find. You might discover a fascinating story about your family’s service history. 

Give your relatives or friends a call and find out if they know of an ancestor or relative who is one of the two million Australians who have served. In most cases, it will help to know your ancestor’s name, when and where they were born, and their parents’ or grandparents’ details. 

You can also use family history websites such as Ancestry.com.au, which will be offering free access to their service records from 21 to 26 April 2020. Family history websites have catalogued archives from all over the world, such as: certificates for births, deaths and marriages, electoral rolls, census data, immigration information and military service records.

There are also some other remarkable online resources which you can use to find more information about your ancestor’s service history. Military service records in Australia are generally held by the National Archives of Australia, and more recent files are retained by the Department of Defence. You can also search for information using DVA’s Nominal Roll or the Australian War Memorial’s search for a person tool.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also has casualty and cemetery databases, which provide the details and commemoration location of every casualty from the First and Second World Wars that the Commission is responsible for.

Use the Australian War Memorial’s search tool might provide photographs or diaries from their unit. 

The National Library of Australia is another useful resource. On their platform, Trove, you can find historical newspapers (including local ones), books, photographs, maps and archives. You can also 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.

Finally, don’t forget to share what you have found, because their story is your story. You can do this through posting on Facebook or joining the global conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag: #AnzacDay. 

If you come across a particularly good story, you might want to contact DVA’s newspaper Vetaffairs (vetaffairs [at] dva.gov.au).

Infographic summarising the various steps discussed in the article

For more tips, see our story: Researching Australian military history: Online research ‘gems’