Beyond the Internet Week 14: War diaries, shipping and photographs


This is Week 14 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week’s topic is War Diaries, shipping and photos.  I’d love it if you wanted to join in with your thoughts on this topic, especially if you live overseas and have a different set of records to tell us about. If possible please provide a link to your post on this page.

This week’s topic is going to be a bit of “dollar each way” because I realise that many of these records are now available online. And yes, it beats having to schedule a trip to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, with all the associated expense, to read the documents themselves..but not always as much fun. Still and all, I suspect war diaries are not something that many people use in their family history, so I’m sitting on the virtual fence with this one.

War diaries

While war diaries can be succinct and uninformative on the day of the battle, the attached operations orders can be immensely useful to really add depth to your family history. This is some of the information I’ve found in them, taken from AWM 4, 23/66/1-37 for the 49th Battalion and AWM 4 15/6/1-18 ABGROC:

  • The men of the 40th walking 40 miles to Serapeum on the Suez Canal carrying full kits, packs and ammunition but limited water, in 110C heat.
  • The men of the 49th  referring to their colour patch as the “soccer ball” because they were moved so often.
  • Arrival of additional troops in the field may not mention names but when put with your family member’s service records you can see whether it was a big intake or only a few men.
  • Men going on leave may be mentioned.
  • Men injured or killed, usually only deaths of officers, otherwise numbers only.
  • Summaries of the battle.
  • Descriptions of the clothes issued to the men (sheepskin jackets, leather waistcoats, thigh-high gumboots).
  • The dispersal of companies across the battle field together with their list of responsibilities.
  • The Railway Operating Division’s nickname of “Right Out of Danger”. I’ve talked about their responsibilities here.
  • How the men spent Christmas, received special food treats, and their behind-the-lines activities.
  • Little asides about how the men dealt with being required to sleep on the ground under canvas while there were empty huts nearby.

If you’ve not yet used the war diaries of the AWM either virtually or in situ, I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s plenty there that will reveal the story of your family member’s service.

Of course this refers to the official war diaries for each unit, perhaps your ancestor left a personal diary or perhaps one of his fellow servicemen did. Just imagine what you might learn from those.

War transportation records

Another rich source is the files on the ship transportation of the men to/from foreign service. The men were probably well enough informed about the world (after all in those days schooling focused on the Empire’s history, not Australia’s) but it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have been amazed by the sights they saw or the opportunity to go dancing or for picnics and motor trips in Capetown. On the way overseas the CO for the men on the Port Sydney[i] commended them for their excellent behaviour while on two days leave in Colombo. On the voyage over they also learned additional military skills but they also had a “fine brass band”, an orchestra and several concert parties. My grandfather returned to Australia on the Karmala[ii] in 1919 and the files report they had an orchestra, daily sports, chess, bridge and drafts competitions as well as a daily newspaper, the Karmala Kuts.

Photographs

J06286 AWM out of copyright. Crossing the line on board Port Sydney November 1917.

This is another fence-sitter as many of these have been digitised, however they’re probably worth mentioning here. Things to look for: names of people, ships to/from field, battle areas.

I was lucky that there was an amateur photographer on board the Port Sydney with my grandfather so I have photos of the Crossing the Line[iii] ceremony on that voyage. There are also quite a lot of my husband’s great-uncle. The photos of Milne Bay or Norieul are certainly much better now in digital form than the old thermal printed ones I got back years ago!

I hope I’ve managed to convince you that there’s lots out there which can enrich your family’s wartime stories, whether in digital or non-digital form.


[i] AWM 7, Port Sydney [5]. This now appears to be item 528138.  Not yet digitised.

[ii] AWM 31, Karmala 306. This now appears to be item 514921. Not yet digitised.

[iii] AWM negative J06286

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4 thoughts on “Beyond the Internet Week 14: War diaries, shipping and photographs

  1. I’ve read my great uncle’s war diary from WW1. Very illuminating. He mentioned one guy who was taken off to the infirmary for apparent sunstroke. Having found the man’s war record, I found that he actually went insane. So sad.

    My great uncle was killed in the war but he posted his diary back to his mother earlier as they were told they weren’t allowed to keep a diary. I don’t know if the diary or the news of his death made it back first. Whichever, I think his mother would have found it a heart-wrenching read.

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    • Thanks so much for sharing this Prue. I’m sure it was devastating for his mother to read, but also a treasure to hold something he’d written. Perhaps, too, it helped her understand more about what had gone on than most relatives knew from the papers. How terribly sad about the man who went insane. Poor thing. I don’t know how any of them stood the noise, mud, loss of friends, uncertainty and fear. After the Battle of Fromelles, my husband’s great uncle, then a Lt Colonel, had a breakdown over the loss of so many of his “poor boys”, and he was a career soldier who’d fought at Gallipoli and the Boer War. Interestingly though, this appears not to have been held against him, as he went on to senior ranks.

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  2. Just as an aside, here in the states, the Library of Congress has a project by which any veteran can submit information about their service time — be it video, audio recording or hard copy with pictures. When I go down to see my aunties, I am going to ask my uncle if he would like me to submit an entry for him.

    Also, folks, have volunteered to help veterans submit their memories to this project. I really like the idea of this project alot.

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    • These are great ideas, Joan. I think most countries are realising how much personal history is tied up in these world events. I hope your uncle agrees…look forward to knowing the outcome. Good too, that volunteers can help the vets so they aren’t overwhelmed by the process, especially the older ones, but really for any it stirs up emotions.

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