"Any little news I can get"
In the Research Centre, we receive a lot of enquiries from people who want to know how and where their relatives died in the First World War. Finding out this information can be a difficult task. Quite often families know no more than that their relative died on a particular date in a particular country, and they'd like to know if we can help them narrow that down.
With the advent of the Internet and the progress of digitisation programs at the Memorial and the National Archives of Australia, more and more material relating to the First World War is becoming available online. First World War service records, an increasing number of unit war diaries, and the Official History edited by Charles Bean are now available to anyone with an Internet connection.
With such a variety of sources, it can be hard to know quite where to start. Say, for example, that we wanted to find out about the death of Private Clifford Davies Williams, who died on 1 October, 1917. What would our first step be?
The Memorial's Roll of Honour provides a good starting point. It typically gives information about where an individual was from, when they were killed, what unit they served with, and where they are buried or commemorated. It also shows where the individual is commemorated on the Memorial's physical Roll of Honour, for those who wish to visit the Memorial to pay their respects.
The Roll of Honour also tells us that Private Williams was in the 23rd Battalion at the time of his death. The Memorial holds war diaries for First World War units in the series AWM4. These diaries were kept daily, and they record a unit's movements, what fighting it was involved in, where it was and what activities it was engaged in.
The Memorial is currently in the process of digitising the AWM4 collection. The diaries for infantry battalions, including the 23rd Battalion, are already available online. The diary for the 23rd Battalion in October 1917 provides us with many pieces of the puzzle of what happened the day that Private Williams died.
The entry for 1 October states:
Battalion ... went forward to the front line morning at 4 pm via No. 2 mule track from YPRES. B + A Coys [Companies] relieved two Coys of the 46th BN [Battalion] in front and support lines respectively on the right, and C + D Coys relieving two Coys of the 33rd BN in front + support lines respectively on the left. Relief completed by midnight .... Our section of front line runs W of ZONNEBEKE LAKE .... Casualties Officers Nil. OR's 28.
The Memorial's Roll of Honour shows 7 men of the 23rd Battalion who died on that day. Private Williams was one of them.
These records have told us where the battalion was and what it was doing. It was at Zonnebeke, about 10km west of Ypres in Belgium. It was relieving the 46th and 33rd Battalions on the front lines. To find out more about what was happening from a strategic and tactical perspective, the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 is an excellent source. On October 1st, Australian forces had recently taken part in the Battle of Polygon Wood, and were preparing for the next offensive in the campaign, which would be launched on October 4th. It would become known as the Battle of Broodseinde Ridge.
What none of this has told us, however, is precisely what happened to Private Williams. Finding this out can be a difficult task. But there is one further source which we can consult. From October, 1915, the Australian Red Cross operated the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. This Bureau investigated the fate of Australian service personnel who had been listed as wounded or missing. The Memorial holds a collection of material relating to the Bureau in our collection 1DRL/0428.
This collection includes notes on over 30,000 investigations of wounded and missing soldiers. The Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files have been digitised and are available on our website. The most complete files include eyewitness accounts of what happened, reports by the Red Cross searchers, and correspondence relating to the investigation.
Private Williams' file contains a letter from a friend of his, Gunner J. G. Morris of the 4th Battery, Australian Field Artillery. Gunner Morris wrote:
I thought that you might be able to find out different particulars concerning a friend of mine for his people .... If you could ascertain as to how or where he was wounded, if he died in hospital and where his grave is, I would be very much obliged.
One of the witness statements collected by the Red Cross was given by Private J. R. Stuber of B Company, 23rd Battalion. Private Stuber described how Williams died:
Williams was in an outpost when a shell buried him and he was also badly injured in the stomach. He was dug out but he was unconscious. Priest was one of the men detailed to carry Williams on a stretcher to the D/S [Dressing Station]. Williams died on the way.
We now have a fairly clear picture of when, where, and how Private Williams, a young clerk from Victoria, met his end in Flanders. Further details of what happened afterwards, including correspondence with Private Williams' family and the record of his inclusion on the Menin Gate, are included in his personal service record.
As with much First World War biographical research, discovering the story of Private Williams has been a process of piecing together information from a variety of sources. The Red Cross files are particularly valuable. Gunner Morris, too, appreciated the hard work of the Red Cross. A little knowledge went a long way:
Thank you very much for the information you were able to give me concerning ... C. D. Williams 23 Bttn. I am only too pleased to receive any little news I can get of him, as his people have had no news whatsoever.
For more information about how to research individual service history, please see our information sheet.