WWI letters & diaries at the Memorial.
With the Centenary of the Great War of 1914-1918 only a few years away, staff in the Research Centre at the Australian War Memorial are busily working on a variety of special projects aimed at supporting the Australian community's commemoration of this momentous occasion.
One such project involves the re-cataloguing and in-depth indexing of the Memorial's remarkable Private Records collection from WWI.
The AWM holds over 5,000 personal records from the First World War, mainly letters and diaries written by Australian men and women on active service. While earlier cataloguing for these personal records provided an index of such things as the unit with which the collection's maker served (e.g. 8th Light Horse Regiment), and the places in which he served (e.g. Gallipoli), the new standard of Private Records cataloguing involves far more detailed description. Many more subject headings (like 'mud', 'camels', 'prisoners of war' and so on) have been added to the online catalogue record of individual collections, as well as biographical information about the collection's 'maker' - information previously only available on a paper file. To get an idea of what I mean, take a peek at 2DRL/0481 - (papers of Lt John Alexander Raws & Lt Robert Goldthorpe Raws, both of the 23rd Battalion, AIF.)
As a family historian myself, I feel the most exciting aspect of this project is identifying individuals named in letters and diaries. I record the name of every person mentioned in each collection, even if the reference is only very brief. This ensures these names are made ‘searchable’ on the Memorial’s online catalogue.
It’s wonderful what these references can bring to light. Take for example the case of 1120 Private Leonard Arthur Thomas Beggs of the 22nd Battalion...from his official war service record, he would appear to have been less than a model soldier – but just look what his commanding officer had to say about him in a letter home from Gallipoli.
“[N]ot forgetting Beggs, a terrier of a chap, will do anything. Put up entanglements under fire, work...on sandbags at night, scout round for provisions for us at the beach, my word he’s the one to find the illicit canteens...He’s a real scout and will do anything to oblige us”. –
1DRL/0554 (papers of Captain Louis Carl Roth, MC, 2 Pioneer Battalion & formerly of 22 Infantry Battalion, AIF)
To search for a name in Private Records, go to “Collection” (not “People”) on our home page. If you find a name you’re interested in, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll tell you the exact page/pages you need – it could be just one page from a collection of 200 letters. These records can be made available to you in the Memorial's Reading Room or, (if there are no copyright restrictions) you might like to order a photocopy.
With the WWI centenary fast approaching, I'm delighted to see the burgeoning of private commemoration sites online, particularly on social networking sites like Facebook. ™ Ordinary Australians are increasingly taking an interest in their own family’s connection with our military history, helped along, I have no doubt, by the excellent work done by the National Archive of Australia in digitising almost all of the WWI service records, and making them freely available online. The NAA also has the excellent Mapping Our Anzacs interactive project up and running.
I'm confident that this in-depth cataloguing of WWI private records held here at AWM will be a great help to Australian families in their quest to learn more about their own Great War heroes, as well as a boon to military historians, researchers and museum curators in the lead up to 2014.