Monday 18 April 2011 by Sue Jamesion. 4 comments
News, Personal Stories, Family history, Collection, First World War, Private Records, Commemoration, WWI Centenary

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 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.


Eunice Curran

My mother was adopted and my local newspaper The Area News are doing a story on my mother's natural father which we only found and discovered through the Australian War Memorial website and the National Archives. Mum died in 2007 and 2008 was when access to their records became available. There are no photographs anywhere of him but I shared with The Area News that I believe the painting by Geoffrey Mainwaring ART24384 is our grandfather. When the journalist and photographer arrived to complete my grandfather's story (not actually completed still searching) and they seen the painting on your website of ART24384 they gasped as the likeness as I am also aged 50, which is close to the age my grandfather was when this painting was made by Geoffrey Mainwaring. If you want to understand what I am writing please visit my website (enclosed) as story is too long. My grandfather was a army cook in WWII transferred from Depot Watchmen. Cheers.

christine shelley

Dear Sue I was wondering if it is possible for you to know whether there are any references to my great uncle, Cronelius Leo Mulligan (Service Number 1580) in the Private Records or Photos. He was a private in the 22nd Battalion from 1915 to October 4,1917, when he was killed in Belgium. I have searched the Collection without success. I am familiar with his Service Record, but I would like to find out more about him. Thanking you Christine Shelley

annette doyle

I have been researching my husband's uncle, 1449 John Drummond Johnston for quite a few years. He was in the 3rd Division, 9th Brigade, 35th battalion, B Company and was killed at Messines 18th July 1917. The family had one photo of him . Are there any photos of men from the 9th brigade, especially the 35th....anything that will help us understand what the men from Newcastle experienced. Even photos or maps of the actual journey from home to the front would be great. Thankyou, Annette Doyle

Sue Jamesion

Hi Annette - have you looked at this book? It should be availalble through your local public library - if not actually held there, the staff could get it for you through an inter-library loan. AUTHOR: Mayer, Roy Sinclair.; TITLE: Newcastle's own : 35th Battalion, 9th Brigade, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Force (1st A.I.F.) Unfortunately I have not come across any mention of 1449 Corporal Johnston in my readings of Private Records held at the AWM. However, there are quite a few collections held here, created by other members of 35 Battalion (i.e. letters and diaries) which you might find useful, plus a large number of photographs related to 35 Battalion, AIF. I am sending you an email with much more information which I hope will be helpful. Cheers, Sue Jamesion