Thursday 12 September 2013 by Emily Witt. 2 comments

If not for the work of the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) during the First World War, the Australian Army’s access to fresh water in the desert would have been very limited, and they would have struggled to cross any body of water they came across. Amongst other things, the Engineers were in charge of designing and building well systems, as well as both fixed and swing bridges to assist the Australian armed forces in their travel throughout the Middle East.

The RAE is a unit whose records I had had little to do with until recently and as such I was unaware of just how much of a contribution they made to the Australian war effort. However, when I began working on the narrative describing the work of the RAE in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, I realised just how vital their work was. The Narrative and its appendices (AWM224 MSS637 through to AWM224 MSS637Z) provide a detailed account of the work that the RAE performed in the Middle East during the First World War. This series of records contains not only text descriptions, but also maps, diagrams, blueprints and photographs.

Unfortunately, up until recently, it was very hard for anyone to tell what the appendices contained, as they were just crammed into boxes and there was little description of their contents in the item records on RecordSearch (the National Archives database where Official Records held at the AWM are catalogued; click the link to search for these and many other Official Records held by the AWM).

Making a well frame - AWM224 MSS637GMaking a well frame - AWM224 MSS637G

A few months ago, I took on the project of listing the appendices in detail, with the hope of making the RAE records more navigable for researchers. In addition to the items referred to in the narrative itself, I discovered a large amount of supplementary material that did not appear to have been out of its box in a long time. There were maps of several areas of the Middle East where the AIF saw action, as well as blueprints and arrangement drawings for wells, bridges, and even an improved tripod for the Lewis Machine Gun. Photographs of these after they were built were also included in several instances.

Three spreadsheets later, I had listed those appendix items that appear in the narrative in both numerical order and the order in which they are mentioned in the text, and had also listed separately the items not mentioned in the narrative itself. Where possible, the listings have been included in item notes on the RecordSearch pages so that clients can see at first glance what each of the appendices contain and decide whether to request them. There is also a copy of these listings in the box with the narrative for easy reference.

Hopefully now, it will be much clearer to researchers and other clients at the AWM what is contained within the Narrative of the Royal Australian Engineers in Egypt, Syria and Palestine in the First World War and the related material, and others will be able to gain the same appreciation for this unit as I have done. the well frame - AWM224 MSS637G


Andrew Stainer

I realise this is a bit of topic, but are there any plans to digitalise WW2 unit diaries other than infantry ? As in here /collection/records/awm52/ My grandfather was with the engineers in WW2 and it would be great to read what his unit did on a daily basis.

Emily Witt says:

Hi Andrew, my apologies for the delayed response. To answer your question, the digitisation programme for Second World War unit diaries has been delayed by other preservation priorities including the digitisation of private records for the Centenary of the First World War. Unfortunately we do not have a current time frame for further digitisation of this series. If you are in Canberra, the physical diaries are available to be viewed in our Research Centre, or if you wish to request a cost estimate for photocopying, you can complete the form here: /request/forms. You will need the reference number for the diary, which you can find by searching using the name of the unit as your search term here: One of the items should be from series AWM52; this will be the unit diary. I hope this is of assistance to you.