Written records, 1914-18 War

Accession Number AWM25
Collection type Official Record
Object type Official Record
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Item copyright: Copyright expired - public domain

Public Domain Mark This item is in the Public Domain

Copying Provisions Copy provided for personal non-commercial use, permission from copyright holder must be sought for commercial use

It was not until the beginning of 1917 that any steps towards the collection of the historical records of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were taken. From the beginning of the war Australian units had been required to keep unit war diaries. However the original copy (and usually the most detailed copy) was forwarded to the British War Office (BWO) and copies retained by units were often incomplete. Correspondence no longer required by units was usually sent to records offices in Egypt and France, retained by officers or other individuals within a unit, souvenired or destroyed.

During a visit to the Canadian War Records Section at the beginning of 1917 C. E. W. Bean (the official war correspondent) and others discovered that the BWO had allowed the Canadians to keep the original diaries of Canadian units providing a duplicate set was provided for the use of the British government. A similar request was made by the Australian government and approved on the condition that a section was established to collect and copy the diaries.

As a result the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) was established in May 1917 as part of the AIF. Initially the section was responsible for the collection, preservation and classification of all official documents relating to the AIF. This was later expanded to include photographs, trench and regimental magazines, relics, war trophies, sketches and personal memoirs.

On its inception the prime responsibility of the AWRS was the collection of the war diaries. An examination of the war diaries found that many documents of historical interest that should have been appended to the diaries had been omitted. As a result, the documentary records of units of the AIF were not considered to be adequate for the needs of historians and other investigators.

To supplement the information in the diaries it was decided to obtain, classify and file the correspondence and orders which were held by formations and units in the field, by Australian Section, 3rd Echelon General Headquarters, by Headquarters and Depots in the United Kingdom, by Administrative Headquarters, London and by Headquarters and units in Palestine and Egypt.

AIF Order 758 issued on 13th July 1917 instructed units to despatch all obsolete correspondence, orders and other documents to the AWRS for safekeeping instead of to the Australian Section, 3rd Echelon where they had been previously sent. This resulted in 700 parcels, measuring about 180 cubic feet of documents being held in the Section at 31st July 1918. In June 1918 instructions were issued to Australian Section, 3rd Echelon to forward all documents held on behalf of units to the AWRS. This resulted in another 82 cases and 1,000 parcels of records being received by the end of August 1918.

While these papers were being received by the AWRS a system of registration, classification, indexing and filing was being developed to control them. The final scheme developed by Lieutenant Pretty, the officer in charge of the Classification Sub-section was approved in September 1918. Work commenced soon after this date on the classification of the records.

Early in 1919 the AWRS was instructed to wind up its activities by the end of August. Its records were shipped back to the Department of Defence in Melbourne in October 1919. Custody of them was transferred to the Australian War Memorial in 1920.

The war diaries and classified files were among the many records used by C. E. W. Bean (now the official historian) for the compilation of the official histories in the 1920s and 1930s. Bean¿s plan for compiling the official history series called for the war to be treated chronologically. While the existing arrangement of the war diaries fitted this arrangement, the arrangement of the subject classified files did not. After much negotiation over the arrangement of the records in the early 1920s a new set of files known as ¿Operational Files¿ was created (AWM26). This series, which is arranged chronologically, was compiled from spare copies of war diaries, war diary précis and relevant papers extracted from the subject classified files. Work on this new series began in 1923 and was still being carried out in 1935. The final completion date of this project is unknown.

The remaining subject-classified files were now incomplete and disorganised. Due to a lack of staff resources to reorganise the records they remained in this state until 1966 when work began on processing them into a simplified two-numbered classification system. This project was finished in 1972.

The series became known as AWM25 in the mid 1980s when the Memorial adopted its new numbering system for Official Records.

Until August 1993, miscellaneous official records relating to the 1914-18 War from both private and official sources were added to AWM 25. Instead of continuing this practice, the series was closed on 5 August 1993 and a new series, AWM 255, Written records, 1914-18 War, second series was started. Items processed into AWM 255 are not subject-classified, and are numbered with a running single number.


Series AWM 25 contains the residue of records that remained after material for the official historian, C. E. W. Bean was removed from it (later to form AWM26). AWM25 contains a wide range of operational material and reports, including copies of messages, general staff circulars and memoranda, procedures, administrative instructions, intelligence summaries, routine and standing orders, and unit histories.

System of arrangement and control:

The original scheme devised by Lieutenant Pretty in 1918 provided for records to be subject classified using a three-number system where the first number represented the main subject, the second number a sub-division of the main subject, and the third number the sequential number of each file registered. The classification numbers were preceded by a letter as follows: A for administration matters, B for operations, C for General Staff (other than operations), D for Quartermaster and finance matters and E for Medical and miscellaneous.

The bulk of the papers registered into this system can be identified by a distinctive diamond shaped stamp with the words ¿Australian War Records Classification Sub-section¿ inside the border of the stamp with the classification number in the centre of the stamp.

The two-number system now used was based on the original AWRS scheme, but classified by main subject only and the alphabetical prefix was omitted. File titles were recorded on file covers, and classification numbers and cross-reference entries were recorded inside a square red stamp in the top right hand corner of each file.