Neil Smith on tracing your military ancestors
Speaker(s): Lt Col Neil Smith
Date recorded: 25 Sep 2013
[A man in a grey suit and striped tie speaks into a microphone at a lectern branded State Library of Victoria]
Lt Col Neil C Smith: Sometime in the dark hours before dawn, the great convoy of ships slowed and stopped. All around the Aegean Sea was eerily still, like a mill pond. The men, excited, apprehensive, had slept on deck. They now peered out in the darkness at the ships closer in shore. There the first Australians were swarming down cargo nets into long boats to be towed to a beach at the place to be called Anzac Cove.
[Sepia photograph of ANZAC Cove, taken from above looking down a very steep hill to the water. The hill is covered with thick scrub. In the water are seven row boats. On top of the hill appears to be a soldier looking down onto the scene below. Men are wading through the water to the beach from one of the row boats. Onscreen text: Troops landing at ANZAC Cove 1915. A rare photograph taken by a Victorian man with the 2nd Infantry Brigade.]
Lt Col Smith: Above them, etched against the night sky, the craggy outline of the peninsular known as Gallipoli. It was Sunday the 25th of April 1915 and by the end of that first Anzac Day 98 years ago, someone would write ‘a more hellish Sunday one could not conceive’.
[Black and white photograph of Lieutenant Duncan Chapman with his company. On what appears to be a ship, 30 soldiers pose for a traditional group photograph. With onscreen text: The first to land at ANZAC Cove. Lieutenant Duncan Chapman (centre left). The first man to land of Gallipoli.]
Lt Col Smith: And by the time that the fighting ended eight months later, over 8000 Australians lay dead in the jumble of steep ridges and gullies above Anzac Cove and further south at Cape Helius. Thousands more were wounded.
[Sepia photograph looking down and across Victoria Gully, Gallipoli. A roads winds from left to right around the contours of the hill, which is covered in scrubby foliage and bare patches. A few men walk along the road. Onscreen text: Victoria Gully, Gallipoli about August 1915. Note white smoke from shell fire on centre high ground and troops moving along roads.]
Lt Col Smith: Many consider this campaign to be the genesis of the Anzac spirit and indeed the birthplace of our first Diggers. Of course the 25th of April is well established in Australia and New Zealand as Anzac Day. On that day many of us see it as almost a sacred duty to remember Gallipoli’s fallen and all Australians who’ve answered the call in times of war and conflict.
[Mustard- and grey-coloured drawing of a soldier. He stands on the edge of the waters of the Gulf of Saros as dark clouds gather behind him. His rifle is slung over one shoulder and his hands are cupped around his mouth as he shouts.]
Lt Col Smith: For many of us it is a time to remember especially our family and friends who have served. Perhaps times such as Anzac Day, Armistice Day, even Vietnam Veterans Day, prompt us to harden our resolve to better remember our military ancestors through research.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will now try to outline the wider history associated with our Anzac heritage and introduce you to some of the ordinary, sometimes elusive Australians who have played their part in forging our heritage. I will also touch on how best we can trace these men and women. It’s a tall order, let’s see how I fare.
We might remember people like the brothers Allen and Henry Cuvay from St Kilda who fell to Turkish sniper fire within days of each other near Lone Pine, Gallipoli, in August of 1915. And these lads, the Brumby boys, Harold, Livingstone and Robert; they were from Brighton.
[Sepia studio photograph of three men in the soldiers uniform of the Lighthorse. The solider in the middle has a large bushy moustache. The soldier on the right has a feather in his hat. With onscreen text: The Brumby Boys. The brothers Harold, Livingstone and Robert Brumby from Brighton Victoria.]
Lt Col Smith: In their uniform you can see that they were serving with the Lighthorse in the Middle East, they were more fortunate. They all came home – Robert even survived that famous last cavalry charge as they put it, the charge at Bersheba on the 31st of October 1917.
[Black and white photographic portrait of a soldier posing on a chair. His arm appears to be resting on a saddle. A large feather adorns his hat. With onscreen text: Bill Kenny. Sergeant William Kenny from Warren NSW. Served on Gallipoli with the 7th Light Horse Regiment.]
Lt Col Smith: This bloke, he’s described as a heavily built farmer in the newspapers. Bill Kenny, he came home as well and those newspapers, they refer to him in 1915 as ‘tossing the Turks aside’ with his bayonets as they counter-attacked on Gallipoli. Now there’d be few people in this room who were not aware of the fact that service records for most, if not all of these chaps, are readily available. We’ll talk about them more in a moment.
But continuing our journey through history, turning to the European theatre in World War I.
[Sepia photograph of a soldier in his slouch hat. With onscreen text: George Fenwick. 639 Private George Fenwick from Carlton Victoria. Died of wounds with the 5th Battalion].
Lt Col Smith: The unit war diary, rather than a service record, describes the Western Front battle where this man, George Fenwick from Carlton, slumped to the ground lifeless having been slain by German machine gun fire as he advanced on Mouquet farm in 1916. He had survived Gallipoli, but this time his luck ran out.
[Sepia photograph of a man standing in front of what appears to be a painting of a landscape with a mountain and stream. He is standing on dirt. One hand is on his waist and he wears no hat. With onscreen text: Private Eric Thompson, 13th Battalion. Captured by the Germans and wearing a black and brown Prisoner of War uniform.]
Lt Col Smith: Eric Thompson, a New South Wales boy. Eric Thompson got through the hell that was Pozières only to be taken as a Prisoner of War. His Red Cross wounded and missing bureau file tells you more. Note too whilst the slide is up there, the uniform. I could ask so many questions about photographs, and every now and then I see a photograph which throws me, as in this case with this fellow wearing uniform which had been provided by the Germans whilst he was a Prisoner of War.
[Sepia photograph of seven soldiers: three seated, four standing behind. All are hatless. One in the back row rests a hand on the shoulder of the soldier sitting in front of him. With onscreen text: HEROES ALL.]
Lt Col Smith: Another man, a 40-year-old printer, Horace White, was from Adelaide. His Roll of Honour circular from the Australian War Memorial tells us that he had already served in the Boer War about 17 years prior. Horace White chose to serve again in World War I. White was captured near Passchendaele in late 1917 and he died as a prisoner of the German in the camps.
The list of dead is seemingly endless and grew for four long years, til the 11th of November 1918 and even beyond. Now, before leaving World War I, let’s consider a moment the losses.
[Three sepia photographs of newspaper clippings. The middle photo shows an old man with a white beard. The two on either side are collages of head-and-shoulder photos of younger soldiers. The soldiers are numbered and their names are listed below. With onscreen text: Ten Descendants in Khaki. Mr Morgan from Lower North Adelaide with his son and nine grandsons on Active Service.]
Lt Col Smith: In World War I we lost 60,000 men and women dead, either in battle or through sickness. That’s one in five combatants, people in the field. Extrapolate that to today’s population and we would have lost well over 250,000 men and women. Consider the impact.
Of course, tracing those Australians who served in World War I usually is relatively easy. With few exceptions, the digitised service dossier for these men and women is readily available through RecordSearch and the National Archives of Australia. Most unit war diaries – as you will recall I mentioned they’re held by the Australian War Memorial – most of these have also been digitised so one no longer has to pore over the war diaries in Canberra to find out about your unit’s activities. But there are many other resources we can consider when researching World War I soldiers and sailors, let’s not forget them. Especially if you want that little extra detail and especially if your man or woman is proving to be elusive.
Now if you haven’t looked in your little goodies bag yet, do so later, but trust me for now because in there is a precis of my presentation this afternoon, so don’t bother sharpening your pencils and scribbling furiously because it’s all there for you to catch up with later. So for example I’ll just run through some of the resources now that one can look at when trying to identify further your World War I soldiers and sailors.
And these resources include administrative correspondence, embarkation rolls, shipping rolls, nominal rolls, repatriation department dossiers, pay and allotment cards, memorial scrolls, London Gazettes, and there’s heaps more: Commonwealth war graves, officer’s lists, Trove newspapers, war gratuity registers; not to mention the plethora of references one could consult to better understand military terminology, abbreviations and organisations.
Now Steve has already given us a good brief on what can be found here at the State Library, so I’ll say a little more about references such as regimental and unit histories. They can be a wonderful resource, particularly if you’re trying to find out exactly what your man or woman was up to on a day-by-day basis. And most of the major units, certainly in World War I, all have a regimental history. So for example we had 50 infantry battalions in World War I, every one of them has got a regimental history and I suspect that every one of them are held here at the State Library in Melbourne. And most of them too I should add are indexed, happily, and also have nominal rolls, because let me make this point now, when you’re searching for your fellow, once you’ve found a regimental number then you’re halfway there. Once you get that regimental number it’s very often the key.
Elusive Diggers, be aware also that in World War I about 50,000 Australians – men and women, Australian nationals – served under the flags of allied nations such as the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, United States, you name it. That’s an extra 50,000. So if your Digger is elusive, there is a possibility that he or she falls into that category.
Be aware too that over 15,000 Australians in World War I used some sort of alias – another trap for those who can’t find an elusive Digger.
But we have to consider other periods and conflicts as well, so to continue our brief historical journey we must also remember the horrors of World War II, on land as well as at sea and in the air.
[Sepia portrait photograph of a soldier, with onscreen text: Claude Wilson. Private Claude Wilson from Sale, Victoria. Sailed as a reinforcement for the 6th Division in the Middle East in 1941.]
Lt Col Smith: Claude Wilson. Claude enlisted early in the war and he sailed to the Middle East with the 6th Division. Many would be aware the 6th Division was the first division to be sent overseas, and went into action in North Africa and places like Derner and Benghazi and Tobruk, and then of course to the calamity that was Greece and Crete. So Claude sailed as a reinforcement with the 6th Division and he was one of five brothers from Sale who enlisted with that horrendous conflict, World War II.
[Sepia portrait photograph of a young soldier, with onscreen text: James Wilson. James Wilson from Sale, Victoria. Killed in Action at Passchendaele in late 1917. One of six brothers who all served.]
Lt Col Smith: A sixth brother, James, had been killed over 20 years earlier in the savage fighting around Passchendaele in 1917.
[Black and white photograph of four smiling military men: two wear caps, one wears a beret and the fourth a slouch hat. They stand with hands behind their backs. With onscreen text: World War Two Diggers. A group of Australian Military Force World War Two veterans wearing campaign ribbons, officer ‘pips’ or chevrons and shoulder patches.]
Lt Col Smith: World War II. The Middle East and the Mediterranean, the air war over Europe, the Atlantic convoys, North Africa, Syria, Greece, Crete: all were World War II campaigns which sapped the very heart and soul of Australian manhood.
We must not forget other areas overseas like Canada, Rhodesia, where so many of our young aviators died whilst training. Not to mention closer to home in Australia with bases such as Sale, particularly for the air force, the army’s Bonegilla camp up near Albury and a host of headquarters and units in this area here around Melbourne. Each World War II campaign was enriched with multitudes of stories of courage and sacrifice, all aching to be uncovered, all aching to be told and retold.
[Black and white portrait photograph of a grinning airman, with onscreen text: Fred Smith. Sergeant Navigator Fredrick C Smith. Accidentally killed in a flying accident in Western Australia in 1943.]
Lt Col Smith: Take Fred Smith. Fred Smith was a cocky from Western Australia. The young air force navigator, or observer, didn’t even make it overseas. He was killed with his pilot in a training accident east of Perth in 1943.
[Black and white photograph of a smiling airman, with onscreen text: Alan Duggleby. Flight Sergeant Alan Duggleby from East Oakleigh. Killed in Action over Germany with 102 (Halifax Bomber) Squadron, RAF 17th June 1944.]
Lt Col Smith: Another aviator, Allen Duggleby. This lad was from Oakleigh, he was riddled with shrapnel over Germany on a bombing run. Quite often people get confused, they say, ‘Oh yes, well my fellow was in the RAF, don’t you know.’ Mmm, no, well usually he wasn’t in the RAF. Like this chap, he was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force attached, with about 10,000 other Australian aircrew, to the Royal Air Force. But he’s still RAAF and his records are here, although there are records in London as well.
[Black and white photograph of soldier standing at a side-on angle with hands behind his back. With onscreen text: Lew Gazzard. Corporal Lew Gazzard from Camperdown, Victoria. Killed in Action on the Tobruk perimeter 1st May 1941.]
Lt Col Smith: Lou Gazzard, shot through the head in the heat and the dust of Tobruk in North Africa. His brother Ewan was a soldier too; Ewan died a year later. The chronicle of death and destruction continues.
And so to that other great theatre of war, the Pacific. Our own backyard really, here we lost thousands in battle and as Prisoners of War at Singapore and elsewhere in the ring of islands to our north.
[Black and white photograph of six soldiers in short-sleeved shirts. Three sit and three stand behind them. With onscreen text: John Gray. Gunner John Gray (centre rear) and mates from the 4th Anti Tank Regiment. Taken in Singapore as Prisoners of War by the Japanese.]
Lt Col Smith: This fellow here indicated, John Grey, was one of thousands of Prisoners of War. He was with the 4th anti-tank regiment and John Grey succumbed, like many, to the ill-treatment and starvation on the death railway in Burma and Thailand in 1943. By the grace of god and the sacrifices that our American allies made at the titanic battles at the Coral Sea and Midway, the Second World War scarcely touched our shores.
[Black and white photograph of five men in various military uniforms and one civilian alighting from an air force plane and walking across the tarmac. With onscreen text: American troops arrive in Melbourne. General MacArthur and US Troops from the 41st Infantry Division arrive in Melbourne March 1942.]
Lt Col Smith: Even so, the blood of Australians was spilled in places like Broome, Darwin and Sydney. The Pacific War, as the Americans call it, was a near-run thing for us – our most seasoned troops were far away fighting in the desert when the Japanese began sweeping southward. And they did have battle plans to target Australia, make no mistake.
[Colour flyer includes a colour photograph of a large banner set on poles in a park. With onscreen text: Defending Australia. Battle Honours of the 39th Battalion – a Militia unit with many men as young as 18 years who stopped the Japanese on the Kokoda Track.]
Lt Col Smith: Fortunately our young militiamen who previously had been part-time Army, that’s what militia means, fortunately our young militiamen from the 39th infantry battalion stopped the onslaught on the Kokoda track, as did others at Milne Bay in New Guinea. Again the unit war diary, which I had mentioned earlier in the context of World War I, is worth having a good look at when you’re looking at people from these battalions.
Here in the Pacific War, closer to home, we find Bob Bennett from Footscray; wrists bound with wire, bayonetted to death by the Japanese by the Tol plantation massacre in Rabaul in March of 1942.
Even near the end of the war, Australians continued to die in what many would call the fruitless campaigns in places like Borneo and Bougainville.
[Black and white photograph of a soldier’s head and shoulders, with onscreen text: Keith Brown. VX115892 Lieutenant Keith Brown from Portland, Victoria. Killed in Action Brunei Bay with the 2/32nd Infantry Battalion.]
Lt Col Smith: Keith Brown, a Portland school teacher, was one. He was killed in a sharp contact with a Japanese near Brunei Bay in 1945, only days before hostilities were completed. A photograph of he and his mates is attached to the Roll of Honour circular, which in question time we can talk about if you wish, but the Roll of Honour circular held by the Australian War Memorial also includes priceless gems like this, a photograph of this officer.
[Black and white photograph of the warship HMAS Brisbane docked in a harbour, with onscreen text: HMAS ‘Brisbane’.]
Lt Col Smith: At sea, the hazards were always present for the Royal Australian Navy. The story of the cruiser HMAS Sydney has already been mentioned today, and its story is all the more fresh in our minds as the mystery of the disappearance of that gallant vessel in late 1941 was at least in part solved two or three years ago.
[Sepia photograph of a close up head-and-shoulders shot of a young blonde marine, with onscreen text: Fred Lasslett PM1848 Leading Wireman Fred Lasslett HMAS ‘Perth’. Prisoner of War.]
Lt Col Smith: Fred Lasslett, he was luckier, he was a wire man – that’s Navy talk for electrician. Fred was a wire man from Footscray and he was on the Perth, another cruiser which was sunk in March of 1942. Lasslett survived that tragedy but spent over three years enduring unimaginable deprivations as a prisoner of the Japanese.
Now, the WWII nominal roll, there wouldn’t be many in this room who are not unaware of that either, the WWII nominal roll simply lists Fred with the other basic information, lists Fred as a POW, a prisoner of war, but there is so much more which should be found to really do Fred service and his sacrifice justice. I only found out a few days ago that Fred Lasslet had passed away about three weeks ago, here in Melbourne, Heidelberg.
Our merchant mariners – happily they have been mentioned, because so often we have this sort of forum and they’re never mentioned; let’s talk about them again: our merchant mariners also faced the elements and the enemy, with little recognition and even less compensation.
[Black and white photograph of five young men standing in civilian clothes on a boat, similar to a fishing boat. They are smiling with their arms are around each other’s shoulders. With onscreen text: Civilian sailors. Australian Merchant Navy seamen during World War Two.]
Lt Col Smith: One in eight British merchant seamen perished during the war, with thousands lost to the German U-boat menace, notably in the North Atlantic with trying to bring across the supplies from North America to beleaguered England. Some of these merchant mariners were literally boys. Now, happily for those in the Australian merchant marine service, the NAA, the National Archives of Australia, holdings of their associated records are to be readily found on microfilm, and they are very, very useful. Similarly, the British records are intact although most of them need to be examined in London.
Just a quick aside on the merchant navy. Uncle Joe might have been a merchant sailor in WWII and you don’t find him in the records held by the National Archives of Australia. That could well be that he signed on as a merchant sailor with another nation. Could have been Britain, in which case you could go to London and get his records there. But it could have been somewhere else: South Africa, Canada, in which case you wouldn’t find him.
[Black and white photograph of a young man in dungarees and cap leaning on what appears to be the bow of a ship. With onscreen text: Noel Smith. Noel Smith from Adelaide, South Australia. Joined the Australian Merchant Navy in World War Two at age 14 years.]
Lt Col Smith: Another merchant mariner, Noel Smith, now living in South Australia, near Adelaide. He also was a merchant sailor. He survived the war, obviously, and he had joined up at the age of 14 years. Another chap, Percy Anderson, merchant sailor, he wasn’t so lucky. His NAA records reveal that he died at sea in 1944 on a vessel called the Coolarna but like many merchant mariners, Percy Anderson is not recognised by either the Australian War Memorial or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. At the end of it all, Germany, fascist Italy, Japan, Vichy French: all finally vanquished.
[Sepia photograph of hundreds of soldiers marching in Bourke Street, Melbourne. With onscreen text: Diggers marching off to war. Diggers from the first Australian Imperial Force contingent to the Middle East march through Melbourne in 1940. Over 40,000 Australian service personnel died in World War Two.]
Lt Col Smith: Exhausted peoples everywhere counted the awful cost: 60 million dead. Now, I won’t repeat that list of WWI resources, which I went over some minutes ago, but most of them are also relevant to your research of WWII service personnel. But don’t forget, in WWII, we had a couple of newcomers on the scene.
I’ve already mentioned the merchant navy and, although they were around in WWI, they didn’t have nearly the same involvement, operational involvement, as they did in WWII.
Now, the second player, of course, no prize for guessing, is the Royal Australian Airforce, which was formally brought into existence in September of 1921. Prior to that, our aviators in WWI had been members of the Australian Flying Corps and, therefore, were by definition soldiers and not air men.
As for new resources, we can’t ignore the aforementioned WWII nominal roll; despite the thousands of errors and emissions therein it’s still a fine starting point. Of course, most personal dossiers are still held hard-copy by NAA in Canberra. I’m saying ‘most’ as there are many exceptions. Some, for instance, are still held at CARO, the Central Army Records Office or the service offices of the navy and the air force in Canberra.
As I intimated before, beware of those WWII veterans who served at other times, either before or after the 1939–45 conflict and therefore may have amalgamated dossiers.
And does the story stop there? No, of course not. Australians have been going to war with light hearts and heads held high since 1860. The bitter fight against the Maori in the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s was our first real taste of warfare facing an organised, fierce and determined foe.
[Painting depicts a sailing ship with the British flag flying from it. In the foreground are two row boats full of men in red coats. Two more sailing ships are in the background and behind them a coastline. With onscreen text: The New Zealand Wars. The ‘Victoria’ left Melbourne with the Victorian Naval Brigade sailors and Redcoasts to fight the Maori in April 1860.]
Lt Col Smith: On this occasion in 1860 we sent the warship Victoria from Melbourne with redcoats and mobilised naval brigade men from Melbourne aboard. Whose task it was, these naval brigade men, if you see that term anywhere, they were sailors but they were a bit like marines in a way. They were sailors whose role ultimately was to fight ashore, and that’s what these lads did when they went to New Zealand in 1860, together with the redcoats which, of course, were garrisoned in Australia at the time.
[Painting of a redcoat soldier in full uniform and holding a horn. With onscreen text: Redcoats in Australia 1788-1870. A British Redcoat from the 40th Regiment of Foot circa 1850. The 40th were involved in subduing the revolt at the Eureka Stockade.]
Lt Col Smith: Now, as an aside, I really should make some comment on the redcoats. However, to really provide meaningful comment on researching this important aspect of our military heritage which started, as has already been mentioned, in 1788. And until 1870 it’s really beyond the scope of this session, yet, rest assured, there is plenty of material for study both here in Australia, particularly through the Australian Joint Copying Project, which is available through the State Library here in Melbourne, and the National Archives in London, at Kew, just out of London.
Then there’s Sudan, with our soldiers fighting the dervishes after the death of Gordon and the fall of Khartoum.
[Painting of a uniformed officer standing in foreground, leaning lightly with one hand on his sword. He wears a red jacket adorned with gold braid. He has a white sash, gloves and belt and dark trousers and boots. He wears a tall white helmet with gold braid chin strap. On the grass in the background soldiers march on parade and buildings are seen faintly in the background. With onscreen text: Fighting the Dervishes. An officer of the NSW Contingent to the Sudan in 1885.]
Lt Col Smith: This was our first foray overseas, apart from New Zealand, to support Great Britain using, as we usually do, volunteers. Now, most personnel records for the men who sailed with these contingents have been digitised by the Australian War Memorial and original medal rolls are held in London. But you find scraps of bits and pieces elsewhere, as well. We’ve already heard from the Public Record Office Victoria this morning, and you may be surprised to know that they also have a good deal of material on this conflict back in 1885 in the Sudan. Fifteen years later, the Boxer Rebellion in China: here Australians fought, shoulder to shoulder, with 15 other nations in contingents dispatched from Sydney, from Melbourne and from Adelaide.
[Black and white photograph of James McAllister seated in a rickshaw. He is dressed in a large coat and a fur hat. The rickshaw is being pulled by a Chinese man dressed in padded coat, soft peakless cap and flat shoes. With onscreen text: Boxer Rebellion 1900-1901. Able Seaman James McAllister from Monbulk, Victoria. Boxer Rebellion, China 1900.]
Lt Col Smith: Here we see Able Seaman James McAllister from Monbulk, here in Victoria. He clearly has some free time for sightseeing, unlike Albert Gibbs, also from Melbourne, who wasn’t nearly as fortunate as James here. His muster records – Albert Gibbs – his muster records are held on microfilm here in Melbourne with NAA and they show that young Albert, he’s only about 17 from memory, he was a servant, a manservant they called them, working for a navy officer – they showed that Albert succumbed to sickness in this strange, faraway land, China in 1901. Rarely have these men from the Boxer Rebellion contingent been mourned or commemorated.
[Advertisement for ‘the featherbed soldiers’ depicts an Australian soldier astride a truncated horse. He holds the reins in one hand and a pipe in the other. With onscreen text: Boer War 1899 – 1902. A trooper from the New South Wales Lancers – the First to Fight.]
Lt Col Smith: Not to forget the Boer War in Southern Africa between 1899 and 1902. All of these conflicts, which I’m glossing over, claimed their share of Australian flesh and blood. All of these conflicts have their elusive Diggers.
Tom Gates from Castlemaine. He’d sailed from Sydney some years earlier in 1885 to fight the dervishes in Sudan. Tom fought again in the Boer War, take on the point that I’ve made a couple of times, don’t just focus on a fellow serving in a particular conflict; so very often you’ll find that a chap served in more than one conflict and, therefore, there’s more than one area for you to look for.
[Black and white drawing of a mounted Australian Lighthorseman. The horse is in distress with its head thrown up and ears back. The rider clutches his chest with a gloved hand and his glazed eyes stare sightlessly at the ground. With onscreen text: Wounded in Action. About 25,000 Australians fought in the Boer War.]
Lt Col Smith: In the Boer War, then, the proud-spirited, the independent, the laconic, the often reckless Digger was always there. In the veldt, the prairie, the veldt of South Africa they excelled and displayed a real independence. Many would call it larrikinism. Some, like Breaker Morant, took it too far and I am sick of hearing about Breaker Morant. He’s been in the news a couple of weeks ago, if people haven’t noticed. Good old Breaker, he took it too far. Having served, but his story is quite relevant to what I’m about to say, having served with a South Australian contingent, one raised in South Australia before Federation, Morant then chose to serve on, listen to this, serve on with a locally raised, irregular unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers. We all know what happened to Morant, of course, but the point I’d like to make is that this was an irregular unit. It was one which was raised in South Africa and all of the units which were raised in South Africa, and there would have been 40 to 50 of them, they were crawling with Australians like Morant.
Lt Col. Neil C Smith AM: Still they continued to die bravely in South Africa.
[Black and white head-and-shoulders photograph of a man dressed in a dinner shirt and jacket. With onscreen text: Fred Kilpatrick – the first to fall.]
Lt Col Smith: Fred Kilpatrick, he was a school teacher from Sydney, he was shot through the jaw near a place called Slingers Fontaine in January 1900 and lingered painfully in the bitter cold overnight before he died the next day. I’ve read the reports of the lads who found him the next day and then carted him back to camp and did what they could before he succumbed. During the night Fred Kilpatrick, lying there in agony, had scratched into the dirt with his pocketknife ‘cold’, alone in the darkness on the veldt. Fred Kilpatrick is part of the Anzac legend like all the others.
John Ebenezer Davies was from Adelaide. He served in the Boer War as well and he fell also, in January 1902. Like many other elusive Diggers he’s not on any listing of those who served in South Africa. This is because officialdom continues to make no real effort to identify those 25,000 Australians who served in South Africa between 1899 and 1902.
[Onscreen slide shows a black-and-white drawing of hundreds of Australian Lighthorsemen winding down a hill to traverse a river. A single horseman stands atop the hill overseeing the march. With onscreen text: South Africa 1901. Colonial troops crossing a river in the Transvaal, South Africa.]
Lt Col Smith: Rather, they rely heavily on a publication complied in 1911 and which is fraught with errors and emissions. That’s Murray’s for those of you who have an interest in the Boer War. Murray’s is very corrupt, through no fault of poor old Colonel Murray – it was the printers, from what I can gather. For example, in Murray’s you’ll find that there’s an entry there for a fellow and whatever that entry says, perhaps he was wounded, promoted, or something like that, that entry actually refers to the next fellow down and it’s like that through the book. That’s the sort of corruption I’m talking about there and that’s still the basic tool that people use to identify people who served in the Boer War. Crazy, because there is a surprising amount of material on the Boer War held in Australia and clearly lots more held in London. Here, in Australia, most is to be found at NAA on microfilm and includes such gems as embarkation rolls, nominal rolls, shipping details, pay records, medal rolls, you name it. It continues to surprise me, quite honestly, that these resources on the Boer War, held by NAA just around the corner, are so seldom used. Additonally, NAA has digitised, and you’re probably more familiar with them, has digitised a great many of the dossiers, the out-of-station papers from the Boer War, but most of them pertain to chaps who enlisted after Federation.
Skipping several decades. Since the two world wars there have been many more conflicts in which Australians have answered the call; sometimes, such as these folk, accompanied by their loved ones, accompanied by their families.
[Sepia photograph of three women in floral dresses seated amongst seven soldiers. Two tables stand before them, on top of which stand glasses, some of which appear to hold beer. Most are smiling, it is a relaxed scene. With onscreen text: BCOF Japan 1946 – 1952. Warrant Officer Don Boyd (Tallest standing) with family and friends, British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) Japan circa 1947.]
Lt Col Smith: We should consider those who served in the occupation forces in Japan in 1945 and 1952, such as these folk here, who belonged to what was called BCOF, the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces. We should consider among the BCOF folk men like George medal winner – the George medal’s a bit like the Victoria Cross but not in the face of the enemy; it’s for great courageous acts. So, George medal winner Corporal Ron Sewell; Sewell died trying to save others during bomb disposal operations in Japan after the war in 1947.
The men and the women of BCOF of the occupation forces have fought long and hard for appropriate recognition. Indeed they continue to do so legally as I speak. Apart from my recent book, there is still no official nominal roll for these Australians. In other words, officialdom doesn’t even know who was there and that makes any argument for appropriate recognition and compensation an uphill battle right from the very start.
Yet again in Korea, between 1950 and 1953, we gave freely of our manhood in what was not really a declared war; rather, as they still call it, a United Nations police action. Some fought on the battlefields of Kapyong and [indistinct] in South Korea where the fighting rivalled any other combat in which Australians have ever been involved for its verbosity and its intensity.
[Photograph of group of men with onscreen text: The Korean War 1950-1953 Men of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment who fought in the battle of Kapyong, Korea April 1951.]
Lt Col Smith: As always in war, sickness not only among civilians but amongst military folk as well took a terrible toll. We might remember this man George Madden, also decorated with a George medal, who was captured by the Chinese communists and despite torture, starvation and sickness resisted his captors till the very end.
[Photograph of George Madden with onscreen text: George Madden Private George Madden. Captured at Kapyong. Died of starvation and ill treatment while a Prisoner of War of the Chinese in 1951.]
Lt Col Smith: Happily, all Korean War veterans are listed in a DVA, Department of Veterans Affairs nominal roll. Just be careful, when one says all are listed on the nominal roll that’s never quite right because particularly with nominal rolls like the Korean War and the Vietnam War, there was always the option for those who were to be listed, how they would find out I don’t know, but if they did find out before it was released and promulgated, it was an option for them to say, ‘No, I don’t want my name put up’. But whatever the figure is 99.9 folk should be on these nominal rolls such as the Korean one that I just mentioned.
Lt Col Smith: Moving on, then, the struggle to thwart the perceived threat of communism in our region. The Malayan emergency really our longest continuous war, although we seem to be fond of calling several wars our longest war of late.
[Slide with text: Mostly Unsung. Australia And The Commonwealth In The Malaya Emergency 1948-60. Lieutenant Colonel Neil C. Smith, AM Melbourne 1978. Malaya Emergency 1948-1960. Australian’s longest conflict. ‘Mostly Unsung’ provides the sole Army nominal roll of those who served.]
Lt Col Smith: I heard on the news last night, too, Afghanistan being our longest war. I don’t know, I’ll have to get my calendar out, but if it wasn’t, it was pretty darn close.
The Malayan emergency. Consider the pipeline ambush in Malaya in 1956 where Geoff Fritz, another Melbourne boy, fired three magazines from his Owens submachine at the attacking CTs, the communist terrorists …
[Photograph of soldiers in forested area. Onscreen text: Fighting the CT’s 1956. A patrol from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment heads out in the hunt for Communist Terrorists in Malaya.]
Lt Col Smith: … and he did this despite being mortally wounded in the stomach himself.
Now the only visibility, again like Beecoff, the only visibility of these soldiers who served in this conflict is in work that I’ve done in the past called mostly [indistinct]. No official lists of these people.
Covert operations – many people overlook this – covert operations in Borneo during confrontation with Indonesia in the 1960s.
[Poster with photograph of soldiers wading through water carrying their rifles. Onscreen text: Nothing short of war with the Australian Army in Borneo 1962-66. N.C. Smith. Indonesian Confrontation 1962-1966. The sole nominal roll for those Australian Military Forces personnel who served during Indonesian Confrontation.]
Lt Col Smith: Here in Sarawak, Victorian-born Vic Richards was badly hit with machine-gunfire by Indonesian troops and he lingered for several days before dying. You recall me saying ‘covert’ a moment ago; of course most of the operations in which we were involved in Indonesia were actually behind enemy lines. In fact the lads went across and they left their letters behind, their dog tags, the whole box and dice. It was a very covert operation so I guess that’s why we don’t hear too much about it even to this day. And certainly apart from my work, such as this one here, again there is no official nominal roll for those Australians who fought in this region in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Echoes from the past. In Vietnam, like Balmoral, Coral, Long Tan; names familiar even today in many Australian households.
[Photo of soldiers on the ground with boxes of supplies and another soldier disembarking from an RAAF helicopter. Onscreen text: Vietnam 1962-1973. A RAAF ‘Huey’ helicopter resupplies Australian Diggers.]
Lt Col Smith: We still don’t seem to be quite sure how many Australians served in that long and divisive conflict. Only about four or five years ago the Central Army Records Office, I would work there and I would see this team of people going through doing an audit if you like, of all of the records there for post-1945 soldiers, and as a result of that audit they found another 4,000, so maybe there’s still a few more elusive Diggers floating around from Vietnam.
Now most personal dossiers for the men and women who served after World War II are held by CARO, the Central Records Office located in Victoria Barracks just down the way. Some are also held, particularly or obviously for the navy and the air force, at the Service Offices as it’s called, in Canberra. Many navy records, post-World War II, are also digitised with NAA, although post-1970 you might strike out because the information starts to diminish quite rapidly after 1970 because that’s when the navy switched across fairly seriously to putting their personnel records on computer and sadly we can expect more of that.
Of course there is a DVA, the official nominal roll once again which I mentioned a moment ago, although I have it on good authority and take this on board, I have it on good authority that the maintenance of this roll, the Vietnam Veterans nominal roll and especially the World War II nominal roll, are posing serious problems. They ain’t got no money, they can’t maintain them and the IT, information technology, is such that they just can’t keep up with it.
Now the losses though significant in Vietnam were not as heavy as the world wars or even the Boer War. Nonetheless regular and conscription, sorry conscript troops – we haven’t said anything about conscript troops even though I don’t really have the time, although I would be happy to talk about it later to you – regular and conscript troops gave their all. Now one man, Bob Jackson, seen here from Greta, was a member of my own battalion, the 8th.
[Photograph of Bob Jackson. Onscreen text: Bob Jackson. Corporal Bob Jackson. The RSL in Greta NW at the time considered Vietnam was not a ‘real war’ and would not allow Jackson to be buried in the RSL Section of the cemetery.]
Lt Col Smith: He was amongst many killed in a series of mine explosions in the Long Hi hills on the 28th of February 1970 on what we called Black Saturday.
Mick Berrigan, another Digger, he was hit in the head by shrapnel in Nui Dat, the main camp in Vietnam as it was, in 1967 while fighting in Vietnam.
[Photograph of soldiers on parade. Onscreen text: Diggers in Vietnam 1970. Men of the 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment on final parade before leaving Vietnam.]
Lt Col Smith: He lingered, he lived the rest of his life, the next 40-something years, 45 years of his life he lived in a wheelchair. He died only I think last year, about a year or 18 months ago.
Did it stop then? No. It didn’t stop then. The first Gulf War, Somalia, Iraq, Timor and notably the current conflict in Afghanistan. Mercifully the Australian losses have been slight in the 35 or more peacekeeping operations in which we’ve been involved since 1945, and we were first involved in peacekeeping, UN operations, a bit like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Namibia, those sort of places.
[Photograph of soldiers. Onscreen text: 1945 and Peace. Army, Navy and Air Force veterans of World War Two. Members of Australia’s Z Special Unit in 1945.]
Lt Col Smith: We were first involved in ’45, ’46 in present day Indonesia.
So what do we have after all of that?
[Photograph of soldier. Onscreen text: Arthur Millar. Arthur Miller, a World War One Digger. Much can be discerned from his uniform, badges and accoutrements.]
Lt Col Smith: Well on Anzac Day especially we have a flood tide of memories. There are thoughts and feelings of the great wars and so many since. Of courage, or pride, of heroism, of self-sacrifice …
[Photograph of nurse. Onscreen text: Janey Lempriere. Janey Lempriere. Australian Army Nursing Service in the Boer War and World War One. Note Queen’s South Africa medal.]
Lt Col Smith: … of waste, loss, pain and sorrow and the ultimate question, why? The bleak conclusion is that the beast resides within all humankind and our prospects of ending conflict in the world therefore are as good as ridding ourselves of the playground bully.
The English military historian and philosopher Basil Liddell Hart wisely said, ‘If you want peace, understand war’ and this is where the family genealogist, the researcher, the historian, the military analyst, you and I enter the scene and start the process of discovery, of understanding, of remembering.
The first step in remembering our servicemen and women is to identify them and record their service for all to see. And I deal with researchers virtually every day and so often they haven’t really identified their man or woman. It’s not very often, till you get that regimental number which I mentioned before, that you can really start the process rolling. Every day I research and uncover the service of our veterans for family members, historians and others.
[Photograph of soldier. Onscreen text: Bert Nunn. Bert Nunn. A World War Two Digger. Much can be concluded from what he is wearing.]
Lt Col Smith: I can attest to the fact that there is a growing thirst to find the reasons behind our proud and rich military heritage, and that’s what I do: I help people search and understand their Australian and British ancestors with a military background. And every soul in this room has got one tucked away somewhere and I know that it is a quest really to find out what it is that makes us tick.
The first place to find many of the reasons for our rich heritage of course is in the myriad of official and other records containing stories of individual Australians, all too frequently sadly in time of war.
[Newspaper cutting with three photos showing a grandfather with his ten descendants of various ages. Onscreen text: Ten descendants in khaki. Military descendants. We all have them.]
Lt Col Smith: It is they who make up the soul of our Anzac heritage and they who made inroads into crafting our national and sometimes our family identity.
My plea to the families and friends of our veterans is therefore garner your family’s military history. Seek it out and learn to understand it; even a basic understanding of military terminology, abbreviations, ranks, anachronisms will help immensely. Learn what can be gained by simply knowing a soldier’s regimental number. I wish I had a quid for every time I’ve spoken to somebody and they’d say ‘Uncle Joe served in World War I and I don’t know who he was or where he went or anything.’ ‘Have you got his medals?’ ‘Oh yes, I’ve got his medals.’ ‘Did you look around the edge or on the back of them?’ ‘No.’ Because once you do that it becomes apparent you’ve confirmed that fellow. You’re on the track to finding out substantial information on him. It will have his regimental number, it will have his regiment which is more of a British term than an Australian one, it will have his regiment or his unit as we would say. And we are really, really fortunate in Australia, because unlike the Brits and many other countries, our medals to this day have always been issued with a chap or a lady’s at least regimental number and full name.
Note the official numbers impressed on the many lapel badges issued to veterans, and not only veterans but to their next of kin, their wife, their mother. There’s a whole range I could say, there’s probably 30-odd of these sorts of lapel badges, like ‘returned from active service’ badges and ‘female’s relatives’ badges and all sorts of other things. All, most of which, have an official number on the back, most of which can be researched through the National Archives of Australia-held registers here in Melbourne.
There’s lots of things for you to think about, but the rewards from such endeavours will far outweigh, in my view – going to cross swords with some family historians here – but they will far outweigh snippets from the more conventional genealogy records. And you can do more: write down, record grandad’s anecdotes from France and Flanders; read his diary.
[Photo of a page from a handwritten diary. Onscreen text: Diaries and letters. Match them with photographs plus personnel and operational records to get the complete story.]
Lt Col Smith: Match the detail against his service papers and related operational records. By operational records in this sense I’m meaning records associated with his unit war diary or maybe even recommendations for honours and awards. They’re usually not found on the fellow’s service records found as digitised records within NAA. Learn what it was really like in the mud and the carnage of France and Flanders. Understand more about what was probably the most formative chapter in his or her life. You can do more.
[Photograph of army recruits. Onscreen text: Army Recruits at Puckapunyal. The uniforms suggest men called up during the National Service Scheme of 1951-1959.]
Lt Col Smith: Make sure dad annotates his photographs of the cheerful, fresh-faced boys at the training depots at places like Royal Park and Caulfield, many of whom never came back. Ask him about the experiences of national service. Many people don’t realise we’ve had national service on four different occasions in Australia, notably in the living memory of most here, notably during the Vietnam period ’65 to ’73, but also between ’51 and ’59 and on other occasions as well. Just because a fellow was conscripted under one of these schemes and did not go on active services doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a fat, juicy dossier waiting for you to find. So track your family history and movements through your uncle’s Australian Imperial Force pay records or maybe his repatriation department dossiers. Now the sufferings recorded in these dossiers long after discharge can make you weep.
[Photograph of a man on horseback. Onscreen text: Trooper Sloan Bolton from Geelong. A decorated double amputee and Charger at Beersheba. This man’s Repatriation Department dossier details a life of suffering and otherwise unknown glimpses of his Army experiences.]
Lt Col Smith: And this fellow Sloan Bolton was a train driver from Geelong; young fellow, lovely wife Elsie, they had several children. He participated in the Charge of Bersheba on the 31st of October, 1917 and he is notable because he completed the charge and then galloped into the town and came across a German and some Turks pulling a gun on a member and he went up, belted the German officer over the head wearing his tin helmet, knocked him off his horse. He did all sorts of wonderful things and was awarded a distinguished conduct medal for his gallantry; that’s fine.
Several months later, Sloan continued with the Lighthorse and he advanced towards Damascus and the ultimate taking of Damascus and at a place called Bald Hills in May of 1918 he was hit badly by the Turks and had both of his legs mangled; both of them were subsequently amputated and he was shipped back home a hero with his distinguished conduct medal and the rest of it.
That’s all wonderful, but then when you start to read the story of the ensuing decades in his repatriation dossier, it gives you detail which you will never see in a war diary or in a service record. Some from his own mouth because in these sort of circumstances you find on the repat records, that the soldier will recount incidents in his service which are not recorded on the official records. Let me assure you of that. But to read records such as Sloan Bolton’s, who finally died in 1947, to read his record and see the distress that he and his family suffered almost of a weekly basis, begging for a few cents for example comes to mind, begging for a few shillings for the trip from Geelong to Caulfield so that he had his stumps trimmed. It’s heart rendering stuff and you don’t get a lot of that in the normal service record.
So follow family movements and milestones, but also by examining pay and allotment records. People dismiss this, but if you’re a family historian, a genealogist, and you’re trying to find the nuts and bolts of your family, consider the service record by all means. But if you really want to track the family and find out for example who he was getting married to, who he was allotting money to, his wife, maybe a girlfriend, that sort of stuff, changes in addresses – you’ll get that in the pay and allotment records. You will often get material in those sort of records which you simply will not get in a service record.
You perhaps appreciate that certainly in World War I the army, if you said that you were married, the army just took a certain amount of money from you and gave it to the missus. A lot of blokes in those days didn’t like that: ‘If my missus is going to get money, I’m going to give it to her, not the army.’ So you may be surprised to find that your fellow’s marital status doesn’t quite match up on his enlistment paper, that could be the reason why he’s keeping it quiet, but he won’t keep it quiet in his pay records because he wants money to go to that address and perhaps that lady.
Cherish your brother’s medals and their faded ribbons from Korea, in World War II and Vietnam, such as indicated on this group of medals.
[Photograph of various war medals. Onscreen text: A life time of service. Medals usually provide essential research details and summarise a Digger’s military career at a glance.]
Lt Col Smith: Cherish them long after he’s gone. Find out why he was awarded the coveted mention in despatches or other honour. This fellow for example is on your extreme left, the ribbon, the medal set, has got a distinguished conduct medal. If you go to the operational records held at the Australian War Memorial, not usually on an administrative service record, you will very often get a most gripping tale associated with the recommendation for that particular honour or award, because quite often you will not get those details on a service dossier, regardless of the period.
Keep your uncle’s old letters and photos from Palestine or from Saigon, it doesn’t matter where.
[Photograph of a stack of photographs. Onscreen text: Photographs. Many military records contain identity photographs of your Digger.]
Lt Col Smith: Seek out your brother’s service papers through National Archives of Australia. Seek out your brother’s service papers from his national service days at camps like Puckapunyal and make sure the medals have been claimed. If you need I’ve got a number here if anybody wants to find out about that subject. I did 24 years in the army; honestly I’ve been given more medals since I left the army than when I was serving. Every five minutes we seem to be dishing out a medal for something for some other reason. That’s not for me to dispute why, but that’s the reality of what’s happening; so very often you’ll find that your fellow will be entitled to medals which have come out in more recent years, certainly from World War II on.
Keep your grandson’s emails, got to keep up with this, keep your grandson’s emails from Baghdad. Download and at least copy, hardcopy and annotate, for goodness sake annotate, some of the photos from your daughter’s service in East Timor. Each is important; each is a part of the history and the fabric of us all. Each reduces the potential for more elusive Diggers in the future. Do this so that your family and future generations will know why it is that some anniversaries bring a tear to our eye, or why it is that we gather on occasions such as dawn on the 25th of April every year.
[Slide shows a Rising Sun badge. Onscreen text: The Rising Sun badge.]
Lt Col Smith: And as those sort of times, Anzac mornings and others, break here in beautiful, peaceful Melbourne, Sydney, Perth or wherever: remember our veterans who have passed on and say to them, ‘Sleep now and be at peace in the arms of your creator. Your memory, indeed your story is safe with you and I.’
[Logos for the State Library of Victoria and State Government of Victoria appear in white on a black screen]
'And by the time that the fighting ended eight months later, over 8000 Australians lay dead in the jumble of steep ridges and gullies above Anzac Cove and further south at Cape Helius.'
- Lt Col Smith
About this video
Watch as Lt Col Neil C Smith AM discusses the myriad ways to trace your military ancestors in Australia.
Smith introduces us to some of the ordinary, sometimes elusive Australians who have played their part in forging our heritage. He also touches on how best we can trace these men and women.
This Don Grant Memorial Lecture was part of the 2013 Family History Feast.
With over 24 years' Australian army experience, Lieutenant Colonel Neil Smith understands military jargon, abbreviations and the various organisational and recording systems employed by the army, navy and air force.