How to research an Australian Soldier

Episode: How to research an Australian Soldier
Host: Mat McLachlan
Broadcast Date: March 12, 2019
Duration: 51:40 minutes
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

This is the Living History podcast, broadcasting live across the airwaves.


Hello everyone. Welcome to a special episode of Living History. A bit of a bonus episode because I’ve had a lot of people contacting me lately asking how they go about researching an Australian soldier, particularly soldiers who served during the First World War and there’s lots of wonderful online resources that can enable you to do this. And a couple of years ago I made a video on YouTube which talked specifically about that. It gives all the information about how to research a soldier, how to find those websites, and how to interpret that information that you receive. And so this is the audio from that video. For those who haven’t actually seen the video, I’d suggest you go and check it out on YouTube because it’ll be a little bit easier to follow with the visual references, but this will still be great for you to get an understanding of exactly what you can achieve researching a soldier. So let’s take it away. Let’s find out about Australian soldiers.

I’m going to do this video in two parts. Firstly, I’ll go through all the websites and all the resources you can find online to help you research an Australian soldier. And then secondly, I’m going to do a live demonstration. I’ll go through the whole process with you with the specific soldier that we’re researching and show you exactly how it works.

First site I’m going to recommend is by far the most important; it’s the Australian war memorial website at Now, this is not just a fantastic museum to visit, but it is by far the best resource for researching Australian soldiers, not just from the First World War but from every war that Australians have served in. And when you’re researching a soldier, you can find absolutely everything here. It’s almost a one stop shop. You can search the nominal roll for lists of people who enlisted, the roll of honor for soldiers that were killed.

There’s an archive that tells about the fate of wounded missing soldiers. You can search for honours and awards and medals that people were decorated in. Plus, there are all the unit diaries, the official histories and all sorts of general information about just about every unit that served during the First World War. So should definitely be your first stop when researching a soldier.

The next site is the National Archives site at This is the site you go to to find any interesting range of records about lots of Australian history, but specifically service records from individual soldiers. Each soldier who served in the war had a service record that detailed their entire history of service and this is the place you can find it. So incredibly the National Archives have made the service record of every First World War soldier downloadable online. So you can go and search for soldier and find absolutely heaps of information about what that soldier did individually during the course of the war. Those two sites are a great resource.

Something’s a little bit different here is the Commonwealth War Graves website. The Commonwealth War Graves website is run by the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission and contains information on just about every cemetery and soldier buried there around the world in Commonwealth cemeteries. But a really key feature is the additional information box, and you can use this in a number of clever ways. You can use this to find, for example, soldiers who come from your hometown. You can use this to find a specific type of soldier buried in a cemetery, for example. So you could type in a given cemetery and then type in the word “Captain” to find out all the Captains that are buried in that cemetery or all the Sergeants. You can use it to search for medals such as anyone buried in the cemetery who’d won a military medal or a distinguished conduct medal. So it’s basically a keyword search, additional information. So anything extra you want to put in, you can to find out a huge amount of information about soldiers buried in cemeteries all over the world.

Another site that’s absolutely fantastic is operated by the National Library of Scotland and they’ve done an incredible thing. They’ve taken modern maps and then overlaid them with First World War trench maps. So what that means you can do is this is incredibly useful in finding the site of a specific action. You can load up the area of France or Belgium, you’re wishing to explore and then bring up a trench map to overlay on top of it, and then by zooming in and out and adjusting how opaque the trench map is, you can compare where the trenches were to where roads and rivers and features on the modern map currently are. And this is fantastic firstly for researching where units were at particular times during the war, but especially if you’re tracing a soldier and have the dream that so many people do to actually walk in his footsteps on the battlefield. This enables you to find specific places where soldiers and units were at various times of the war and walk the ground where these trenches were. It’s an absolutely incredible resource and we should be very grateful to them that they’ve taken the time to upload it.

The final site to mention – Google maps – always a really important tool when researching various parts of the battlefield. Google maps are great for looking at the relationships between various towns that certain soldiers and units served at, but also if you’re planning a trip to the battlefields, which I thoroughly recommend that you do, this is an invaluable tool for planning exactly where to go and where to stay by getting directions between the towns. You can estimate distances, you can find out where towns are in relation to each other, even what public transport you can use to connect each town. So Google maps are always a fantastic resource for planning your time on the battlefields.

So we now going to do a live demonstration of exactly how to search for a soldier and I’m going to use all these resources to show you how to piece the story together and find out as much as you can about an individual. So the soldier we’re going to look for is someone from my hometown of West Wyalong, New South Wales, a young bloke by the name of Reg Crowley. Now full disclosure – I have actually looked up this soldier before and I know that he makes a fantastic example of the types of things you can do and what you can look for, and this applies to any soldier you want to look up who served in the First World War.

So the starting point is going to be the Australian War Memorial website that we’re looking at now, which is I’ll put all the links to all these sites in the show notes in the description below. So we’re going to start on the Australian War Memorial website. The War Memorial has recently upgraded their website to this. I’m not really a fan, I have to say. Maybe it’ll grow on me as I use it more but I found the old site a bit more intuitive. This is probably a little bit more fancy looking but I preferred the old site. I found it a bit easier to use. But here we are on the Australian War Memorial website.

So let’s assume that you have a relative or someone on a local war memorial that you want to find more information about and all you have is a name for that person. You could come here to the Australian War Memorial website and simply type their name into this box. Again, I find that that produces too much information. It gets a little bit confusing. So I like to do it in a more step by step process but you may prefer to do it that way, but I’m going to show you how to do it more step-by-step. The two most important pieces of information we need is the surname of the soldier and his service number, which was the number he was allocated when he joined his battalion during the First World War. So we’re going to begin with looking for those things.

So let’s assume the soldier we’re looking for is Reg Crowley from West Wyalong. So the first thing we’re going to do is we can click on people up here and again, we can just type in the information and have it delivered to us. But I’m going to search step by step so that it’s a little bit more organized the information we receive.

So the first thing you want to look for is the Nominal Roll, which is down here. The nominal roll gives us information about the enlistment and the fate of 324,000 Australian soldiers who served during the First World War, so this is a really good starting point. So we click on that one and now here’s where we type the name in. So I’m just going to type it in -Reginald Crowley – and see what comes up. So here are the three results. I know that the soldier, I’m looking for is this one here Reginald Baden Crowley. And if you didn’t know which soldier you were looking for, you may have to dig a little bit more and sample each of these names. But I know that this is the soldier I’m looking for. Already just from this information I have his service number now which gives me a lot more information about him and I’ll show you what we can do with that later on, but we’ll just click on this file to show you the nominal roll. So this is a list of all the soldiers who left Australia during the war.

So if we just zoom in, we can see here Crowley, Reginald Baden Crowley. He’s the one we’re looking for. So there’s his service number 2626A Private Crowley, Reginald Baden. He served in the 34th battalion. He enlisted on the 22nd of the 5th, 1916 and this shows us the first really important piece of information that he was killed in action on the 15th of April, 1918. So he served for about two years. So this gives us a lot of information already about the soldier that we’re looking for.

Other soldiers for example, R.T.A that we see listed here is Returned to Australia on the 26/9/1917. D.A.W is Died of Wounds on the 6/5/1915. So you can see killed in action, died of wounds returned to Australia, killed in action. So you can see the majority of soldiers made it home, but unfortunately many of them did not. So that’s the first thing we want to do is to look up the nominal roll on the Australian War Memorial website.

Now that we’ve got our soldier’s name and service number, we could actually find out quite a bit more information on the Australian War Memorial website, but I’m going to jump straight over now to a new site, the National Archives site, and we’ll come back to the war memorial to find out more about our soldier a little bit later on. So jump over to the National Archives website, which is, and what this does is this is the repository for all service records for soldiers who served in the First World War. So basically every soldier had a service record, which was his file, which had all the information about his service during his time in service in the First World War, and several years ago, the National Archives did an absolutely incredible thing where they digitized all of the records for every soldier who served. So this is your number one stop to find information about a specific soldier and what he did during the war.

So what you can do here, right on the home page and it’s got this search box here, which has Search Collection, and right here you can type in the information. So Crowley, his number 26, it’s listed as 2626A, but I know from my previous search it’s actually listed under 2626. Hit the search button and you get it and you get his record comes up. So this is our soldier, Crowley, RB and his service number 2626. And so this is basic information about him and about the file but this is the important part over here on the right, view digital copy. So if you click on that, it takes you through online to this window.

It takes us through to the full service record for this soldier Reg Crowley. So it’s a 75 page documents, so there’s quite a lot there. A fair amount of this will be basic admin stuff which won’t be too relevant to your search. It is a little bit hard to decipher this information both in terms of really the old fashioned handwriting but also understanding the military jargon and what was actually going on. But persevere with it and feel free to ask questions, maybe jump online and talk to people on forums or certainly send me an email if you want to and I can help you decipher it because it is certainly some interesting stuff here.

So I’m going to go through a few pages of the service record here to show you what sort of information you can find. The pages tend to be out of order as well, so I might jump around a little bit but I’ll highlight the main points that are there what you can get from these documents, and this tells us more about individual soldiers than any other document you will find.

So this is his attestation paper. So this is his enlistment form. This is the form that he filled in when he enlisted. This is the handwriting of the officer who would have enlisted him just showing, for example, his full name, the date. So this is in May 1916, so near the town of Wyalong in the county of New South Wales. He was a natural born British Citizen.18 1/2 years that was given his age as 18 or 18 years and 1/12. So 18 years and one month. So note this, 18 was the minimum enlistment age. Just bear this in mind for later on. He was an engineer, so I assume a trained engineer and he’s never been an apprentice. He’s not married. Here’s his next of kin. His father and looks like it was changed to his mother, it’s a little bit hard to read. A little bit of information, I can’t quite make that out. Maybe a militia unit – he served for two years in the militia and there we go and here is Reg Crowley’s signature himself on the 22nd of May, 1916. So this is his enlistment paper. This is good. It tells you where they came from, what they did in civilian life. Just moving on through. Again, this is him. He’s signing his forms to enlist.

And now this is actually, usually what you’ll find in these is a handwritten summary of their entire service and then a typed version. So this looks a little bit out of order, so I’m going to keep progressing forward just to get to some more information there. Again, just basic admin documents, which tell us about his service. This is a medical assessment of him from his enlistment time. Now this is where it starts to get interesting. These are the personal records for Reg Crowley for his service for the entire time he served with the Australian Imperial Force. So here’s all the information about when he enlisted. Obviously lots of different people have scribbled all over this and this was an on-going record that was kept throughout his military service, so it provides a summary. Sometimes it’s a bit out of order but this provides more information than just about anything else we can look at.

So this shows us that when he listed in 1916, he was allocated, I can’t see which battalion he was originally allocated to, but in Cootamundra was where he enlisted in the county, New South Wales. He was a private sent to Goulburn. So these are his training. It looks like it was in the 56th battalion originally. So his training units as a private and the dates here. So again, heading through 1916, here’s an interesting one. Here’s a really important one. Embarked in Sydney on the 7th of October, 1916 and disembarked in Plymouth on the 21st of November, 1916. So it took him six weeks to get to Europe. And so that tells you what ship he sailed on and the date that he departed Australia. So in April, 1917, he transferred to the 34th battalion and then more about his service. So more about his training, transferring to the 34th. Okay. Now here is important information here. “Private proceeded overseas to France from Southampton in July, 1917”. So he arrived in England first did some training and then in July 1917, he was sent to France to join his unit. You often see TOS here. TOS, Taken on Strength. That means when did he join the unit? When did the unit write down that he had actually joined them in the field and that was the 30th of July he joined the 34th battalion in France.

A few other things here. I’m showing that he had a few illnesses, went to hospital sick in September, October with a trench fever. Severe trench fever by the look of it. So some sort of virus he would’ve picked up in the trenches late in 1917. He was actually sent back to England. He was so sick. He was sent to Birmingham to be treated in hospital and then sent back to France at the start of 1918. Re-joined his battalion on the 19th of the 3rd and then here we have killed in action on the 4th, 4/5. So the night of April 4 leading into the early hours of April 5, 1918. So unfortunately that’s when he was killed in action.

Something that I should say about the service records is it’s often what they don’t say that is just as important as what they do say, because the service records record incidences that happened. So things that occurred to the soldier during his service. So if he was wounded, if he was killed, if he was sent to hospital sick, if he received a medal, if he received a promotion, if he was absent without leave. Really the things that happened to the soldier during his period of service. What that means is if you have a soldier who doesn’t have much listed in this form; it means that nothing much actually happened to him during the time. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t doing anything. What it means is during that time, he was just serving as a good soldier with his unit. So if you see large gaps of time where there’s no mention of anything going on in the service record, you can assume that for that period of time, your relative or the soldier you are looking up was serving with his unit wherever that unit was serving. So at that time, he would’ve been serving with the unit and fighting in every battle that unit fought in. If he was wounded in one of those battles, it would be listed in his service form.

So if you know that his unit fought in a great battle at Polygon Wood or Passchendaele or Pozieres, or one of these great battles during the time period, and there’s a gap over that time period in your soldiers’ service record, what that probably means is that he was serving with his unit during that battle and was not wounded, killed, sick or promoted during that time. So that’s an important thing to remember. So we’ve now got some really good information. We know the date that he was killed, we know the dates that he arrived in the battlefield, and we know where he was allocated, which unit. So we’ll keep going on here. We’ve really got quite a bit of information now about him that we can use to look for other things.

And these are just copies of his enlistment papers so we can really… here’s a physical description, which is quite interesting to tell us that he was 5 feet 4 3/4 inches tall. Weighed 116 pounds, his chest measurement, complexion medium, eyes blue, hair brown and no scars or tattoos which would be listed in distinctive marks, which is relatively common at this time. You’d be surprised the number of people has scars and tattoos on them. Again, just to further summary of his service, we already have a good amount of information. This is all can be quite interesting. Often there can be letters from the family in here as well, particularly if a soldier was killed asking for more information. Here’s information suggested how he might’ve been killed but we’re going to look into that in a little bit more detail in some other documents. So again, a summary of all his service can be quite difficult to work out.

The thing about all this as well as you want to be writing it down. If you find out he enlisted, you want to always want to have a pen and paper next to you to note down these important dates and important information so you can use those to look in other areas for more information. These are the Graves Units after people were killed after men were killed during the war, after the war sent the family a photograph of their grave. So this is information for the form so that they can send a photograph, and unfortunately Reg Crowley, his body was never identified. So he’s listed on the Villers-Bretonneux memorial along with about 11,000 other Australians.

So more information here and there’s some information about the war medals that he received after the war and it just goes on. So I’m just really skipping through here. A lot of admin stuff – this seems to be change of address just from his next of kin. The memorial scroll, which commemorated him after the war. So this is all, obviously this would be very interesting if you were a relative. So this is something that is very moving and important that I discovered in his record. This is a note, I think from his mother and that’s from his brother John, from his brother John Crowley, who also served just inquiring about particulars written in 1920 just after information asking has his body been identified. I haven’t received any information about where he is buried or location of the grave, so could you please let me know if his body has been found. And this is the really touching part. His father was killed in the same battalion, the 34th at Passchendaele and John Crowley, Private John Crowley. So would you please also furnish me with location of his grave as well? So both father and son killed which is really tragic. John, the father killed in 1917 and then Reg, his son killed in 1918. Really tragic , and this is a document detailing when the effects, his personal effects were returned to the family. So any items he’d left behind in his backpack in his billet before he went into battle would be packaged up and shipped back to the family.

So I won’t go through more of this. There’s basically a lot of admin stuff, but we’ve gotten some really fantastic information there about the soldier. So we know now more about his family history. We know that tragedy that his father was killed at Passchendaele the year before. We know the unit that he served in and we know the dates that he sailed from Australia. We know the date that he was killed; we know where he was killed and a whole heap of information.

So what we can now do is we can take that information. We have that raw information and we can start to drill down using some other resources to paint a much broader picture of the soldier during the First World War.

Now that we have that information about our soldier, about what he did during his career in the military and where he was killed or wounded, his service number, we can now start to dig deeper to paint a bigger picture of what he actually got up to, and the best place to do that is back at the Australian War Memorial website and we’ve come back here to We’re going to click on the people link again as before. We can just type his information here and find it what they’ve got. But there are a few other places we can search. The Roll of Honour details where he was killed and where he now lies. So why don’t we search for that quickly to see what comes up here. So Crowley, the surname again, and the service number is the important parts here to get that information. And searches 102,827. That’s the total number of Australians who are recorded in the Roll of Honor basically who has died serving their country. Staggering number. So here is our soldier again. So if we click here on his name, Oh, they’ve even gotten a photo of him. So here is Reg Crowley during the First World War. How fantastic! Just a young bloke. So this is information about him from the Roll of Honour. So service number, rank, unit. So he served in Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, the date of his death where he died in France, where he was from – West Wyalong New South Wales. And this is the really important part, the cemetery and memorial details. This tells you where he’s buried or where his name is commemorated around the world. So it was Villiers-Bretonneau Memorial. It was Villiers-Bretonneau France.

If that was a cemetery it would tell you which cemetery he was buried in and the grave number as well. Obviously fantastic if you want to go and visit the grave or the memorial. The Roll of Honor is the names of the War Memorial in Canberra. The names of soldiers recorded on tablets in this area of the war memorial. So this shows the location of Reg’s name if you wanted to go and look up his name. So the names on all these tablets and central area of the War Memorial record the names of every Australian soldier killed on active duty. So this is interesting as well.

This is always something worth clicking on as well. The Roll of Honour circular, this was a form that the families were sent after the war and where they recorded information about the soldier. Just one or two pages. So this is always quite interesting. So it tells you who filled the form in. So here’s the summary. So this was filled in by his brother, Mr J.N Crowley and often is a neat little summary. So here’s his name again. 34th Battalion. His service number. So checked, he’s connected with West Wyalong, in New South Wales. His birthplace was West Wyalong, date of death, April, 1918. And that was at Villiers-Bretonneau. So listed here as a student. Now this is the interesting thing I mentioned when we looked at his service record his age when he listed, he listed his age as 18 years of age in 1916. We’re looking at his service record now and this is his brother writing this after the war. His brother is listing him as 18 at the time of his death. So what this tells us is Reg Crowley when he enlisted was only 16, not 18, because he served for two years before he was killed. So Reg was only 16 when he enlisted and he lied and said that he was 18 on his listing papers. But we can now see here that he was 18 at the time of his death. So after two years of service, he must’ve had been 16 when he enlisted, which is a really interesting piece of information straight away. So where he went to school, what was his training? Electrical student. Not applicable. He was born in Australia. And he was served in the military. I can’t quite make that out. We’d know he trained here in the Australian corps. I’m not sure I can’t make that out but he did have some military service as many men did.

Oh, here we go. Any other biographical details likely to be of interest to the historian of the AIF or his regimen. He enlisted at 16 1/2 years of age. So again, quite common for these young people to enlist and lie about their age. Was he connected with any other member of the AIF? Now if you see this blank, that’s good news for the family, but often, far too often we see these details filled in. So basically they’re asking was he associated with any other member of the AIF who died or who distinguished himself. And so what we can see here his father, as we already knew, his father was killed at Passchendaele in 1917. His brother. Okay. So two of his brothers, Oswald James and J.N Crowley who is John Nicholas Crowley, who’s writing this form, both served during the war. So Oswald served in the 18th battalion and John Jnr, the person filling in this form served with the First Regiment, King Edwards Horse in the Imperial Army. So he served with the British in the army. So three brothers and the father served. I actually also know that from other records, his father John, John’s father. So Reg’s uncle Matthew also served and he was killed at Gallipoli. So five boys from this family served in the war and three of them died. So quite a high price paid by the Crowley family. And here’s the information about John. That’s always a good place to go, the circular. So just going back, so this is the Roll of Honour page and just down here at the bottom, the Roll of Honour Circular is always a very good document to click on to find out some more information that might not be readily apparent in other sources. The reason that is it was written by the family after the war. So there’s a picture of young Reg, he was only 16 at the time of his enlistment and 18 when he was killed.

So now that we found out even more information about our soldier from looking at the Roll of Honour, if he was killed. Obviously the Roll of Honor only applies to soldiers that were killed; the Roll of Honor records soldiers who were killed in action. So if your soldier survived, you won’t find any information in the Roll of Honor, but if your soldier was unfortunate enough to lose his life, you will find that information there in the Roll of Honor, always a good spot to look to find it more. But let’s get going now.

This is particularly important if your soldier is listed as appearing on a memorial. Because what that means is their body was never identified. So they may have been buried on the battlefield but the body was never identified after the war. It doesn’t mean that they have no burial place. The most likely scenario is that they’re buried as an unknown soldier in a cemetery, but we don’t know which name belongs to which body so they are buried as an unknown in a cemetery. That’s the fate of most of the soldiers who have no known grave and who are recorded on the memorials. But there’s a fantastic resource we can use to find out a little bit more about soldiers whose bodies were never uncovered or never recovered.

So if we click on people again, we want to go down now to the Australian Red Cross wounded and missing files. So there are 31,000 names in this database of soldiers who were killed and whose bodies were never recovered. And the reason this exists is because the military would be contacted by the families to say, we don’t know what happened to our son. We know that he was killed but there’s no record about what happened to his body. Can you please find out for us? So what they would do is many months after the soldier had been reported missing, they would speak to people from his unit and say, were you there when he went missing, when he was killed? Do you know what happened to him? Was he taken prisoner? Was he wounded? Was he killed? Did you see what happened? And they get official statements from people who were in his unit. So this is absolutely fascinating reading this. So these are basically eye witness accounts of people who were there when the soldier was killed, giving their opinions about what happened. Now, the most important thing about this is because these were usually several months after the event and in the heat of battle, people’s memories are often quite distorted. So you’ll find that there are usually several reports and they often contradict each other.

So if we have a look here, again, usually as we’ve done before, just the name and service number is usually more than enough to find this information. Not every soldier who is missing has one of these files, but many of them do. And here we go. So here’s our soldier again, Reg Crowley. So if you click on his file and download the document and open it up. So these are now the eyewitness accounts of what happened, of what people in Reg’s unit, how they remember him being killed. So let’s go. We were opposite Villiers-Bretonneau. So again, this tells us where he was killed. Villiers-Bretonneau and they were making a raid on a Fritz trench at about 3:00 AM when a rifle bullet hit Reg hitting him in the stomach, killing him outright. Okay. So we’ve got one account that says he was hit by a rifle in the stomach. He was in my platoon, I saw it all. I know nothing of his burial. Okay. So that’s one account.

Here’s another account. We were in the left of Villers-Bretonneux on 4th April, at night, we counter attack at 2:00 AM and Crowley got hit by a bullet in the chest. Okay. That seems to support the previous account that he was shot. I have no knowledge where he’s buried. His father was killed at Passchendaele. Crowley was a mate of mine but I don’t know where he came from. Age about 18 dark, 5 foot 6 we called him Reg. He was in ‘C’ Company, 11 platoon. Okay. That’s really interesting information as well to know what company and even what platoon he was in because as we start investigating further that might tell us more about where he actually served. So ‘C’ Company, 11 platoon. This is where it starts to get really interesting. If you read this account of Reg. He was a little fellow. His name was Reggie, about 19. His father in the same company had been missing or killed last year. We were trying to drive Fritz out of Hangard Wood near Villiers-Bretonneux attacking them before mid-day. Crowley was in the act of bayoneting a German officer. He could use his bayonet very skilfully. The German officer cried out for mercy. That put the young fellow off his guard and the officer shot him with his revolver. I was just a yard or two off. Crowley was shot clean dead. There were two bullets in the stomach. We were furious with that officer, and after we had done with him, his mother wouldn’t have known him. After that we took no more prisoners that day. It was a case of no quarter; I think Crowley’s father had been the editor of a country newspaper at one time, owned a hotel in civil life. Crowley had been with the battalion six or eight months. I very much doubt whether he was buried as it was very unsettled where we were located kind of no man’s land. Very dangerous.

So what a fan. You know what a dreadful but a fascinating account of an action. So Reg was in the process of about to bayonet a German officer during an attack. The officer called out for mercy and then shot Reg twice with his revolver and then the Australians took revenge on that officer and also on every other German they came across for the rest of the day. Absolutely horrific and absolutely fascinating. And as we go through, there are other accounts in his file that support that account that Reg had been shot while in the process of bayonetting a German officer. So pretty harrowing stuff and unfortunately all too common when you delve into these records. So that’s some really interesting information there which paints a really amazing story of Reg and what happened to him in April, 1918.

Now that we found out a lot about our soldier and what he got up to during his time in the First World War, what we can now do is take that information and marry it up with the information about what his unit was doing, what the battalion he served with was doing at the time, because that will tell us more about what he was doing as part of that battalion and where he was killed or wounded or what was happening at a specific time. So because the soldier was killed we want to try and find a little bit more about where he was and where his unit was at the time that he was killed. So that’s what we’re going to look at now. I should add as well, this is going to seem a little bit counter-intuitive, but if the soldier you’re researching was killed, in many ways, it’s actually easier to do the research because if a soldier served throughout the war and then came home after the war it’s often difficult to pinpoint specific locations where he may have been at certain times. But with a soldier who was killed, obviously there’s a very specific moment where he was in a spot where he was killed. So that in many ways can actually be easier to research and can give you a focal point for the research, obviously finding out where a soldier was killed or what he was doing when he was killed.

So what we’re going do now is we want to find out more about the soldier and his unit, what they were up to at the time that he was killed. Charles Bean the man who established the Australian War Memorial in 1941 during the First World War was the official historian and he kept copious notes about absolutely everything the Australians were doing in both Gallipoli and France, and he wrote or edited the Australian official histories that came out after the war. These are a fantastic resource. They’ve always been difficult to come across their big thick hard cover books. They’ve been difficult to find and quite expensive. Lots of libraries have them. But once again, the Australian War Memorial has done a wonderful thing and has digitized every page of those official histories, so that makes our job much, much easier, and these are the number one resource if you want to find out exactly what the Australians were doing, where they were on any specific day of the war.

So to find the digital versions simply hover over Collection. And here we are Official Histories, Rolls and Unit Diaries. So here we are, the Official Histories. There’s a bit of information about the Official Histories and here is the First World War. To save a little bit of time, I’ve already been through this to identify the important parts. So we’ll skip straight to those. But this shows you how you find what you’re looking for. So we want the official history of Australia in the war of 1914 to 1918, and here are all the volumes. There’s this 12 volumes in the series. Its volumes one to six, the most relevant for study of Gallipoli and the Western Front. And each one is a different part of the story. So volume five is the one that deals with this time period. So there’ll be a little bit of time and trial and error perhaps here to find out exactly what you’re looking for, but we know that volume five deals with the Australian actions in that early part of 1918. So we click on volume five.

One thing that’s always good once you get to a specific volume is if you’re looking for a soldier or a specific place these are all the chapters in the book. It can be quite difficult to wade through it all. But the index is here as well. So we know that Reg Crowley several references were made to Villiers-Bretonneau and Hangard Wood where he was killed. So we could search for those in the index and then that would tell us which chapter we need to look in. But once again, I have the one I prepared earlier. I’ve already been through this and know that the information that we want is in this chapter here about the battle of first Villiers-Bretonneau. So again, just a little bit of research. You might have to do a little bit of digging through the index to find out exactly what battle you’re looking for and what time period. But this is the one we’re looking for. So we click, we download the PDF, we click on the link. And here we have in front of us now the digitized version of the official history. Again, I know through previous research that where to look for the information we want. So again, this is incredibly detailed maps of everything that went on and a full discussion of what was happening with the Australians.

So we’re going to skip ahead to page 349 and this will tell us about the situation of the 34th battalion during that attack near Villiers-Bretonneau when Reg Crowley was killed. So you can see here the date in the top right corner, the date, this is the really important thing. So every page in the official history has the date on it of the action. So that’s a way to find out what was going on. So if you don’t know which chapter to look at you click on a chapter, you’ll be able to see which date that chapter deals with. And sometimes entire chapters just deal with one or two days. So we know we’re on the right day and I need to go to page 349. Again here’s a map of the Villiers-Bretonneau sector where the Australians were fighting, 344, 348, and 349. This is the page that we’re interested in. We can see here a couple of interesting things. I’ll just zoom in a little bit so we can see here. Here’s a map showing the Villiers-Bretonneau sector. And now there’s something interesting here. The accounts all said that we were fighting in the Hangard Wood. Now I know the geography here. Hangard Wood is actually quite a bit south of Villiers-Bretonneau but according to this map on the 4th of April, which was the date we are interested in interested in the day that Reg Crowley was killed. The 34th battalion weren’t fighting anywhere near Hangard Wood. They were fighting right next to the village of Villiers-Bretonneau just east of the village. So we can see here that again, those accounts of what happened to Reg were a little bit off the mark in some of their suggestions that the location where these guys were fighting was actually a totally different area to the ones that the soldiers thought.

So perhaps their memory was a little bit clouded after all those months. But we now know definitively that the 34th battalion that Reg was fighting in was fighting here right near the village of Villiers-Bretonneau and I would have to say that this line, the dark line shows where they began, the dotted line shows where they ended. This must’ve been the area where Reg was killed somewhere within here because the accounts talk about how they were advancing on the Germans at the time he was killed. They were in the process of capturing ground from the Germans. So this shows the advance of the 34th battalion. So now we have a really good indicator of where Reg Crowley was killed. And again, this would apply for any soldier that you’re researching. You’d be able to find the same sort of detailed information.

So important points here again. The really important thing when you’re looking at the location is roads. These dark lines are the roads and roads don’t usually change very much. This is a railway line and the roads. So this would show us if we’re looking on a map today exactly where these actions occurred in relation to the village and hopefully enable us to walk the ground today. So we can actually read a little bit further about what happened during this attack. It’s just a description of what went on. Here’s the advance and I assumed this was the advance during which Reg was killed. So just about how they advanced from this point to this point and the 34th battalion led the way. So that’s a really good starting point. So that’s the official history which gives you a fantastic overview of what was happening with the Australians at the time.

Now that we’ve checked the official history to discover what the soldier’s unit was doing at the time. We’re now going to look at a resource that tells us exactly what that unit was up to. And that’s the Unit Records, the Unit Diary for the unit. Basically what that means is each battalion at the end of every day, the commanding officer or another senior officer would fill in a diary entry about what was happening and send that off to headquarters, so headquarters had a fantastic idea of everything that was going on. And once again, the war memorial has digitized all of those records. So you can search all of the unit diaries for just about every unit that served during the First World War. This is a massive archive of information. They vary in quality. Some of them are very, very detailed; some did not contain much detail at all. But they are absolutely fantastic resource for finding out specifically what a unit was doing at the time. So we know the unit we’re interested in is the 34th battalion. So we can go and look that up. So once again its collection unit diaries is what we’re looking for. So we’ve got a unit and commanders war diaries, First World War. Let me scroll down that list. These are all just the categories of units that submitted war diaries and I know from lots of experience that class 23 is infantry. That’s the one you usually want to go to find out about the infantry battalions.

So these are the are all the unit diaries for all the units that served in Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, a huge treasure trove of information. So you can look by the brigade, who is the larger unit, but the ones that are usually most interest are a little bit further down the page. All of the infantry battalion. So here they are. So there were 60 battalions during the war. So we can scroll down to the 34th, which is here. Click on that one. This is the record for 34th. And then this is broken down by month, even more specifically showing what the unit was doing at each stage of the war. So April, 1918 is what we’re after. And here’s the file. Here’s the battalion a unit diary for that period of time. So we can see 34th battalion April, 1918 and the information about who it was that filled it in.

So it’s a little bit hard to read, but what you can do here is you can enlarge and then zoom in again. And so you can read it. Well quite lucky with this one, that the 34th was actually very specific about what the unit was up to. So we can see here, just as an example, place was the Blois Abbey which is near Villiers-Bretonneau the date on the 1st of April, 1918 and the time 8:00 AM so his report weather bright and clear, increased aerial activity. Two large squadrons with 14 enemy planes came over. So this tells you what was going on at the time.

Something you also see here quite often is map references. So if we look here, for example, these are map references showing exactly where the unit was on a trench map which we can talk about a little bit later as well. So I’m going to close that window. I’m going to flip through the unit diary until we get to; I’m just looking at the dates here and the date column until we get to the 4th of April. So here we are.

There are actually several pages here detailing what went on the 4th of April. So I won’t go through all the details with you because it’s very detailed. But just to give you an idea. So it shows here, 10:00 AM 34th battalion ordered to move from one position to another. Battalion moved off in artillery formation, ‘A’ Company on the right, ‘B’ Company on the left, ‘C’ Company in support. This is interesting because we know that from our previous record that Reg Crowley was in ‘C’ Company. So that tells us that they were the support company. So they were a little bit behind the leading to and here’s where they advanced in the vicinity of this. If we had a trench map, we’d be able to see specifically where they were advancing. And this talk about how they advance to a line and the enemy subjected them to a severe bombardment at 1:10 PM. So it’s about this time in the morning that the accounts say that Reg was killed. But reading through this, there was also another account from the 34th later in the day. So that could’ve been another attack from the 34th later in the day. So it could have been that time that Reg was killed as well. It’s really impossible to say. I won’t get through all the details here, but suffice it to say there’s a huge amount of detail about what the battalion was doing at the time, which can be absolutely fantastic to put into context. Not just where the battalion was operating, which is important to know, but also what they were doing at the time. So the unit diaries of the battalion of the soldier you’re looking for are really important at painting a complete picture.

Now the final part in exploring what our soldier did and where he was killed is this really fantastic resource from the National Library of Scotland, of all places. They’ve taken basically modern maps and then they’ve overlayed them with trench maps, and what you can do is you can then use that to determine what was there during the war and what is there now. So basically when you load it up, so this is the site now. So I’ll put the link to the specific site in the show notes, but it’s the National Library of Scotland trench maps. And so basically you find the part of the battlefield that you’re looking for and with a little bit of a trial and error, over here you find which trench map you’re looking for. So it starts like this with a modern map, and you select in this part, find the part of the battlefield that you’re interested in. So here’s Villiers-Bretonneau we can see here in the center of the screen. So we select World War I trench maps, and I know through a little bit of trial and error that the trench map, I want to turn on is 62 southeast, this one here. And this trench map was drawn in June, 1918 so this was later than the attack, but it shows us where the German trenches were at the time that were attacked by the 34th battalion in action during which Reg Crowley was killed. So what we can do, I’ve zoomed in here on Villiers-Bretonneau. You remember from the accounts that we read in the official history in the unit diaries, that this was the area where the attack occurred.

And if I had to guess, we know that they attacked a German position, which was quite strong machine gun position and Reg Crowley was killed attacking a German trench. If I had to guess, I’d say this red line here was the trench that they attacked between the railway line and the road up here. This was the area east of the village where they attacked. So my best guess, I think probably specifically as we could get we would say that this was probably the trench where Reg Crowley was killed in that advance. And the wonderful thing about this site, what we can do is using this slider here; the transparency of overlay slider is we can turn the trench map off so that we can see the modern map. Turn the trench map all the way on so that we can see the trench map or find somewhere in the middle. And I find this is an absolutely fantastic resource for determining what’s there today.

And obviously if you want to visit the battlefield and walk the ground where this soldier was killed, this is a fantastic resource. So if we say that the red trench here was our best guess as to where he was killed. Let’s zoom out so that we can see both. So you can see there’s the red trench overlaid over the modern map. So the roads are all still the same. There’s still a railway line there. Is this road still here? This road may be gone. So that road no longer exists. You can see there’s a road through here running through that area that was there in 1918 and as we zoom out, we can see it doesn’t really exist anymore. It comes through here and then we can see a fade outline of it in the field. Seems to be another line there of another road, but it doesn’t really exist anymore. But that would be a great pointer for the spot that we’re looking for. If we went to this intersection here, this roundabout, and then walked out into this field. It looks like there’s probably a farm track there. If we walk that distance to it takes a little bit of a bend to the left and then we look into that field. That’s where the German trench was. So really anywhere in this field, that’s the area where Reg Crowley was killed. So as a resource, this is really wonderful now that we could actually plan if Reg Crowley was a soldier we were looking for. If that was our relative and we wanted to get as close as we possibly could, we can now go to Villiers-Bretonneau and we can drive out along this road, park the car and actually walk out into the field when he was killed and know that we’re standing fairly near to the side of that trench where he was killed.

So obviously a wonderful experience to be able to get that close to everything that went on. And really the completion of our journey in the footsteps of Reg Crowley standing on the spot. We could stand in that field where Reg Crowley lost his life in that terrible incident where he was shot by the German officer. So I mean, it’s really moving. I feel really moved to be even looking at this spot on this map to know what went on there. So I imagine it would be even more moving to walk out into that field. So definitely next time I’m at Villiers-Bretonneau after having done this research today, I’m going to take the opportunity to walk out to that field where Reg was killed and pay my respects. And I hope that you have the opportunity to do the same thing with a relative or a soldier that you would like to research.

So that’s how you go about researching a World War I soldier. There are a lot of fantastic resources out there on the web, so I hope you can get out there and do some research yourself. Thanks for joining me. I’ll see you again soon.


Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

Sign up for exclusive content!

My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.