Twenty years ago, historians could travel to the National Archives of Australia (NAA), Canberra, where they could request the Personal Service Records of individuals who served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War. Today, those records are digitised and available online via the NAA website (naa.gov.au) under the B2455 series number; with a few clicks of their mouse, researchers have access to a remarkable wealth of information.
Those Personal Service Records are not just snapshots of war service or moments in time, they often provide detailed information on both pre- and post-wartime lives. The records include basic details (such as height, weight, hair colour, religion and occupation) and physical details (such as birthmarks, tattoos and scars), these records can also tell us more broadly about the individual and any long-term impacts of military service that they experienced, including:
- difficulties in finding employment in the post-war years
- war-related illnesses
- experience with post-war training and education in trying to readjust to civilian life and maintain a spirit of hope
- relationships, marriage and children.
These records, for both their breadth and depth of inquiries, provide researchers with important historical research. When paired with other records of the time – such as AIF Attestation Papers, Embarkation Rolls and Unit War Diaries – these Personal Service Records enable us, even without the use of letter and diary collections, to trace the wartime experiences of individuals.
In the past, military historians have dominated the use of war records, but there is clear scope here for family historians and genealogists to tap into this valuable resource. Those personal, biographical, family, and local histories provide broader life perspectives and contexts that are so often missing from military histories. They enable us to see these service personnel as individuals who had a life beyond their service careers. Such alternative approaches help us to see these individuals as people with emotions, agency and, of course, lives outside the military.
Associate Professor Nathan Wise
Public and Applied History, University of New England (UNE)