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How to access Service Dossiers

Guide to accessing Service Dossiers in the National Archives of Australia and the Embarkation Roll on the Australian War Memorial website.
BRUCE SCATES: It’s often said that the Great War was the first industrialised war of modern history. The driver here, dragged the big guns into position. And the mass killings of Flanders and the Somme, well, that was slaughter on a truly mechanised scale. But if this was an industrialised war, it was also a highly bureaucratised one as well. This is Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. And this Turkish howitzer was captured by Australian mounted forces as they advanced on the holy city of Jerusalem. In 1919, this building held the records of over 400,000 men and women, who, at some stage of the war, had volunteered for service with the first AIF. Really, the Great War was a massive exercise in accounting.
Forms, papers, letters, they were just as crucial as aircraft and dreadnoughts, gas, and guns. A vast swath of these reports has now been digitised. It’s a shared initiative of Australia’s and New Zealand’s National Archives. And now Bec and Laura are going to work your way through them.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: The service dossiers are the ideal starting point for researching any Australian serviceman or woman. A few years ago, the National Archives of Australia began the massive project of digitising every single one of those first AIF dossiers, all 376,000 of them. If you are searching for a particular person, type their name and service number, if you have it, into the search box. Select Go, and your results will appear. For example, I will search for William Rae. With the search for William Rae, I find more than 190 results. Obviously, we want to narrow this down a little. The service dossiers are all part of the one series– B2455. So I can select Refine Search, and enter B2455.
And the results are a much more manageable 22 results. Here, you may need to glance through some of the files to search out what you are looking for. Or in the title of files can be some helpful indicators– place of birth, next of kin, middle name, and service number, the latter being the most helpful. I know that the William I am looking for has the service number 4765. So I can, again, refine the search to include that detail. And here is the man we’re looking for.
On the first few pages of the service dossier, we get an insight into the subject’s life before they set out for the front– where they were born, what their job was, their next of kin, their age. William, we learn, was 21 years old, a printer at an office in Sydney, and his father was his next of kin. A few pages into the dossier, we will find out what this person actually looked like– their age, height, weight, chest measurement, complexion, eyes, and hair. We can colour in that newspaper paper image we have of William, standing on the left. Seated next to him is his brother Donald. We learned that William was 5’ 3” and 136 pounds.
And he has fair complexion with brown eyes and light brown hair.
The service dossier will also tell us about our service person’s movement throughout the war. Sometimes they are handwritten notes. Other times, they are neatly typed out, like here in William’s dossier. It is always a good idea to have a quick scroll through the dossier before you set out to decipher that hasty handwriting, only to find out a few pages later it is copied out in neat type. These logs of activity can sometimes be slightly out of order, so you need to look closely at the detail too. We can see where William begins his service, leaving Australia, arriving in England, and going on to France. And it doesn’t take William long to experience the trauma of war.
In November, he receives a GSW to his right arm. GSW is a gun shot wound. And it is an abbreviation you come across very often in the dossiers. He returned to England for treatment, only to come down with the mumps. William returned to the fighting in France. You can see here some more of the AIF abbreviations that appear frequently in the dossiers. TOS means taken on strength. And M/ means marched out. So William was marched out and taken on strength, and back in the field in October 1917. And then comes that tragic entry, killed in action. William had survived months more in the field.
And just under a year after he’d returned from his first wound, he was killed on the 8th of August, 1918. William’s dossier also includes the reference and details of his burial– the grave reference and the Reverend who presided over the burial. Each dossier is different, and you never know what you will find within each file. There are details that can add to the picture we are building of each person. Like here, we see that William’s possessions were sent home to his family– a money belt, a testament, two purses, silk handkerchief, letters, cards, two books of views, wallet of photos, more photos, a notebook, and a souvenir paper. Listing these items can really humanise these collections of papers.
There are many other things that can appear in the service dossiers– correspondence with the serviceman’s family from the serviceman himself– during the war and long after– notes on burials, insubordination, citations for awards, and medical notes detailing sickness, injury, and even venereal disease. This collection is incredible. It’s so easily accessible, and it’s so rich in detail.

Watch Rebecca Wheatley guide you through the process of accessing the Service Dossiers on the National Archives of Australia website.

Note: Websites referred to in this presentation were accessed in early 2015 and there may have been minor modifications to some of the sites since then.

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