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How to access war diaries

Watch Laura James guide you through the process of accessing war diaries on the Australian War Memorial website.
LAURA JAMES: Once you’ve found your missing man, you may want to know more about the action that claimed his life. One of the ways you can do this is by looking at the war diary of the unit where he served. Every single military unit, the headquarters of the AIF, and all medical and support battalions were asked to record their daily location, a summary of activities and operations, any orders, instructions, or messages received, as well as an assessment of the strength of the unit. Sometimes unit diaries also included maps, photographs, and sketches to accompany the entries. However, these diaries are all different in the amount of information that they share.
Some of this is due to the type of unit recording the entries. Casualty Clearing Stations and ambulances are obviously a lot different to battalions, or the Light Horse regiment. But these diaries also vary, depending on the interest of the officer recording the experiences themselves. Some of them are extremely detailed and provide a wealth of information for researchers. Others are sporadic and limited in their communications. Unit diaries can also be somewhat difficult to explore, as you need to know both the military unit that you’re wanting to search and the precise date of the event that you’re looking for. The database of First World War unit diaries is presented as a list of military subclasses.
If you are looking for a Battalion diary, you will need to select AWM, subclass 23, to find an infantry battalion. If you are searching for a Light Horse regiment, you will need to select AWM, subclass 10, Light Horse Units. Today we’ll be looking at the war diaries of the Number 1, First Australian Casualty Clearing Station. So I have selected to view the unit diaries relating to the medical, dental, and nursing units. After selecting the military class you wish to browse, the database will take you through to a list of units. Again, I’m searching for the Number 1, First Australian Casualty Clearing Station.
Once I have found and selected the unit I’m looking for, I can see a chronological list of that unit’s war diary entries. I’m searching for the unit diary from July 1917 for this exercise. This is the front page of the diary of the Number 1 First Australian Casualty Clearing Station from July 1917. By using the navigation tools, I can move my way through the diary, zoom in and out of the entries, or view a PDF of the document as a whole. This entry records the events and activities occurring at the Number 1 First Australian Casualty Clearing Station in the few first days of July 1917.
It records the station’s location at Bailleul France, and most specifically, for my research today, on the injury of Staff Sister Rachael Pratt on the 4th of July. It reads, “An enemy airplane dropped a bomb in our tent
at 3:40 AM. Sister R. Pratt, AANS, was wounded in the right shoulder and right lung. Rachael Pratt was a nurse from Country Victoria. After tending to Turkish prisoners and Australian soldiers invalided from Gallipoli on the Greek island of Lemnos, Rachel worked in Egypt and England before arriving in France in 1917. It was here in July that she suffered severe shrapnel wounds to the back and shoulder, which penetrated through to her lung. Rachael continued to nurse her patients until collapsing herself. She was awarded a Military Medal for her bravery and courage, one of only seven Australian nurses to be recognised in such a way.
After a period of convalescence, she returned to France before being invalided home to Melbourne in 1917, suffering chronic bronchitis. In later years, due to her experiences, Rachael Pratt also suffered psychological trauma as a result of her war experiences, eventually becoming permanently and completely incapacitated and confined to a mental asylum. Rachael is one of the stories we have featured this week. And we’ll return to her story again at the end of this course when we consider repatriation records. Unit diaries are a great comparison tool for researchers, providing context and additional details on an event that a person’s service file may not going into. However, these diaries are all different in the information that they share.
Some are extremely detailed and provide a wealth of information. Others are sporadic and limited in their communication. Rachael Pratt’s service file notes that she was wounded in action in France. But the unit of the First Australian Casualty Clearing Station, where she was also working as a nurse, is able to provide us with the exact time, location, and a description of how Rachael was wounded. Although not every wound or death of an Australian service personnel of the First World War is reported in the unit diaries, they are worth checking, if only for context.
Watch Laura James guide you through the process of accessing war diaries on the Australian War Memorial 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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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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