The Embarkation Rolls draw together the information given on the Attestation Forms, signed by each member of the AIF at the time of enlistment. At the end of the war, the individual Attestation Forms were conflated into unit lists, and then published. There are several sets in existence, and each differs in varying degrees from the others. The AIF Project has drawn in the first instance on the Embarkation Rolls held by the Australian War Memorial; other sets will be integrated into the database as time permits.
From the Embarkation Rolls the following information can be derived: name, address, age, religion, occupation, rank, number and unit on enlistment, date of enlistment, previous military service, next of kin as designated by the enlistee, next of kin's address, relationship of next of kin to the enlistee, date of embarkation from Australia, ship and place of embarkation. Note that the Army did not ask for the date of birth, but only the stated age. Thus many men were able to provide a false age, sometimes because they were too young, more often because they were too old.
The Nominal Roll updates the information provided on the Embarkation Rolls in that it gives us details of each member of the AIF at the end of the war. Thus it tells us the number and rank of each person, and their unit, any decorations they might have received, their ultimate fate in the war (killed in action, died of wounds/disease/illness, returned to Australia) and the date of the fate. Unlike the 2nd AIF, an individual's number could change in the course of the war. For example, a soldier who was wounded at Gallipoli, sent back to Australia in 1915 and discharged, might have reenlisted in 1916, at which time he would normally have been issued with a new number. Units could often change, especially with the Light Horse, much of which after 1915 was converted into other arms. Privates were sometimes promoted to non-commissioned rank, and the Nominal Roll provides the only comprehensive listing of such promotions.
Details of decorations and the date of their promulgation, and (sometimes) the circumstances leading to its conferral are drawn from the Australian War Memorial. Citations for all decorations (when a citation accompanied an award) are being added progressively.
Details of promotions at the commissioned level are drawn from the Army Lists, and include the date of promotion. No such consolidated list exists for non-commissioned officers: minimal details are drawn from the Nominal Roll, supplemented in some cases by information from the Roll of Honour circulars (see below).
Roll of Honour circulars
In the 1920s and early 1930s questionnaires were sent to the next of kin of those members of the AIF who had died during the war or whose death up to the end of 1921 was deemed to be the result of war service. Information was sought partly for the writing of the official history under the direction of C.E.W. Bean and also for the drawing up of the official Roll of Honour, the bronze tablets of which now line the colonnades of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Inevitably not all the forms were returned: next of kin had died or could not be traced, in which case the Records Section filled in what details it could from the individual's AIF dossier. These entries, written in a distinctive clerical script, do not contain much of the background information that was sought, but they usually list in outline form the movements and any promotions (at officer or NCO rank), together with the appropriate dates, which in the case of NCOs could only be obtained otherwise from the individual's dossier, since promotions at non-commissioned level were not centrally recorded in, for example, the Army List.
The quality of the forms that were returned varies enormously. Questions, for example "Place where killed or wounded", were often unanswered, or left with the poignant comment "I have never been told and would dearly like to know", or answered incorrectly: "Battle of Messines, France" instead of "Messines, Belgium". Where the answer is simply given as "France", this is recorded, but is open to correction. Where a place and country is given (Messines, France), this is corrected before being entered on the database. "What was his calling" produces a range of responses, from the expected statement of occupation to "King and Country", and even "John Smith". The request for additional biographical details that might have been of interest to the official historian brought enormous amounts of information, from accounts of pre-war achievements to wartime acts of bravery, often accompanied by letters, newspaper cuttings and photographs. The request for details of relatives killed or who distinguished themselves in the AIF usually brought a much less selective response: records of relations who served in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, and lists of brothers, uncles, cousins and brothers-in-law who served in the AIF, whether or not they fitted into the criteria specified on the form. These details of relatives enable us to cross reference extended family networks, as does the computer generated identification of brothers and fathers sons from the Embarkation Rolls.
The Army maintained a personal file on each member of the AIF. These files are now held by the National Archives of Australia, Canberra branch, and have now been digitized and posted on the Archives website. To access these files, go to www.naa.gov.au, click on "A Gift to the Nation". Each file contains (except where it has been lost) the individual's attestation [i.e. enlistment] form, the details of which make up the consolidated unit embarkation rolls. Apart from sundry correspondence, often generated by an individual's family enquiring about his or her welfare, the dossiers contain Form B103 that provides a detailed account of an individual's movements in relation to his or her unit. Where the AIF Project has accessed these records, the individual database entry is significantly enriched. Time and resources mean, however, that it is unlikely, at least in the short to medium term, that all these files can be read and their details digested and added to the database.
Post war deaths
The great majority of the members of the AIF returned to Australia and lived beyond the 1921 cutoff date for inclusion on the Roll of Honour. Those whose deaths post-1921 were attributed to war service are recorded by the Office of War Graves. Their place of burial can be recognised either by the distinctive white headstone or by the grave marked by a bronze tablet bearing the AIF emblem (the "Rising Sun"). From the consolidated records of such members of the AIF we can determine their date of death, age at death, place of burial or cremation, and whether or not they are commemorated by an appropriate plaque in an official Garden of Remembrance.
Many deceased members of the AIF are not recorded in this first category. There are several ways of locating information about some of them. Headstones often mention service in the AIF, or simply use the words "Lest We Forget" or include the AIF Emblem. In smaller cemeteries it is possible to check local enlistment records against headstones bearing the appropriate life span dates. Death notices in newspapers and funeral notices will sometimes allude to previous military service where there is no other mention in the subsequent cemetery records. Major metropolitan newspapers and ex-servicemen's journals are being systematically read for this information, as are the cemetery transcripts where available. This last part of the database will inevitably take much longer than other sections, and in all likelihood will never be complete. Information relating to individuals is always welcome and will be added to our records as it is received.
Copyright Peter Dennis/The AIF Project, UNSW Canberra, 2014