Researching Australian military history: Online research ‘gems’

Researching Australian military history: Online research ‘gems’

In the past decade, researchers into Australian military history have benefited greatly from an enormous increase in the availability of online resources. We’d like to share with you some of the online ‘gems’ that DVA historians often draw on in their own research.

22 March 2021

In the past decade, researchers into Australian military history have benefited greatly from an enormous increase in the availability of online resources. These include a wealth of primary and secondary sources and useful reference material. While this is very exciting for researchers, the sheer amount of material can be overwhelming. 

So, it is always helpful to have a starting point from which to launch your own research. We’d like to share with you some of the online ‘gems’ that DVA historians often draw on in their own research. This is by no means an exhaustive list – you might find your own research goldmines. 

The Anzac Portal website also includes numerous resources on the history of Australian military service, and further information on how to research military history. 

Family History Research 

Many people begin their research journey by exploring their own family history. There are many excellent resources available online to help. The DVA website has a useful introductory guide, called Just Ask which will help you get started. 

Service records are the most common way into learning about an ancestor’s military service and the National Archives of Australia is the first port of call. Its website includes detailed information on the defence and service records in its collection, some of which, including all First World War records, are digitised and available online. 

National and State Collecting Institutions

The Australian War Memorial is the best known resource for Australian military history research. While a significant amount of the material in its collection is not yet digitised, some resources are available online with new material appearing regularly. This includes photographs, letters and diaries – both personal and military unit war diaries, film footage, which is searchable through the collection section of the website, and oral history transcripts. 

Among the many research ‘gems’ in the AWM collection are the First World War Australian Red Cross Missing and Wounded files. These can be found under the People tab on the website and include fascinating first-hand accounts of the fate of Australians killed or listed as missing in the war. The accounts often vary, giving researchers insight into how difficult it was for the Red Cross to provide the kind of certainty that relatives of the dead and missing craved. 

The National Library has much helpful online material, including the fantastic resource known as Trove. Trove hosts numerous records, including digitised newspapers, magazines and newsletters, photographs, archived webpages and much else besides. 

The State libraries also have rich collections of digitised material to explore. The State Libraries of Victoria and New South Wales, for example, both have an impressive database of digitised images illustrating Australian military history. The latter also has an impressive online collection of First World War diaries and letters. The State Library of South Australia Digital Collections database includes many items relating to South Australians at War

The National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) holds an incredible collection of Australia’s film and sound history. The NFSA has a number of curated collections relating to Australian military history which are available online. Among these is a collection relating to popular music during the First World War and another which explores Anzac Day marches and traditions. 

Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force History websites

The Navy’s Seapower Centre website includes many interesting articles on the history of the RAN. One of the most helpful resources is the ship histories, which include technical and historical detail along with in-depth essays on dozens of Australian naval vessels. In addition to a range of excellent essays and reference tools, the Seapower Centre website also hosts a fascinating range of reference documents. One intriguing example is the book detailing HM Ships damaged or sunk by enemy action in the Second World War

The Air Force’s online presence is more limited but does include items like an outline of the history and specifications of the aircraft held at the Temora Aviation Museum

In addition to helpful historical summaries and articles, the Army History Unit has a number of interesting primary source documents digitised on its website. One unique example is a booklet issued in 1962 detailing the training of war dogs.

Australian Dictionary of Biography 

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) has an impressive collection of digitised concise biographies of significant and representative people in Australian history. Many figures associated with Australian military history are included in the ADB. 

Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Office of Australian War Graves 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is responsible for the commemoration of men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars. The CWGC website has many useful and often poignant resources online, such as the First World War enquiry files, which record the correspondence between the CWGC and families of war casualties. Another invaluable resource is the searchable Find War Dead database which provides information on casualty records, including the location of burial or commemoration. 

The Office of Australian War Graves (OAWG), as well as being the CWGC’s agent in Australia and the region, is responsible for the official commemoration of those members of the Australian Armed Forces who have died in conflicts other than the two world wars, and for those whose death post-conflict is accepted as war caused. OAWG is also responsible for the collective commemoration of the role played by Australian forces through the construction and maintenance of Australia’s official war memorials overseas. You can search for an individual’s commemoration using our online ‘search for a commemoration’ function

This is just a tiny fraction of the incredible number of resources you can find online when you’re researching Australian military history. There is much to explore and discover and we wish you all the best on your research journey. If you have any online ‘gems’ you’ve come across in your own military history research, consider sharing them on DVA social media. 


Man at desk covered in files

Military historian C E W Bean working on official files at Victoria Barracks in Sydney during the writing of The Official History of Australia in the War of 19141918. The files on his desk are probably the Operations Files, 1914–18 War, that were prepared by the Army between 1925 and 1930 and are now held by the Australian War Memorial as AWM 26. These files are now digitised, and available online on the AWM website.

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