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Digging Into the Past

Like a lot of people, I have an interest in my family history, compounded by the fact that it’s actually pretty blurry before my grandparents’ generation. The National Archives of Australia launched a service yesterday which provides service records for everyone who served with the Australian Imperial Force in the First World War. It’s been slow, flaky and there’s been the small problem that the search link on the aforelinked page doesn’t actually work, but I’ve finally been able to get a service record for my great-grandfather, Private Martin Allen, who served from 1917 to 1919 in the 11th Battalion.

It’s been fascinating reading. We don’t know all that much about Martin for a combination of reasons (most of which are related to the fact that very few people in my family would find a good word to say about him) — most of what we have is some fragmentary correspondence and some birth records that may or may not be especially accurate, given the state of record-keeping in late 19th century Ireland. Getting nineteen pages worth of service records from the National Archives was more than we would have expected, and fills in a few gaps, both in the obvious sense of his service history but also his personal details, some of which are now a bit clearer. It’s also raised some new questions: his application form lists a year of prior military service in the 25th Light Horse, which neither mum nor I knew about. (It doesn’t show up on the National Archives, but Wikipedia indicates that the 25th was named so in 1912, so it may have been pre-war.) That being said, Martin has a reputation as being a bit of a liar, so it’s entirely possible that it was made up, but it seems like something that might be worth checking out some more.

Still, what’s not in dispute is that Pte Allen enlisted in early 1917 and spent a period of time in camp in England in late 1917 before being dispatched to the front line in January 1918, where he quickly became ill (what he was ill with is not in the record). After being patched up and sent back to the front, he then fell ill with influenza and diphtheria in March. After a period of convalescence and assignments at a depot, he was then sent back to the front in late August, just in time to take part in the second half of the Second Battle of the Somme and, more broadly, the Hundred Days Offensive. From there, he remained with his unit through the armistice and into 1919, when he was granted a couple of leaves (presumably to visit his family in Ireland) before being returned to Australia in August 1919 and discharged in September of that year. Somewhat surprisingly, his disciplinary record during the two and a bit years he was with the Army was spotless.

It’s an unremarkable story in many ways. Films aren’t made about such men. Grand epics skim over them. It’s fair to say that his post-war life was not a particularly happy or productive one, with the exception of his children, one of whom was Keith Allen, my maternal grandfather, who I knew a bit better. (Incidentally, summary records of Australian soldiers in World War 2 are also available, and since I can link to it fairly easily, here’s the record for the late Cpl Keith Allen.) But being able to read these records has, in a small way, made me feel as though I know — if only fleetingly and second- and third-hand — another of my ancestors who died many years before I was born.

That’s the beauty of these archives, which many governments lock up, charge for access to and wouldn’t dream of making available on-line for no cost. (For example, I’d love to be able to get even summary records for my paternal grandparents, who both served for Britain in WW2, but as far as I can tell, there’s basically no way to do it without spending a fair amount of time and money.) These free, comprehensive archives are a treasure trove for people like me who want to know a little more about their family. So, kudos, National Archives, for spending the three and a half years it took to digitise the WW1 records. I look forward to the WW2 records in due course — and that any eventual descendants of mine can look back at the records of their great-(great-)grandparents as well, and feel some small connection to them as I have.

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