Ancestors in the military

With Remembrance Day being 11th November here in Australia and New Zealand, tonight the chat was totally about military  – records, websites, resources, blog posts

The four questions were:

  1. What records, repositories, books, diaries or military histories have you used to research your military ancestors?
  2. Have you researched ancestors in other wars eg Vietnam, Korea, Boer war, Crimea or even Napoleonic war.
  3. What non-military service did your family members give during war time?
  4. Have you inherited any special memorabilia or discovered an unusual story about your service people?

So today’s post is going to be a lot of links to websites and resources for researching your ancestors in the military. Then we will look at some personal memories and finally blog posts and books to read and videos to watch.

AD_Images / Pixabay

Websites and resources

Australian military

Australian War Memorial records including:

National Archives of Australia records including:

Canadian Military

War grave registers on Ancestry

Military Heritage at Libraries and archives

New Zealand military

Members of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in their bunks below the ground at La Fosse Farm

Other countries and general resources about war

Commonwealth War Graves including:

Red Cross

British Military Forces

Wounded World War I soldier being cared for at a field hospital

Great websites about WWI in general

Holocaust searching

Personal memories

Hilary: I found the best resource was looking at who got the effects of those who lost their lives

Pauleen: remember to check Facebook groups for POW camps and POWs

Merron: I have found the names of around 500 men & women connected to Hamilton, Vic who enlisted and written bios of around 150. My usual starting point is The AIF Project. Easy to search, can search by town and results give lots of info. I also use Monument Australia for honour boards, @UkNatArchives as some enlisted with the British forces including a number of nurses I have researched.

Hilary: we have a photocopy of a letter sent to my grandmother from her brother before he died, original with orphanage where she was living

Brooke: I was reading a unit diary. I very quickly formed an attachment to the writer. Suddenly it stopped. I was heartbroken.

Pauleen: My father’s cousin was MIA then KIA in Korea. I have researched his service history and the documents around it, and the unit diaries. When I blogged about him I received comments from people who knew of him.

Sewing room at Government House, Melbourne

Sue: I have one ancestor in the militia rolls in Bedfordshire in the 1700s I think. Was found for me by another person in Bedfordshire while I found out about her convict in Tassie

Maggie: I’ve researched the first husband of my gg grandmother who died during the First Anglo/Boer war. I found a book online that detailed how he died

Margaret: I’ve not found anyone in those wars but have in the American Wars. One possibly in the Crimea. I’m looking at the Napoleonic Wars next for some of my family.

Jill: Just remembered I found lots about an Australian soldier in local newspapers at The British Library as his mother lived in a small town in England and they reported on him.

Pauleen: I had forgotten that a Kent relative had served in the Maori wars. Any Kiwis with relatives they’ve traced to these?

Maggie: A ggg grandfather was in the Taranaki Militia that fought at the Battle of Waireka in 1860. Want to research more, even if I won’t like what I find

Brooke: I also have a very Jane Austen scenario. In 1793 the Staffordshire militia marched to Devonshire and was finally quartered at Plymouth. Edward Holmes of the militia married a local girl Charlotte Masters. My 5th great-grandparents.

Fran: My mother and her 2 sisters worked on the land north of where they lived in Wellington, NZ. There was a big USA camp nearby. This lead to my mother marrying a US soldier.

Brooke: An Anzac I’ve written about was a prolific letter writer and appeared to have a buddy at the local paper. So many of his letters were published, providing a first-hand account of his experiences.

Jennifer: There are a few WW1 and WW2 nurses in our family. An aunt was in the land army in WW2

Jill: I find reading fiction set in the war years give a good insight into life during those periods


Merron: For Victorians, check @PRO_Vic for probate files of soldiers who died. I have found amazing letters between a soldier and a woman who gave birth to his baby after his departure in his probate file. They were used to prove her right to be a benefactor.

Hilary: not sure what my grandfather did during WW2 but he worked at the docks and was probably busy helping to load and unload ships

M. Smith: My English grandfather was in St John’s in his home town in WW1 and in the Heavy Rescue Unit in WW2 and went to Coventry when it was bombed.

Margaret: What counts as non-military service? My parents sent food parcels to the UK. When I was born, I was sent a soft toy as a gift. They used the wood boiler for hot water, saving electricity.

Sue: I had a few who were given exemptions during WWI as they had to look after elderly parents or was only son to work the farm.

Pauleen: My dad, and both grandfathers worked for the railway and so were essential services. Dad told me how he supervised some Italian POWs doing labour for the railway in WWII

ANZ: I think all contributions and sacrifices counted. Some families got heavily involved with fund raising or making walking sticks while their sons (usually) were away.

Brooke: So glad you asked this question. In WW2 my grandfather, a carpenter/joiner for Australasian United Steam Navigation Company (AUSNC) in Sydney, was required to adapt ships to be troop carriers.

Pauleen: My mother was a volunteer with the Women’s Air Training Corps and the Volunteer Air Training Corps doing plane spotting at Brisbane during WWII. My grandfather enlisted in WWI when they called for experienced railwaymen to work on the lines to the Western Front.

Jennifer: I just had a memory of the letters I wrote to a soldier in Vietnam War when I was 13. I was given his name by a minister because he had no family to send him mail

Gunner Ernie Widders writes a letter from Vietnam

Jill: My Mother was a social butterfly who worked in the GPO and from her photo albums I can see that she and her 4 sisters spent a lot of time entertaining the troops through the ANZAC House younger set

Sue: My mum remembers her father digging a bomb shelter for them in Sandy Bay and helping to dig the trenches at Albuera Street School. Also have some ration cards from WWII belonging to my grandmother.

Margaret: My father was away some of the time as he was at Featherston POW camp. He features in the book that was written about the incident!

Brooke: I want to do more research on reserved occupations. The lists changed as the war went on depending on need. There was badge issued to show they weren’t cowards. Does anyone have a reserved occupation badge from their ancestor?

Paul: one branch of my family served as Auxiliary Fireman and including my Great Aunt who sadly lost her life in the largest ever loss of life in one incident for the London Fire Brigade


Pauleen: I have inherited WWI medals from my grandfather Denis Joseph Kunkel. They will be passed on to my grandchildren

Carmel: we have my husband’s father’s pilot log book WW2

Jill: I have Dad’s kit bag, a pair of his khaki shorts, his medals and some photos. I have quite a collection of photos from Dad’s time in the army. The pictures from Tarakan are particularly interesting. In contrast I have a collection of a distant ancestor’s memorabilia including honours medals and the invitation to his investiture at Buckingham Palace.

Brooke: When I received my grandfather’s WW2 records I discovered he was AWOL… a lot! His excuse was priceless…he had to sing on the radio to earn money to pay off a debt. (I don’t know how to determine the truth of this. Old recordings from radio station?)

Jennifer: My father never applied for his medals. He arrived in Japan at the end and was there for peacekeeping and felt he didn’t deserve them. I was able to get them for him but he was still not interested. Said he felt like a fraud accepting them

Jill: I just wish my father would have talked about his war experiences. Like many returned men he just didn’t open up

M. Smith: One of my most favourite books is Helene Hanff’s book “84 Charing Cross Road” set in WW2. It gives a great insight into life in England from a US point of view. Great humour too.

Jennifer: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff is the last one I read. Another recent release war novel set in Paris The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

WAAAFs in action

Blog posts and books to read and videos to watch and photos to see

Carmel’s book recommendations for WWII background

Jill’s book recommendations with war as a tag

Monash 100 Stories video collection – Sue’s blog posts relating to the Future Learn Course WWI – 100 stories videos

Digital New Zealand – search for camps eg Trentham

Different Flickr accounts for images: The Commons, National Archives Australia, Great War Archive,

Readers: You might like to answer one of the questions we were asked in last night’s twitter chat.

Poland to Tasmania via WWII

My step grandfather or Uncle Mike as we called him, was indeed a long way from home.

We know very little about his life prior to World War Two.

He was born in Luzski in what was Poland around 1914 to parents Basil and Fdokaj. He had two sisters; Olga who was already married at his birth and Elizabeth who was two years older than him. The main town near where he was born was on a large island in the middle of the Minuta River and had 4 different bridges leading off the island. I eventually found this was in present day Belarus.

During the war

He began his Polish war service in 1939 but was one of the unlucky soldiers captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp. I am not sure where it was as I don’t have uncle Mike’s war records. But on 17 August 1941 after 18 months in the camp, the Russians released all their Polish POWs under an ‘Amnesty’. It was after this that Anders Army was formed and they were under the control of the Polish Government in exile based in England. First Anders Army had to get back towards Britain somehow.

Uncle Mike was one of 115,000  people including women and children who began a long march through Russia, to Guzar in Uzbekistan, cross country to the Caspian Sea and on to Iran. For the members of Anders Army, on to the Middle East to Palestine.  Many died in the process due to cold weather, hunger, disease and exhaustion. The families of the soldiers stayed in Iran and, within the next few months, went to various refugee camps around the world.

The army trained in Iraq and Palestine where Uncle Mike met his cousin Wiktor, who was still alive and serving in the 2nd Polish Corps. While in hospital Uncle Mike had to decide to travel on with Anders Army to fight in Italy or head to another hospital in England to get over the malarial disease he had. He headed to Scotland where the Polish Army was then based.

After surviving malaria, he became part of the 1st Polish Armoured Division in the 8th Battalion Rifle Infantry known as “The Bloody Shirts”.

I began researching some of the fighting of this group and when talking to Uncle Mike about it, he was very proud of the following events:

  • In August 1944 the Polish 1st Armored Division with General Stanislaw Maczek in charge was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Corps
  • August 19 at Falaise Pocket where the division helped close the German escape route via their strategic position on Hill 262
  • 12 April  1945 when they liberated Oberlangen Stalag which held 1728 Polish Home Army women and children
  • on 6 May 1945 when the Division raised the flag over Willhelmshaven which was the main U Boat base in Germany.

After 1945

After the war, the British didn’t know what to do with all the Polish soldiers as many were too afraid to head back to their homeland which was now under Communist rule. So the British government formed the Polish Resettlement Corps where they trained soldiers for life as farmers and workers in their new country. They also organized for many to emigrate. Uncle Mike’s last known address was at Rougham Camp in Surrey in England.

Heading to a new life in Australia

He embarked on 2 July 1948 heading for Australia on board the liner Strathnaver and was settled at Brighton Camp, Tasmania by 9 August. On his incoming passenger card for the Commonwealth of Australia records held at National Archives Australia, he had written single for conjugal condition but this had been crossed out to married. He would never tell us if this was correct or not but this was found in the local newspaper.


Uncle Mike spent many years working for the Hydro Electric Commission at Bronte in the Tasmanian highlands.  He and dad returned there often but especially when there were reunions held. I can remember some of them but not when this was taken.

Uncle Mike, Sue, Bob


When talking to Uncle Mike he had a very strong Polish accent but spoke very precise English.

He was awarded many medals as can be seen in the top photo. My father and I have tried to work out what they were for. So far we have identified the 1939/45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, Cross of volunteer combatants(French) plus at least two Polish medals. Uncle Mike travelled to London in 1982 to be presented with medals. Much of his paperwork is in Polish but we have been able to translate some of it.

Readers: Did you have someone in your family who was a long way from their original homeland?

Children in Hobart during WWII

September 2, 1939 and  Hobart newspaper ‘The Mercury’ had this headline on page 1.

World poised perilously on brink of war

Would lives of children living in Hobart over 10,000 miles away change or remain the same? My parents, Robert (Bob) and Phyllis Wyatt had already written about their experiences during war time, so I interviewed Phyllis’ sister, Margaret Phillips, to get her memories on how war affected her.

By September 8, the Tasmanian government had compiled a booklet for householders  including mention of air raid shelters.[1] Margaret said:

We had a trench in the backyard. Dad built one for us. …… Dear old mum, she packed a basket full of food and we took that into the air raid shelter with us. But we never had to go.  …..  Dad had built this hole in the ground, lined it out with apple cases from uncle Arthur Stirling’s market. After the war was over, he just left it as it was. ….. Later in life, when someone bought the house, they filled it in.[2]

Source: SLQ Image 42866
Children digging trenches Source: SLQ Image 42866

Margaret couldn’t remember any practice trench drills at her high school but Bob said:

 I remember that at Goulburn Street School we had trenches dug in the school yard. We occasionally had practice runs and you had to have a rubber to put between your teeth and a sugar bag folded over your head.[3]

Phyllis remembers what happened at the school she attended.

Dad helped the fathers from the school to dig trenches in the now Albuera Street School. It had been a cemetery and when we had air raid shelter drill, you could pick bones out while you were in the trench.[4]

Ration card, image owned by author.
Ration card, image owned by author.

Each person, including children, was given ration cards for buying clothing. Phyllis cried all the time when having her first hair cut at age 7 in 1941.

I thought she would cut off my neck. I was promised a new overcoat and some of Margaret’s coupons had to be used and she wasn’t very happy.[5]

There were ration coupons for food as well but families were asked to grow their own vegetables. Margaret remembers:

Whenever Eileen or the cousins came down for a visit, they would bring rabbits and dad was great at fishing so we had plenty of food. ….. Dad grew a lot of vegetables, we had fruit trees in the back yard and grapes down the side lane.  If we wanted any more, we would go down to Wise and Stirling markets and uncle Arthur would  give us some different ones.[6]

Bob mentioned:

Some people gave the US marines a home cooked meal. I asked mum if I could invite some in. We didn’t have much meat or butter but we had plenty of fresh vegetables. The three marines enjoyed their time with us and signed my autograph book.[7]

Children were asked to help with the war effort. Families would have War Savings Certificates. Mothers and daughters would knit for the troops using khaki coloured wool. They would make scarves with balaclavas in the end  to keep soldiers warmer during winter in Europe.

My father was a member of a scout troop.

We had a camp at Gardeners Bay to pick fruit for the war effort; I was homesick as it was the first time I had ever been away from home. I only earned five shillings for picking raspberries. I gave it to mum who kept it in her purse as the first money I had ever earned.[8]

According to educators at this time, war improved the geography skills of children and they learnt to ask lots of questions about what was happening in Europe.[9]

Relatives serving in Europe would send cards home. Bob remembers:

Uncle Jack (Bomber) occasionally sent a card to my mother, it was always censored and no mention of where he was. After he came home, he was one of the Rats of Tobruk.[10]

Family life in Hobart carried on as normal but perhaps with some rationing of what you could buy. Children had to learn to be more resourceful to help their family.


[1]  ‘PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS IN TASMANIA’, Advocate, 8 September 1939, p. 2.

[2] Margaret Phillips, interview by Suzanne Wyatt, digital recording, Hobart, 18 November 2016, in author’s possession.

[3] Robert Wyatt to Suzanne Wyatt, letter, 1 December 2016, original held in author’s possession.

[4] Phyllis Wyatt to Suzanne Wyatt, letter, 1 December 2016, original held in author’s possession.

[5] P.Wyatt to Wyatt, letter, 1 December 2016.

[6] Margaret Phillips, interview by author.

[7] R.Wyatt to Wyatt, letter, 1 December 2016.

[8] R.Wyatt to Wyatt, letter, 1 December 2016.

[9] ‘Strange Contrast In Australian Outlook’, The Mercury , 2 April 1940, p. 3.

[10]  R.Wyatt to  Wyatt, letter, 1 December 2016.



Phillips Margaret, interview by Suzanne Wyatt, digital recording, Hobart, 18 November              2016, in author’s possession.

SLQ Image 42866, Children digging trenches at Ascot State School, Brisbane, 1942.

The Mercury

Wyatt, Suzanne, Ration card, 2015. Personal collection.


Readers: Do you have any memories as a child during war in 1939-1945? Please comment below.