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The War Memorial Files

Military History research involves going through the archives. When Captain C. E. W. Bean and his mates returned from the Great War, they brought with them boat loads of documents. These were eventually filed into a number of series.
War Diaries were placed in AWM4. A war diary is a day to day account of events at a headquarters, usually kept by some staff officer. He got to decide what was worthy of record. Some recorded what was served each day in the mess hut. The most interesting part for the historian is the appendices, which contain reports and other documents thought important enough to file.

From the files collected by the Military History Unit, Captain Bean and the folks at the War Memorial assembled two artificial series, known as AWM25 and AWM26. The first is filed by topic, the second chronologically. AWM26 covers only the Western Front; the records of the Gallipoli Campaign are filed in AWM25 under G for Gallipoli while those on Palestine are filed under L for Light Horse. The records relating to the Sinai campaign are with the Gallipoli records, an error uncorrected after 80 years. Bean wrote his history from AWM26.

The Second World War records, when they arrived in Canberra, were organised in much the same way, except that there is no equivalent of AWM26. The war diaries are in AWM52 and everything else in AWM54. Operational records are filed under O, with number blocks being allocated to different units.

At a later date, the individual files were entered into the computer system, ANGAM, later RecordSearch which replaced ANGAM in the 1990s. They can be searched on keywords but an exact match is required. In the early years of the 21st Century, a digitisation project developed, making some of the war diaries available in PDF (Adobe Acrobat) form online. Each page of war diary is one electronic document. I use a C# program to take the diaries and merge the pages back into diaries again. Then I burn them onto CD.

Occasionally, one will find something outside these series. But not often. AWM52 and AWM54 provide most of the thesis. I have made a little use of interviews and comments by the participants in the official historians' records.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
31st Oct, 2003 04:17 (UTC)
Having once upon a time actually kept such a War Diary (the Swedish name of it was a literal translation of that, anyway), I wonder if people like you who read them consider things like if the people who wrote them were bored out of their skulls and just made things up to write in them? 'Cause, you know, we did that. Rather a lot. Some of it was pretty obviously not true (like a James Bondish round-robin story spanning three months' worth of diaries), but some wasn't.
1st Nov, 2003 01:53 (UTC)
The short answer is yes, we do consider that. Some historians -- particularly those working with notoriously unreliable sources like oral sources -- require corroberation. That isn't always possible but I usually get it because I am working from reports in the appendices.

Systematic fabrication of War Diaries is not unknown, although all examples I know of are from the Great War period. However, the Second World War produced a number of units who were completely bored out of their minds. The Northern Australia Observer Unit comes to mind. Their job was to scan the (usually cloudless blue) skies over Northern Australia for enemy aircraft. They worked in pairs who were dropped off at remote locations with a tent and a trailer full of rations.

After action reports written by the participants are often suspect, as the people concerned attempt to justify themselves and their actions.

Nevertheless, historians have found crucial evidence in war diaries. John Moremon painstakingly pieced together what happened during certain incidents on the Kokoda Track that have been misunderstood.

I can't help thinking that your unit's war diary stands a good chance of making it into the permanent record one day. By that time you will probably only remember events that never happened, and will be very proud of your part. ;-)

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )