How to find your family's Anzac history online

by Peter Griffin / 24 April, 2018
Our Soldiers Flag, New Zealand Ensign fundraising flag (1914-1918). Auckland War Memorial Museum (Ref: W0414, 1929.332, F016)

Some online archives hold WWI documents, records, and photos of soldiers and ephemera. Pictured is a New Zealand Ensign fundraising flag (1914-1918) from the Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph.

As Anzac Day looms there’s an opportunity to delve into the archives as millions of World War I documents are made available for a short period of time.

Ancestry.com, the largest online curator of genealogy records is making the searchable Anzac records available through to the end of Wednesday – normally it costs A$30 a month to subscribe.

If you have ancestors who served in the Great War, now is a good opportunity to trace their war service through the scanned copies of various records that exist, such as war graves and casualty listings, enlistment papers and honour rolls.

As far as I know, none of my Irish ancestors fought in the war. They were likely more interested in Fenian revolution at home in the west of Ireland, which was under British rule at the time, though over 200,000 Irishmen did serve in World War I.

Anzac Day is also an odd occasion for me – it happens to be my birthday. That means a guaranteed holiday each year, but a day of celebration coloured also by the sombre pageantry that takes place at Wellington’s Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, a stone’s throw from where I live.

I’m a bit of a genealogy geek – I recently learned to my delight that an ancestor on my mother’s side was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason by Charles II.

So I’ve been taking advantage of the open access to delve into the records of some of New Zealand’s best known soldiers.

Left: Fallen hero: Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone. Right: His enlistment form for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Take, for instance, William Malone, Lieutenant-Colonel and commander of the Wellington Battalion who was killed by shrapnel, probably from artillery fired from a Royal Navy warship, at Gallipoli on August 8, 1915. Malone was born in Kent in 1859, but moved to Taranaki when he was 21.

He was 55 when he enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on August 31, 1914, signing the form with a thick, inky scrawl. He put his trade down as “barrister, solicitor, farmer”.

The other key document Malone’s name appears in is the Roll of Honour recording him on the last line of a page crowded with names of war dead, as being killed in action. He isn’t listed in the Commonwealth War Graves registry – Malone was buried at Gallipoli in an unmarked grave.

The official documents indicate none of the controversy that surrounded Malone at Gallipoli. He refused to send his Wellington Infantry Battalion to attack Chunuk Bair after seeing the Auckland Battalion decimated in an earlier daytime attack.

Instead, he led his men into battle under cover of darkness the following morning and took the summit easily. The Wellington Battalion then sustained heavy losses defending their position from waves of advancing Turks and Malone was killed that afternoon.

You have to go to Malone’s dairies, not included in the Ancestry.com official records, to get a sense of his misgivings about the conduct of his superiors.

On the 25th of April, 1915, the day of the ill-fated landing at Anzac Cove, he wrote in his diary:

“There didn't seem much organisation on the shore, in fact it was disorganisation. We evidently haven't got a Kitchener about. On paper it was all right but in practice no good. Still Britishers always muddle thro' somehow or another. The heads, like Generals Birdwood and Godley plan all right, but the executive officers in the main, are no good. Have no idea of order, method, etc.”

Malone was later criticised, some would say scapegoated, by his senior officers who blamed him for the loss of Chunuk Bair, though historians have since extensively picked apart those claims. It was most likely a failure by the British to send sufficient reinforcements that led to the loss of Chunuk Bair.

Outside of Ancestry.com, there’s a rich digital trail of information about Malone, including at the website Lives of the First World War, a sort of crowd-sourced social network for amateur genealogists.

A timeline marks the key events of his life – his arrival at Taranaki as a steerage passenger on board the Western Monarch, in June 1880 and the death of his wife Elinor during childbirth in June 1904.

“Just seen the Cenotaph Service and March past for Anzac Day on 25.4.2015,” writes Lives of the First World War contributor Fiona Wilson on the timeline, posting from Gallipoli.

“Interviewed from the crowd were the 40 strong family descendants of this man.”

There’s a large and collegial community of people online who invest a lot of time piecing together the lives of their ancestors. One of the most useful aspects of Ancestry.com is the “public member trees”, where your research can intersect with that of others, helping you cross-check information and fill in gaps. Unfortunately that’s a premium feature not available as part of opening up the Anzac records.

Another compulsory stop for amateur researchers is the Online Cenotaph maintained by Auckland Museum, and a great free source of information on those who served. You can even lay a digital poppy in memory of fallen soldiers – 40 others joined me in laying a poppy for Malone.

Malone’s official records are sparse for a man who has had so much written about him subsequently. But some soldiers have records 30 pages long, documenting everything from their misdeeds to their medals and commendations.

Three of Malone’s sons, Edmund, Terrance and Brian enlisted alongside their father, the former two fighting at Gallipoli with the Wellington Mounted Rifles. Their records are also laid out on Ancestry.com, digital relics of service and sacrifice.

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