Monday, 18 May 2020

Military records on Ancestry

There are some things that are inextricably associated the commemoration of ANZAC Day. In the world of family history, that includes a new wave of advertisements from Ancestry announcing the availability of "new" Australian military records. Those of us familiar with the holdings of the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Memorial tend to view these claims with a touch of scepticism. There is rarely anything new available to subscribers that we have not been accessing free from the official repositories for some time. But we live in hope.

On April 23 2020, Ancestry revealed their latest offerings ANZAC Memorial 1914-18 and Australia, WWII Second Australian Imperial Forces and Citizen Military Forces Service Records, 1939-1947. Now that the metaphorical dust of battle has settled, it is time to try to assess their value to researchers.

Ancestry describes the first offering in these terms.
This database contains The (sic) Anzac Memorial [1], a book compiled to commemorate those who served in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and died in World War I. The contents of this book are varied. Much of the book is comprised of a Roll of Honour, listing nearly 20,000 Australians who died in the war. 
While records of nearly 20,000 lost certainly sounds impressive, remember that the AWM puts the national total killed in action or died of wounds at more than 60,000. So a search for a randomly chosen person known to have died will have a 30% chance of success. 

The original book was published in 1919 by the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, New South Wales Branch and understandably is heavily skewed to men born in, or otherwise associated with, New South Wales. So a search in Ancestry for men of the 19th Battalion (raised in NSW) locates 805 of the 874 names recorded on the AWM Roll of Honour. By contrast, the Queensland-sourced 25th Battalion beside whom the 19th fought their last great battle on Mont St Quentin has just 85 of 1026 men known to have fallen [2] included in the Ancestry collection.

While the search facility may be of limited value, Anzac Memorial on Ancestry does offer digitised images of each page in the printed book. So what do you get? If you are familiar with the Nominal Roll on the AWM site, and imagine removing the details of all men who RTA (Returned to Australia) then you have it - complete with idiosyncratic alphabetisation. Except that less than one-third of the entries are included.

So you really might as well ignore the jingoistic blandishments of Ancestry and simply go straight to the Australian War Memorial for ready access to a full record set. Unless of course you are interested in viewing the digital image of the Official Summary of Peace Times (that is how Ancestry has transcribed the reference to the Terms of the Armistice into its Table of Contents)!

However the second of the newly-released collections (Australia, WWII Second Australian Imperial Forces and Citizen Military Forces Service Records, 1939-1947) sounds more promising. 

Ancestry says 
This collection contains service documents for individuals serving for the AIF (Second Australian Imperial Forces) or CMF (Citizen Military Forces) during WWII.

I opened the dataset through the card catalogue and tossed in a name from our mother's tree, Noyes (spelling exact). It resulted in just one hit [3]
Name: Percival Reginald Noyes 
Birth Date: 20 Feb 1916
Birth Place: Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Enlistment Place: Brisbane
Service Number: Q49493
Service Branch: Citizen Military Force
Relative Name: Elizabeth Noyes
Pretty impressive!

So for comparison,  I went across to NAA and ran a name search for Noyes and sure enough there was the same record [4] 

but this one took a bit of finding because of the 19 other men named Noyes in the same list.

Had I been too restrictive by demanding exact spelling at Ancestry? So run the search again without it and get 5 hits - Percival Noyes, and 4 people called Neuss.

Did Ancestry have access only to a subset of the NAA records? Click on Learn more about this database and you will see that Ancestry has based "their" collection on series B883 and B884 at NAA. Whereas of the 20 men named Noyes located in RecordSearch, 8 come from series B883 and the other 12 from B884. 

It was beginning to look as though it was sheer luck that the one Noyes that Ancestry found was someone that I recognised. Could there be a (lot of) serious transcription errors in their data? So I took a record from the NAA results (B884 NOYES THOMAS GEORGE : Service Number - Q70518 : Date of birth - 23 Jun 1916) [5] and fed it into Ancestry -- Your Search for Thomas George Noyes returned zero good matches.

It should have been obvious that this collection could not provide comprehensive coverage of WWII service from the number of records it claimed, just 14,405. So does this dataset complement the 1.44 million entries in Australia, World War II Military Service Records, 1939-1945 (an ANZAC DAY 2016 offering)? Well there are certainly many more Noyes records in that older collection. But they also include a familiar-looking entry for Percival Reginald Noyes (cited as being drawn from NAA Series B884).

What was offered as new Second AIF and CMF record could have been regarded as a minor update to the existing WWII Military Service Records; but would you want to write that advertisement?

Oh well, there will be another ANZAC Day "special offer" next April.

  1. The correct title of the book has no definite article. See its catalogue details on Trove
  2. Digger History
  3. Australia, WWII Second Australian Imperial Forces and Citizen Military Forces Service Records, 1939-1947 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: 2020.
  4. NAA: B884, Q49493
  5. NAA: B884, Q70518
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