Australian colonial forces and family history

A guide to researching Australian military personnel serving in Australia and overseas between 1788 and 1902

Basic research steps

Broadly speaking, researching Australian colonial military forces personnel can be considered in three periods:

1. The Imperial period covered the years 1788 to 1870 and began with the arrival of British military personnel on the First Fleet in 1788 and the establishment of a British garrison in the colonies.

2. The Colonial period in which colonial governments formed part-time and regular civilian armed forces.

3. The Commonwealth period. The Commonwealth government took over and administered all armed forces operations after federation in 1901.

This guide concentrates on the Imperial period when military personnel were sent from the UK to the colonies and the Colonial period when personnel were raised from the colonial population.

A great deal of information is available to the researcher particularly from records held at the National Archives of Australia, Australian state archives and the Australian War Memorial. Information can also be found in public libraries, museums, historical societies, published military histories and research guides and through a range of websites.

Step 1: Talk to family members - they might have information about ancestors who were involved in the military, militia or a particular military conflict.

Step 2: Once an individual involved in military service is identified, you can then consider the various aspects of their military service in order to refine your specific research task. You can begin your research task by identifying:

1. A named person

2. Performing a military activity (e.g. as a soldier, officer, local militiaman, local volunteer etc)

3. In a place (e.g. New South Wales)

4. At a time (e.g. 1801-1805)

The research task can then be addressed as such: I want to find information about Samuel Smith, a soldier in the 102nd Regiment of Foot in New South Wales between 1801 and 1805. Relevant records and resources can then be identified, sought and consulted.

Step 3: In earlier periods, military personnel serving in Australia will be registered and administered by the British military bureaucracy, therefore, records will be held at The National Archives and other agencies in the UK. Some of their records have been reproduced and are available in various formats. An example is the Muster book and pay lists which are available on microfilm as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) at major state libraries. It is important to establish whether the person's activities were administered by the British army or by the colonial government.

Search for the personal service records or dossiers held at government archives for the identified person. The National Archives of Australia (NAA) is the principle repository for records relating to military personnel involved in conflicts from the 1860s. All aspects of military activity were, and are, administered by the government, therefore, the records relating to a person's military career will be held by government archives. For most servicemen, these government records will be the only official documentation for them as individuals.

The NAA provides a number of online fact sheets such as the Records of defence administration, the forces, service personnel and more which refer to records for military conflicts prior to federation in 1901 and records of interest for on-going research. An online list of NAA branches is available. The Australian War Memorial's (AWM) website provides information about their vast and varied collections and the services they provide and offers an online Search for a person service that allows online searches of a number of databases. The collections of the AWM can be used in conjunction with collections from the NAA.

Step 4: When a reference to a person's service record is found, analyse the document/s to obtain information about the various aspects of a person's military service. The information contained in the documents can prompt further lines of inquiry within and outside the military bureaucracy.

Step 5: Consult library catalogues and the collections of local historical societies. Seek out published and unpublished sources that provide contextual information about military campaigns and war experiences documented by individuals. There are numerous sources that inform about the historical context of the wars that Australia has been involved in as well as specific battles.


Newspapers are also a very important resource that informed the public about major and minor aspects of wars and campaigns. It is very important to understand the context in which events occurred. An increasing number of Australian and overseas newspapers are being digitised. The National Library of Australia's Trove database provides online access to a growing number of Australian newspapers.