ANZACs in the family

April 24th, 2015 By Amy Watling

Anzac Day has a long history in New Zealand. It was celebrated for the first time in 1916, even though that year it fell on Easter Tuesday. It has evolved from a solemn day to remember the 1915 landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula during the First World War and into a time for New Zealanders to a time to remember all soldiers and all conflicts in which our families and countrymen have been and are engaged.

Crowd watching an ANZAC Day parade on Courtenay Place, Wellington. Shows people filling the street on either side of a thoroughfare to a War Memorial, and buildings in the background.
Crowd watching ANZAC Day procession on Courtenay Place, Wellington, ca 1920. Ref: 1/2-116484-G.

This Anzac day especially, people around New Zealand will be reminded of their family members that fought, served, survived, or died in the First World War 100 years ago. Some families will know a lot about their First World War history. Others will not. Families that have recently moved to New Zealand will have different stories to remember – maybe of men serving for another country, or of fleeing conflict. Families may remember their women who worked, and waited. They may remember their men who objected to being conscripted and the rifts that this caused in some families.

100 years is a long time. 4 or 5 generations have passed. If you want to know more about what your family did during the First World War, there may be no one left alive to ask. In this situation, you can turn to the records that they left behind, and the historians who continue to tell their stories.

Did any of my family members serve in a war?

The first step, if you don’t know any names of members of your family as far back as 100 years, is to start with what you know. Have a look at the advice on our Getting Started with Family History guide. Talk to your family and start working backwards through the generations. What you need first (in order of importance) is names, dates, and places. This is not always easy, especially if your family history has been disrupted by conflict or other misfortune. Our main Family History guide contains more detailed advice on how to trace your family tree.

Remember that a significant amount of soldiers and other service personal that saw active service in the First World War did not have children, and so will not have direct descendants living today. You may therefore be looking for a great or great-great-uncle.

How do I find if anyone in my family fought in the New Zealand armed forces in the First World War?

The best place to start is the Auckland Cenotaph database, as it covers all New Zealand participants in all wars.

The next place to go is personnel records for the First World War, which are held at Archives NZ and can be searched through their new Discover World War One service. Every soldier that fought had a personnel record – many records were also created for men who did not end up serving as well.

These records contain information about next of kin, injuries sustained, transfers and field promotions, and awards. There are also details about how soldiers died, although often this is very brief. If a man served in the army past 1920, their personnel record is still with the New Zealand Defence Force Archive.

How do I find out about the men in my family who might have served for another country?

If you think that some of your family might have served in the Australian armed forces in the First World War, good places to start are the Australian War Memorial and the Australian National Archives for personnel records.

You can also visit Discovering ANZACs, which holds the personnel records and other war records for Australians for the First World War.

Photograph of Australian WWI soldiers in the firing trench at Popes Post, Gallipoli, Turkey.
Australian WWI soldiers in the firing trench at Popes Post, Gallipoli, 6 Aug 1915. Ref: 1/2-077897-F.

Many New Zealanders’ ancestors would have fought for Britain. In a terrible coincidence, over half of the British Army service records for the First World War were destroyed by bomb in the Second World War. However, 2 million survived. If you can come in to the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington, or if your local library has a subscription, you can access these through, a service that provides access to information from around the world to help people do their family history. Ancestry is one of several other online sites provide the ability to search these records online.

Many New Zealanders will have ancestors that fought for or experienced the First World War in the United Kingdom. Some New Zealanders also fought for the United Kingdom, especially in the air force (Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Service) as New Zealand did not have a military air force at the time.

A good place to look for airmen is the Royal Flying Corps personnel records and the Royal Naval Air Service. The British Archives also provides a separate search for officers’ records.

Indian Sikh soldiers watching Turkish prisoners in a compound, Gallipoli, Turkey.
Indian Sikh soldiers, Gallipoli, 7 Aug 1915. Ref: 1/2-077922-F.

What if the men in my family didn’t go to war? Why might that have been?

Your family members may not have served in the war, and there are many reasons why they may have not.

They could have been too old, or too young. The New Zealand Army took men between 20 and 46; the British Army took men between 18 and 40. There are many accounts of men falsifying their age in order to enlist, however.

The Merchant Marine was an important part of New Zealand and Britain’s war effort. Only some of the men who served in this capacity had personnel records.

Scene outside Day's premises, Bridge Street, Nelson. Parked outside the business is a motor van with the sign 'Geo A Day, Baker, Pastrycook & Caterer'. Standing are Adam Day & his wife Nell who is holding her first child Rona.
Business of George A Day, Bridge Street, Nelson, ca 1915. Ref: 1/1-011882-G.

Some jobs were categorised as ‘Essential industry’. Men working in these industries were exempt from the need to enlist, although many appealed to their employers to be released anyway. What was categorised an essential industry changed throughout the war, but it included work such as the electricity industry, freezing works, food production and timber milling.

Men who might otherwise have volunteered to serve or been conscripted might have chosen to object to war service for many different reasons. NZHistory has a good background guide to conscientious objection, and we also have a research guide that you might find helpful if you think that there may have been someone like this in your family.

Can I find out what the women in my family did during the war?

It can be difficult to track the movements of individual women during the war. However, there has been some excellent work done to further understand the roles that women played during the war. There are also many published works about the role of women in the First World War.

550 New Zealand women served as nurses in the First World War. If a woman in your family went to work as a nurse, they will have a personnel record. This is also true in the UK and Australia.

Personnel or personal?

If you are very fortunate, you may have access to a diary or letters written by members of your family during the First World War. These can say so much more than the bald facts set down in official records.

For families without this resource, the diaries and letters of other servicemen, nurses, and the people left at home can provide some connection to the lives of your ancestors.

The collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library have letters and diaries from a wide variety of New Zealanders that experienced the First World War. It may be possible to find someone who served in the same place and the same time as your family members.

And as always, if you have any questions you'd like a hand with, drop us a line through Ask a librarian.

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Amy Watling
27 April 2017 2:18pm

Thanks for the question, Thomas. We'll look into what we have and one of our Librarians will contact you shortly.

Thomas Francis Evans
24 April 2017 6:59pm

Trying to find details on my grandad whom fought with the anzac. He was in the 23rd battalion ,Sargent major. I belive he was part of the volunteer or expedition. He was born on the 7th of the 8th but not sure of what year sorry He fought in gallipoli any information you can give us that is my father and I would be greatly appreciated thank you . Infantry sorry I may have a few things wrong have been informed ho fought in El elamain

Amy Watling
30 April 2015 11:13am

Thank you for your comment Adele. Yes! It's such a rewarding activity. I'm very grateful that we have a site like the Online Cenotaph where researchers such as yourself can help us remember those that served.

adele pentony-graham
24 April 2015 5:39pm

I am researching the soldiers who are buried at WW1 Cemetery Featherston, shall be there at 8am Anzac Day to lay a wreath in memory of the soldiers who are buried there, I am finding out so much family information by doing this project, one in particular is for Quartermaster Benson Wyman, sadly his wife was expecting when Benson died in 1918, and she with their son went to live overseas, I have all the information and photographs.. not the only soldier I have information on... E. Hunt Cunliffe, nephew of Richard Seddon...Thomas Wm. Spence King. Gt. Grandson to John King one of the first missionary to NZ in 1814.. Two nurses buried at Featherston. Headstone are on Cenotaph site. So many had served at Gallipoli to return to NZ to die of influenza..
So anyone researching soldiers, enjoy doing it, and learning... its our NZ History.