Putting the A in Measuring the ANZACs

In our name Measuring the ANZACs has a vision of measuring all the ANZACs. We’ve started with the “NZACs”. Today we’re going to talk about the “A” for Australia. Our collaboration with you to transcribe the New Zealand records has relied on

  1. The preservation and organization of the personnel files for 90 years by the NZ Defence Force
  2. The digitization of all 3.7 million page images by Archives NZ.
  3. Our collaboration with the Zooniverse

You are helping us with step 3, but if the literal century of work had not been done by others, we could not do anything. Records could easily have been destroyed, or remain hard to access as paper files. What are the prospects for measuring all of the ANZACs?

The National Archives of Australia has scanned and published as digital images the personnel records of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), which acted as the country’s overseas armed forces during the First World War.[1] The 376,000 AIF files survive intact and contain a more consistent set of documents than the British, and are remarkably similar to the New Zealand records.[2]



There is a long history of Australian historians and scholars using the personnel files. In fact within the Commonwealth, Australian researchers pioneered the use of First World War service records as an historical source. [3] Access to the service files necessarily relies on metadata that act as index fields. The AIF metadata includes name, place of birth, place of enlistment, next of kin and service number. This metadata is slightly richer than the NZ records. But there remains much information of research interest additional to the metadata that must be transcribed on an image by image basis. What if we want to know which Australians served at Gallipoli, or were wounded? We need to transcribe all the records to find out!

Some research has already been done with the Australian records by Kris Inwood—a researcher on the Measuring the ANZACs team—and other colleagues. In Australia the attestation documents were transcribed for every soldier, nurse or officer whose name began with the letter B. This letter has the advantage of being easily discernible in most hand-writing. Moreover, B-surnames are common among relevant ethnicities.[4] The resulting databases includes 35,000 Australian records, or about 10% of the AIF.[5]

As with the New Zealand research we described in an earlier blog post Inwood has used the personnel data to study the Australian standard of living. This research, which follows an earlier literature using US Civil War personnel records and British army records extending back to the eighteenth century, begins with the premise that the patterns of adult stature for a large enough population reflect living conditions in childhood.[6]

The basic idea in this literature is straightforward. If a child is exposed unduly to various diseases, or does not receive a sufficiently nutritious diet, or engages in child labour too early in life, then physical growth is stunted to some degree, and the individual will not realize her or his genetically-endowed potential stature. The growth-retarding impact of adverse childhood conditions may be ameliorated if conditions improve but the ‘catch-up’ is likely to be incomplete. If child growth is impaired for a sufficient number of individuals in a population, then average adult stature for the population will be diminished.[7]

In a recent comparative paper Inwood and colleague John Cranfield show that Australia’s economic growth slowed in the 1890s but child health nevertheless improved relative to Canada, judging by the divergence in adult stature for labourers born in the 1890s (Figure 3). Opposing forces were at work in the two economics. An erosion of working class standards was the dark side of the biggest economic boom in Canadian history.[8] For Australia, in contrast, the dramatic slowing of economic growth in the 1890s had many consequences but it clearly did not impede the advance of living standards.[9] Indeed, the reduction in immigration and population growth probably reduced the intensity of some diseases and contributed to the improvement in child well-being.[10]

As with the New Zealand research we described a few months ago, one of the limitations of the existing research is that we cannot make fine distinctions between cities or years. We would love as researchers to know whether Sydney was healthier than Melbourne, and whether cool Hobart or warm Brisbane was worse than both. Researchers beyond the Measuring the ANZACs team can use a complete transcription of the AIF records to understand who fought in the AIF and in what battles, and to uncover more of the hidden history of Aboriginal participation in the AIF.

The ANZAC name itself shows that while New Zealand and Australia were different countries they had a deeply shared history. Measuring the ANZACs can uncover not only the ANZAC campaign in World War I, but the intertwined personal connections of migration and ancestry that linked the two countries.

Onwards with transcribing, Measuring the ANZACs forces!

(For more information on the topics discussed in this blog post, please see the recent article in Australian Historical Studies by Kris Inwood and J. Andrew Ross)


[1] http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/defence/service-records/army-wwi.aspx January 24 2016. The archival reference is National Archives of Australia. First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920. Series B2455. Another useful database was created by scanning the rolls of those who embarked for overseas service: https://www.awm.gov.au/research/people/nominal_rolls/first_world_war_embarkation/introduction. The printed embarkation rolls comprise a subset of all AIF and offer a subset of information recorded in the personnel records.

[3] L.L. Robson, “Origin and character of the first A. I. F., 1914-1918: Some Statistical Evidence,” Historical Studies 15 (1973): 737-749; G. Whitwell, C. de Souza and S. Nicholas, “Height, Health and Economic Growth in Australia, 1860-1940,” in Health and Welfare during Industrialization, eds. Roderick Floud and Richard H. Steckel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 379-422; G. Whitwell and S.Nicholas, “Weight and welfare of Australians 1890-1940,” Australian Economic History Review, 41 (2001): 159-75; Ralph Shlomowitz, “Did the mean height of Australian-born men decline in the late nineteenth century?” Economics and Human Biology 5 (2007): 484-488.

[4] Pat Thornton and Sherry Olson, “A Deadly discrimination among Montreal infants, 1860-1900,” Continuity and Change 18 (2001): 95-135.

[5] Only attestation papers are available for Britain and South Africa; we were able to consult a wider range of documents including reports of medical examinations for Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

[6] Robert W. Fogel, Stanley L. Engerman, Roderick Floud, Gerald Friedman, Robert A. Margo, Kenneth Sokoloff, Richard H. Steckel, T. James Trussell, Georgia Villaflor and Kenneth W. Wachter, “Secular Changes in American and British Stature and Nutrition,” Journal Interdisciplinary History 14 no. 2 (Autumn 1983): 445–81; Robert A. Margo and Richard H. Steckel, “Heights of native-born whites during the antebellum period,” Journal of Economic History 43 no. 1 (1983): 167–74; Roderick Floud, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabel Gregory. Height, health and history: Nutritional status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[7] Barry Bogin, Patterns of human growth, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Richard H. Steckel, “Stature and the standard of living,” Journal of Economic Literature 33 (1995): 1903-40; Richard H. Steckel, “Biological Measures of the Standard of Living” Journal of Economic Perspectives 22 (2008): 129–152.

James M. Tanner, Foetus into man: Physical growth from conception to maturity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); James M. Tanner, A history of the study of human growth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[8] Terry Copp, The Anatomy of Poverty: The Condition of the Working Class in Montreal 1897-1929 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1974); David Gagan and Rosemary Gagan,”Working-Class Standards of Living in Late-Victorian Urban Ontario: A Review of the Miscellaneous Evidence on the Quality of Material Life,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 1 (Spring, 1991): 171-194; Martin Tétreault, “Les maladies de la misère. Aspects de la santé publique à Montréal, 1880-1914,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 36 no. 4 (1983): 507-526; Thornton and Olson, 95-135.

[9] R.V. Jackson, “Trends in Australian living standards since 1890,” Australian Economic History Review 32 (1992): 24–46; R.V. Jackson and Mark Thomas, Height, weight, and well-being: Sydney schoolchidren in the early twentieth century,” Australian Economic History Review 35, no. 2 (September 1995): 39-65; Ian W. McLean and Jonathon Pincus, “Did Australian living standards stagnate between 1890 and 1940?,” Journal of Economic History 43 (1983), 193–202.

[10] W. A. Sinclair, “Economic growth and well-being: Melbourne 1870–1914,” Economic Record 51 (1975): 153–73.


About Kris Inwood

Professor, Economics and History, University of Guelph, Canada

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