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Diggers and Databases

Jeffrey Grey on how computers are profiling Australia's First World War combatants

This year's commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915, serves to remind us again of the central role which participation in the Great War played in the history of the white settler dominions of the Commonwealth, especially Australia. From a population of less than five million, Australia enlisted 417,000 men into the Australian Imperial Force, of whom more than 330,000 served overseas. Nearly 60,000 of them were killed and a further 166,000, or 45 per cent of the total, were wounded. It was an immense and traumatic experience, and one whose significance was appreciated even at the time. Highly detailed records of each man's service were kept, and even before the war's end efforts were under way to record the nation's deeds in a great twelve-volume history, while planning began for the construction of a pantheon to house the tangible reminders of their service.

The great scale of the forces raised and the partial and incomplete nature of their records has meant that work on the nature and composition of the other armies which fought the Great War has had to content itself with generalisations or conclusions based on often very small samples. The AIF Project, conducted in the Department of History at the University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, and now entering its fourth year, will enable historians to survey the records of every man who served overseas with the AIF between 1914-18 and, upon completion, will enable us for the first time to subject some of the most cherished notions of the Australian war experience to detailed scholarly analysis.

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