First World War casualty records revealed

By Adrian Harrison, Department of Justice and Attorney-General, guest blogger

Few people realise that the Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (RBDM) holds comprehensive death registrations for a large number of service men and women¹ who enlisted in Queensland and died while on active duty during both world wars. Only the registries in South Australia and Tasmania took the trouble to compile similar archives. In total RBDM holds close to 10,000 death registrations for the First World War and a further 5,000 from the Second World War. These records are available for the public to search for free in the online family history research service.

Some of the registers holding the 10,000 First World War death registrations in the RBDM archive. Unlike the standard registers, these are in alphabetical rather than date of event order.

The First World War registrations were compiled under the direction of George Porter, who became the Queensland Registrar-General in October 1921. Mr Porter was by all accounts a bit of a maverick who did not necessarily rely on legislation to back up his decisions, and he took it upon himself to register the deaths of all the men and women who had, in his words, ‘given their lives for Queensland’.

Mr Porter believed that the registration of the death, and so the ready availability of a death certificate, would provide bereaved families with some form of closure for their lost loved ones, who at best were buried on the other side of the world — the British Empire had a strict policy of not repatriating its war dead — and at worst, had no known grave at all.

Copies of the completed death certificates would be made available to the relatives for two shillings.

Compiling and entering the records was a mammoth and complex task. The battalion in which a dead soldier was serving when they died was not necessarily an accurate reflection of where they had enlisted. Although at the outbreak of war battalions had been raised largely within individual states, as the war progressed and casualties grew, battalions were merged and re-organised and reinforcements were sent wherever they were needed.

By the time a volunteer from Queensland died, they could well have been fighting in a unit raised anywhere in Australia. So not only was a list of dead service personnel needed — and Australia had suffered close to 62,000 killed and missing during the course of the war — this had to be cross checked against where the person had enlisted. There were nearly 58,000 enlistments registered in Queensland.

Once it was established that the dead soldier had indeed enlisted in Queensland, information was taken from their service record and sent to the next of kin on a death registration form. This was accompanied by a letter from George Porter explaining the work the registry was undertaking.

The next of kin were asked to add further detail and sign to certify that the information was correct, and if they could not do so, forward it to someone who could. The certified details were then entered into the registers in alphabetical order. It was a process which could take years to complete as many Queensland volunteers had been born in another state and many in a different country altogether².

Porter letter1
George Porter’s accompanying form letter sent to John Wilson’s widow Kate, in Longreach, along with a death registration form. John Wilson was a railway worker originally from Rockhampton. He volunteered in September 1915 and was sent to the Western Front as reinforcement for the 26th AIF Battalion. He was killed in action on November 5 1916 during the assault on German trenches north of Gueudecourt. It was one of the last actions of the battle of the Somme which officially ended 13 days later on November 18.

This letter was sent to John Wilson’s widow in April 1922 but the completed death registration wasn’t received back at the registry until October, after being sent on to the soldier’s bereaved father. John Wilson has no known grave and is remembered on the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
The registers themselves were compiled between 1921 and 1924; separate registers were created specifically to record the war dead. As detailed in the first issue of the Registry’s Family History Newsletter, these registrations were given the prefix letter ‘F’ in the index, indicating an AIF death from the First World War and an “S” indicating a Second World War death that may have occurred outside Australia; some of those registered had been repatriated to Australia and subsequently died of their wounds.

ANZAC WW1 death register1
Part of a RBDM death register illustrating three First World War records of death.

To commemorate the ANZAC centenary RBDM has released two commemorative death certificates. The certificates each feature a different design (poppies and a soldier silhouette).
You can search the records for free and order a First World War or Second World War ANZAC commemorative death certificate online.
¹ There are at least two nurses listed in the records as dying in the line of duty; Norma Mowbray from St George and Rosa O’Kane from Charters Towers.
² Close to 20% of those who served in the AIF during the First World War had been born in the United Kingdom

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