State Library of South Australia

Connecting families 100 years later - South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau Collection

Date: 23 March 2016

The South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau (SARCIB) played a pivotal role in reconnecting families and friends of missing Australian Imperial Force personnel who fought in World War 1. The outcome wasn't always happy, but the relief of actually knowing what happened did ease some of the pain for loved ones back home. One hundred years later the valuable records created as a result of over 8,000 enquiries are once again bringing families together.

A mothers letter of enquiry about her son Private WS Burman Photo by Jenny Scott
A mother’s letter of enquiry about her son, Private WS Burman. Photo by Jenny Scott

Over the last three years staff, including a team of dedicated volunteers, have worked on a project to digitise and make these valuable records available online. The records were donated to the State Library in 1919, when the Bureau was winding down. Dating back to 1916 the records include:

  • information about each soldier enquired upon
  • letters from the requesting family
  • eyewitness statements about the soldier's last known whereabouts, and
  • in most cases, the resulting information on the fate of the soldier, expressed to the enquirer.

The project is significant in that it provides worldwide access to the personal stories of World War 1. Flinders University Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, who wrote the history of the South Australian Bureau, comments:

"In my view, the digitisation project undertaken by the State Library of South Australia of the SA Red Cross Information Bureau records is one of the highlights of the Centenary of Anzac Commemorations. I would put it up there with the building of the Interpretive Centre at Villers Bretonneux as one of the most important outcomes of the Centenary for Australians".

New features on the website

Accessible from anywhere in the world and anytime the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau collection website provides:

  • records for each soldier, eyewitness and enquirer
  • relationship between soldier, eyewitnesses and enquirer
  • displays the contents of the packet
  • History of the South Australian Bureau by Melanie Oppenheimer, and
  • for the digital historians, the facility to export data from the website.

In February a number of new features were released, including:

  • a world map - showing locations of all the soldiers, which then link through to their individual records
  • a map of the locations associated with soldiers, eyewitnesses and enquirers
  • a Roll of Honour - remembering who fell each month
  • new filters including Prisoner of War and Aboriginal Serviceman
  • additional information from other sources such as the service papers held at the National Archives of Australia and the linking of individuals and their unit on the Australian War Memorial website (includes Honours and Awards, Red Cross Wounded and Missing, First World War Embarkation and Nominal Rolls and Roll of Honour)
  • the ability for members of the public to share stories and upload images of soldiers, eyewitnesses and enquirers, and
  • improved data export.

How can you help?

You can now be a part of the SARCIB website by sharing your stories and uploading photos of soldiers, eye witnesses and enquirers listed on the website.

If you have a family member who is listed on the website, scroll to the end of their record and share the information with us.

A relative of Private John Edward Painter did just that. They have a letter written to his widow from an officer, some months after Painter's death, who found him wounded on the battlefield. The grandchildren of Private Robert Harvey Larkman also shared their story of a soldier lost and found. Robert was laid to rest in 1943 in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Western Australia. In 2015 he was recognised for his service to his country with a soldier's memorial headstone.

Like these families did, enrich the information about your loved one and help us to tell their story.

Connecting families 100 years later

A recent exhibition at the State Library displayed, for the first time, a selection of original correspondence between families and the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau.

As a result of displaying these stories, the Red Cross Tracing Service in Adelaide traced and located the relatives of all four soldiers featured in the exhibition - Eric Wilkes Talbot Smith, Herbert Selmar Conrad, Oliver Erskine Winter and William Sherriff Burman. With one exception none of the relatives knew of the existence of this precious correspondence.

We were very fortunate to have the relatives of all four soldiers join us at the Library, where they reconnected with their family history and the century-old letters written to the Bureau. The families were able to hold the original letters of their relatives and it was quite an emotional time.

From left Joyce Short Daynea Hill Barry Winter and Teresa Burman Relatives of WW1 soldiers featured in the exhibition Photo by Jenny Scott
From left: Joyce Short, Daynea Hill, Barry Winter and Teresa Burman. Relatives of WW1 soldiers featured in the exhibition. Photo by Jenny Scott

For the families the original letters and correspondence have explained many unanswered questions of stories never told. Why an uncle who went to war was never spoken about but obviously adored. His niece now knows, from the letters, it was too traumatic for his mother and sister to talk about.

It is amazing that these letters reconnected families 100 years ago and in 2016 they have again brought family members together who had never met until contacted by the Red Cross.

Read more about the emotional reunions with family past and present:


Story by: Andrew Piper, Manager Online Services & Tracey Parnis, Communications Officer

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