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    “My generation and younger, we’ve never lived through a world war. These people lived through two world wars and a depression. I’m not a military historian, I’m interested in social history” – Gillian Francis

Growing war service database

By Sean O’Connell

A former Horsham resident has spent the best part of a decade creating a database to document the Second World War service of people from Horsham and district. 

Gillian Francis said her database, labelled Strewth Two, included more than 4500 veterans of the Second World War, both men and women, as well as a parallel list of several hundred additional people. 

Mrs Francis said the database grew out of research for Horsham Historical Society’s two-volume book Strewth! about the involvement of Horsham and district people in the First World War.

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She said she was hopeful the database would be finished in April, but said further digitisation of records from the National Archives could cause delays, with public access to be determined in the future. 

“I started off knowing World War Two would be a much larger cohort,” she said.

“Very quickly, I realised the number that were known to be locals was only the tip of the iceberg. For example, they might be born interstate, moved to Horsham but enlisted in Melbourne – no scan of the databases could pick them up.”

Mrs Francis said she had chosen to create a database instead of another published volume as it could be used as a ‘searchable resource’.

“When Strewth! was written, we had to think how the resource would be used and we thought people would look for a name. Many people were reading it in different ways – cover-to-cover or in chronological order from a particular date. 

“When I started doing this, because of the size of it, I didn’t think people would need 16 to 17 books. 

“With a database you can search for what you are interested in – a surname, geographical area, a battalion. There are lots of ways to search based on your interest.”

Mrs Francis said she had used a variety of sources to determine whether a person was from the area.

“I used local newspapers to verify they were local, but that also brought up Sergeant so-and-so who was visiting his soldiers,” she said.

“It was about trying to discriminate who was accidentally a local and who had lived here for a period of time. 

“Voting records are often quite a few years apart. A person might live there between elections or vote and not even live there. Trying to find where they lived as a child was even more difficult – parents voting gives some indication.”

Mrs Francis said her research quickly developed into more detailed accounts of Horsham and district people’s service. 

“The National Archives hold service records. They had told us the Second World War would not be digitised, but six years ago they decided to go ahead,” she said. 

“They’re vital to authenticate that you have the right person, identify their next of kin, service and whether they have children or siblings. Ultimately, I realised I needed to have a page of information for each of the almost 5000 people on the list. 

“They have a paragraph on their service history, whether that was overseas service or in Darwin. Also, anything unusual about their service to give it more interest, and the main units they were a part of, although many served in lots. They also have their parents identified and parents place of death; where they were from and where they died; their spouse; where they voted as an adult; where their parents voted – only if it was in Horsham, to establish their contact with the rural city.”

Mrs Francis said the continued appeal of local history surrounding the first and second world wars was made clear in the success of Strewth!

“My generation and younger, we’ve never lived through a world war. These people lived through two world wars and a depression,” she said. 

“I’m not a military historian, I’m interested in social history. The depth and breadth of the impact of the war is part of the military component, but it’s also to do with the population.

“It’s constantly a surprise as to the types of jobs people did. I can make some assumptions about people or families, for example, some had seven children in the war. What would be the impact of that on a family?

“You also have the impact on the women, when the men came home from war. There were the young widows of men who died at war. These widows fell into two categories: some would re-marry, often several times, but many never re-married and were widowed for several decades.”

The entire February 21, 2024 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!