It is today exactly 101 years since the end of The Great War. Of infinitely less global significance but a milestone for me anyway, today also marks the first anniversary of this blog. It started with a post dedicated to my two great uncles who were killed in action in 1917.
Today I’m continuing that theme with four case studies showing how I’m using evidence from a variety of sources to learn more about my ancestors’ military careers. This post builds on my last, and you might like to read it in conjunction with that.
As you read through the case studies, there are three things I’d like to highlight:
- Although the service record is a real bonus, if you don’t have it, all is not lost; you really just need their name and something indicating their regiment and battalion.
- Everyone who served will have a different story. As you’ll see below, records found for two of my family members pointed me to stories that were far more personal, not really about the war at all.
- Third, having the records/ memorabilia/ etc is not enough. We need to really look at them, read them, and extract all the information and clues we can.
Albert, my Granddad
I already knew:
Albert’s military career is the genealogist’s dream scenario. I knew he had been a Regular in the Army, and we have a lot of memorabilia, keepsakes and heirlooms from his time including his medals, pacing stick, decorative military drumsticks, shooting trophies, Soldiers Small Book, photos, correspondence to and from home, newspaper cuttings he had saved of significant events, his regulation issue ‘housewife’ (sewing kit) bearing his service number, ongoing education certificates and much more. Based on that little lot I knew his regiment, battalion, service number, countries visited and exact dates.
Key piece of evidence:
Albert’s Soldiers Small Book. These were issued specifically so that the soldier could record his own military career, and Albert was meticulous in keeping it up to date.
A series of records predating Albert’s decision to join the Army would explain what prompted him to do so, and even how he came to be equipped to join up as a musician. He attested in December 1905, and after initial training joined the Yorkshire Regiment 1st Battalion (The Green Howards) in February 1906. His 1905 attestation, including a physical description (but not his ongoing service record, which is presumably lost) was on FindMyPast (from TNA series WO96 militia service records 1806-1915). Ancestry supplied a medal roll index card, an entry on the medal roll register (WO329 Service Medal and Award Rolls, First World War) and I have discharge papers. He was discharged initially to the Reserves, and shooting trophies suggest he continued to play an active part locally. He would later serve during WW2 with the Territorials.
The Long, Long Trail website provides additional information about the battalion’s movements in India after 1914. During WW1 the Green Howards formed part of the 1st Indian Division: 3rd Infantry Brigade, moving around several bases, and culminating ultimately in the Third Afghan War in 1919. All of this ties in with photos and Christmas card locations, and explains why Albert didn’t arrive home until Christmas 1919.
As I write this I’m mindful that exactly one hundred years ago Albert was on board a ship quarantined for smallpox off the coast of South Africa. He was desperate to get home to marry his fiancée, my Grandmother.
I now realise that throughout his long life, and even though his service with the battalion ended in 1921, my Granddad identified as a Green Howard. I feel the need to go deeper into this story as a way of honouring that. There’s still much I could do to find out more, including:
- Visiting the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, Yorkshire.
- Locating regimental diaries for his various tours.
- Wider reading, e.g. What was happening in the areas where the battalion was based? What was the life of an army musician? I know he was a crack shot with the rifle, but how did this fit with military band duties? What other roles did he have?
- Applying for his WW2 Territorial Army record.
Joseph, my Great Granddad
I already knew:
I knew Joseph was in the Boer War, and I have a photo of him as a young man during his Army years, standing alongside a fine horse.
Key piece of evidence:
Joseph’s service record. This was available on FindMyPast (from TNA series WO 97 Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913). He attested for the Dragoon Guards in 1889. His service record includes personal information, next of kin (an aunt), conduct and details of service. It references his skills as a groom and horseman. After serving in the East Indies and Natal he was discharged to the Reserves in 1896, but recalled in 1900 to fight in the second Boer War. By this time Joseph was married and almost certainly didn’t want to leave his wife and baby to fight in South Africa. In January 1902 he was severely wounded in the abdomen. A little over two weeks later he was near-fatally wounded and was returned to England. He was discharged in October 1902, medically unfit for further service.
Other research has shown that Joseph was orphaned at a very young age, brought up in the local workhouse, and as was common for the time, siphoned from there into the Army, as was his slightly older brother.
I can find nothing more online about Joseph’s military career. However, a search on the TNA website turned up a record in series WO 121 Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Discharge Documents of Pensioners, and I visited to view it in person. It was a HUGE file with a great deal of personal information covering the rest of Joseph’s life. In this sense, Joseph’s military story spanned his whole life: his serious abdominal wound meant he had a lifelong disability which limited his work options. I hadn’t known about this. From 1902 until Joseph’s death in 1953 at the age of 83, he was required to present regularly for medical examination to be sure his condition had not improved (even though one examination had concluded it would never improve, only worsen). Reading the file made me very sad and quite angry.
Again, I’d like to go deeper into Joseph’s military experience, by:
- Visiting the Royal Dragoon Guards Museum in York
- Locating regimental diaries
- Wider reading and films about the second Boer War and life in the British Army 1889-1902.
Great Uncle Cyril
I already knew:
A treasured photo shows Cyril as a smiling young man – a boy really – clad in his new army uniform and seemingly quite excited about the adventure he’s about to go on. Pictured with him are his sister (my Grandma) and little brother. Their faces indicate they don’t share their older brother’s enthusiasm for this turn of events. Cyril was killed soon afterwards, aged 18 years and 26 days. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres. Many years after that photo was taken, that worried little brother would visit the town and pause by the panel bearing Cyril’s name, no doubt thinking of happier times they had spent together. I have the postcard he brought back.
Key piece of evidence:
Cyril is commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. This includes his regiment, battalion, service number, and next of kin details. (He was the son of Joseph, above). There is no service record for Cyril, so this was the only way I could have found this essential information.
Armed with that information I found:
- Cyril’s Soldier’s Will. This is interesting from a broader family history viewpoint, because he wrote ‘I leave my money to my mother’. In fact his mother had died two years previously, and the lady he now named was his stepmother. It suggests she was kind to the children, and they all got on well as a family. It also possibly indicates that she was the one who took care of the household finances.
- Register of Soldiers’ Effects (Ancestry, source: Soldiers’ Effects Records, 1901–60. National Army Museum, Chelsea) – I can see from this that his things were sent to his stepmother, as per the will.
- Medal Rolls index card (Ancestry)
- In 2014 I visited Ypres, including Cyril’s entry on the Menin Gate and a battlefield tour. During the tour a chill ran down my spine when the tour guide said ‘Right here is the position of the British Front on 31st July 1917’. That Front included Cyril, and I was standing where he died the following day.
- The Regimental diary (Ancestry, source: WO 95/1096–3948 First World War and Army of Occupation War Diaries) gives precise details of events, times and movements.
- I have also located a list of trench maps that I plan to view in conjunction with the diaries.
I’m happy with my research for Cyril. It just needs to be written up.
Great Uncle Joseph
I already knew:
Very little. Only that Joseph had been killed in action during WW1. Owing to a mis-labelling, I didn’t realise until last year that I had a photograph of him. Unlike his brother Albert (my Granddad), Joseph was a conscript.
Key piece of evidence:
As with Cyril, the starting point was Joseph’s commemoration on the CWGC website, which includes his regiment, battalion and service number. It does not, however, include his next of kin but his widow is named on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, below, and the other details match up.
There is no service record and I can find no Soldier’s Will. Joseph married in 1913, and a record dated May 1915 indicates he had not joined up by that time. Based on the evidence so far available I have no way of knowing exactly when Joseph attested, but conscription started on 2nd March 1916 and was extended to married men on 25th May of that year. I suspect Joseph was a reluctant conscript. He was killed in action, aged 26, on 9th October 1917. Ancestry has provided his entry on the Medal Rolls, and on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919, also the Regimental diary, including maps. My trip to Ypres (above) also included a visit to Joseph’s grave.
Joseph’s story, however, has an epilogue. At the time of his death his wife was 3 months pregnant with their only child. Given the early stage it’s likely Joseph died not knowing he was to be a father. Eight months after his death his widow remarried, and the baby was registered two months before that with the surname of her new husband to be. I have followed this baby through to his death in 2002, and wonder if he knew he was Joseph’s son.
I’d like to look for muster rolls at The National Archives, and hope thereby to be able to work out precisely when Joseph attested.
Further National Archives Collections
Having worked through these four case studies and identified gaps in available evidence, I now realise there could be a great deal more information at The National Archives. The individual records that show up in an online search of TNA collections are merely the ones that have been indexed. There are many more that haven’t been indexed. They would perhaps show up by searching for the battalion rather than name of soldier, and could then be browsed page by page. Whether I would ever have the time to do that is another matter.
I hope these four case studies have helped you to see how evidence from a wide range of sources, including non-military sources, can be used together to build up a picture. Note, too, that although I’m now at the stage of looking for gaps in evidence and considering wider reading to give me a deeper understanding, it has taken years to get to this position. Sometimes the evidence reveals itself only gradually.