When difficult stories emerge

A chance sighting of a World War One military service record set me off on a tangent.

The record belonged to a man who married one of my great aunts.  The two of them had eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood, and between them they produced a total of around forty grandchildren.  What follows is a very sad tale of an unhappy life and marriage, but out of respect to his descendants I shall refer to this man as Mr X.

Having joined up for military service in December 1915, Mr X endured three years of the horrors of war.  Today we’re aware that many of the young men who survived were sent home in 1918 with what we now understand as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but back then the long-term impact was not understood.  We do know that when many of them returned home they were ‘changed’, quite ‘different’ from the young men who had gone away to fight for King and Country a few years earlier.  Perhaps this was the reason for Mr X’s anger and the violence that he inflicted on his wife and young family.

However, Mr X’s life was blighted not only by PTSD.  A note on his service record states that on 20th September 1918, while in France, he suffered a ‘severe shell gas wound’.  It’s likely that this involved actual physical injury from the explosion/ shrapnel combined with effects of mustard gas.

I started to research…

It seems Germany commenced large-scale use of gas as a weapon in January 1915.  Initially, the artillery shells they fired contained liquid xylyl bromide tear gas.  Other forms of gas followed, including chlorine and the deadly phosgene.  However, by 1917 the most common chemical agent used was sulfur mustard, known as ‘mustard gas’.

The purpose of the mustard gas was not to kill the enemy: only about 2-3% of victims actually died.  Rather it was used to harass, disable and disorientate, and to pollute the battlefield.  Being heavier than air, mustard gas settled to the ground as an oily liquid where it sank into the soil, remaining active for several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the weather conditions.  Those exposed to it would start to vomit, while their conjunctiva and eyelids swelled until they were forced shut, leaving the victims temporarily blinded.  This is what had happened to the rows of blinded soldiers we see in WW1 photos, walking in long rows each with an arm on the shoulder of the man in front.

Mustard gas didn’t depend on inhalation to be effective: any contact with skin was sufficient.  Moist red patches would appear immediately, erupting into blisters over the following 24 hours.  Higher concentrations could burn flesh to the bone, particularly if it found its way to the eyes, nose, armpits and groin, where it dissolved in the natural moisture of those areas.  Other symptoms included severe headache, increased pulse and fever.  Internal and external bleeding could follow, as the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane.  Blistering in the lungs could lead to pneumonia.  Without doubt, the effects of mustard gas attack were unspeakably painful; and those who were fatally injured could remain like this for four or five weeks before relief came in the form of death.

For the majority who didn’t actually die, many were nevertheless scarred for life.  Respiratory disease and failing eyesight were common post-war afflictions.  Many, although recorded as fit, were left with scar tissue in their lungs, and this left them susceptible to tuberculosis.  It’s now known that around the time of the Second World War, many of the surviving 1918 casualties did indeed die of tuberculosis.

Mr X died in 1935.  Was this the cause of his death?  It’s clear that the seventeen years back in Blighty were not happy, healthy ones for him.  I spent time looking at online trees, hoping that someone might have uploaded a copy of his death certificate, or at least given the cause of death in their notes, but no one had.  What I did read, both as notes on trees and in written accounts circulated by his grandchildren, was that he was badly affected by WW1, physically disabled, and that he took to drink.  He was a big man, and his wife was tiny.  He was violent, and she was no match for him.

Mr X isn’t part of my direct line.  He isn’t even a blood relative, so I wouldn’t normally buy a certificate for his death, but eventually it seemed like an important part of his story was missing.  Finally, I bought the certificate.  His death was recorded as ‘natural causes’, an acute inflammation of the pancreas: it seems it was the drink that did for him in the end.  I still think, though, there’s a good chance that had the awfulness of his life not driven Mr X to drink, he might have died a year or so later, from TB.

I have so many thoughts about Mr X.  I don’t think many people would have mourned his passing, although his wife, now free of him but widowed and with ten mouths to feed, must have felt she was tossing about somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.  The 1930s were a hard time for working class people, but in a time when many were suffering, it seems this family really stood out as being poor as church mice.  We can’t discount the possibility that Mr X might just have been a violent, unpleasant bully.  But surely the more likely reason for his behaviour is the horrors of war torturing him for the rest of his days.

Mrs X’s life too was transformed from whatever it might have been to a life of anger, violence, harsh words and little love, and perhaps she too was experiencing a form of PTSD after her treatment at the hands of her husband.  Those who remember her tend to speak of a strange, solitary and unloving person.  I never met her, and indeed our families seem to have parted ways during these inter-war years.  The philosophy of the time was ‘you don’t interfere between man and wife’.  Thankfully this approach has gone out of fashion.  Mrs X needed support.  Mr X had needed support too.

Family research isn’t always about loving families and happy memories.  Sometimes life is terrible, unfair and unbearable.  But even when faced with the most unpleasant of individuals, even though we can’t forgive and shouldn’t excuse their behaviour, we can at least try to look for the person inside and how they got to be who they became.  And we can send them some love.

Military ancestors: case studies

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

My research:
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.

Ongoing:
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.

My research:
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.

Ongoing:
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.

My research:
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.

Ongoing:
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.

My research:
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.

Ongoing:
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.

Remembering

This is a new blog about remembering the past, honouring our ancestors and at times learning lessons from what has gone before.

It seems appropriate, then, to launch it on this Armistice Day of 2018, as we commemorate one hundred years since the end of the First World War. There are so many beautiful tributes to the young men – and women – who died during those four hellish years: national events like the torches at the Tower of London and local tributes up and down the country, many featuring hand-knitted and crocheted poppies.

In total, ten million military personnel plus seven million civilians from all sides lost their lives in The Great War,

This is my own tribute to them all, and in particular to two young men:

My great uncle Cyril Mann, killed at Passchendaele on 1st August 1917

Cyril Mann Inscription on Menin Gate

My great uncle Joseph Lucas, also killed at Passchendaele, on 9th October 1917.

Joseph Lucas grave at Poelcapelle

May they rest in peace, and may we and the politicians who represent us be ever mindful of the lessons of the past.

We have more in common than that which divides us
We are one human race