From Thiepval to Tyne Cot

 

Well I had a very pleasant surprise the other day, and all I can say is “well done to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”!

If you have been reading this blog for some time you may remember that I have written before about William Neighbour Wakefield, my Great Uncle who was killed in WW1.

Wakefield
William Neighbour Wakefield

For a long time I had been aware of confusion surrounding the date of his death, since the family is in possession of a number of letters with slightly conflicting information.  Was it on the 9th April 1918, as communicated in a letter from the front, or the 12th April as stated by the War Office?  Enquiries by his family finally resulted in a letter from the War Office in July stating “the report that he was killed in action on the 12th April 1918 is confirmed.  The Battalion was not in action on the 9th April 1918”.  At any rate, he was killed in Belgium.

However, at no point was it suggested that he had been killed on 12th March. And yet that is the date that for some unknown reason found its way to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (previously the Imperial War Graves Commission).  When I first started researching William’s war service, that was the date of death recorded on their website, which also helpfully told me that he was commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial near Albert in France.

Although a Woking lad, William found himself in September 1917 being compulsorily transferred to the 8th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment.  His service record indicates that he joined the British Expeditionary Force on 21 January 1918.  The Battalion was at that point part of the 57th Infantry Brigade and using the Unit War Diaries at the National Archives I was able to follow their movements, which led to a memorable holiday in France and Flanders in 2009 during which we were able to retrace their steps.

Having been in France in March, and been involved in the Battle of St Quentin and then the Battle of Bapaume, they were moved across the border to Belgium at the end of that month, eventually joining the front line at Messines.

William Wakefield was killed in action, aged 21, on 12th April at Messines during a successful counter-attack.  The war diary entries certainly give a flavour of the confusion which must have reigned.   The handwritten letter from the front on 22nd April conveying the news to the family states:  “he was killed during an attack on the 9th in Flanders and his death is felt keenly by all ranks because he always showed himself a loyal comrade and a good soldier.  He was buried by his friends after the action near the scene of his death”.  Was the bit about being “buried by his friends” a standard phrase commonly used in order to bring comfort and reassurance to the families?  If the location of his grave was known at the time, then that was obviously not the case some months later when the war dead were systematically being removed to the new war cemeteries.

William Wakefield
Letter from the front

Also in the possession of the family are William’s spurs.  I have no idea how they made their way back to the family, but it is very touching to think that perhaps it was a fellow soldier, a young mate of William’s, who either retrieved them from the body or from William’s personal possessions and was thoughtful enough to think that they might be treasured by his grieving family.  Who brought them to Woking and how is now unknown.

William’s spurs

 

 

As a soldier with no known grave killed in Belgium, William’s name should of course have been on one of the Belgian memorials.  However, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission made a mistake and recorded his death as 12th March, at which stage the unit was, indeed, in France.

Following our visit to Thiepval in the summer of 2009, I sent a copy of the War Office letter to the CWGC and they responded by amending the entry on their website www.cwgc.org .  I also at that time sent information about William which is now on the database held at the visitor centre at Thiepval.  (See http://www.greatwar.co.uk/somme/museum-thiepval-visitor-centre.htm for information on the Thiepval Database Project).

With the centenary of William’s death coming up next year I started to put together some plans for revisiting Thiepval and the Messines area.  For some reason the other day I thought I would just look up his entry on the CWGC website.  Initially I was frustrated not to find him, but remembering that ‘less is more’ I gradually took out various search terms including the country of commemoration (which I thought I knew!).  Imagine my surprise and shock, then, when his name came up – commemorated on the Addenda Panel at Tyne Cot!!!

How recently this has happened I don’t know – on the website it also says “The commemoration for this casualty has recently been transferred to this Memorial. However, it will not be possible to add his name to the Memorial immediately. Please contact the Commission before planning a visit, for more information.”  So I have done that and am currently awaiting a reply.  I have also asked whether his name will continue to appear on the Thiepval Memorial.

Quite coincidentally, I have just read that today (20 May 2017) sees the opening of the CWGC Centenary Exhibition at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey.  http://www.cwgc.org/news-events/events/launch-of-exhibition.aspx The exhibition runs until November, so I must definitely pay a visit.

So now I have another location to factor into the itinerary next spring.  And hopefully I’ll be able to see William’s name on a memorial to the missing in the country in which he fell.  Well done Commonwealth War Graves Commission – and thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

Sussex Family History Group Annual Conference

This year’s Annual Conference of the Sussex Family History Group happened to be on the first Saturday of my Easter holidays, meaning that for once I was free to attend.  Haywards Heath is over an hour’s drive away, but it was a beautiful morning for driving through the Sussex countryside and therefore a pleasurable journey.  Unfortunately the local Park Runners had done a take-over of the car park adjacent to Clair Hall, which meant getting my head around the rather hi-tec car park machine across the road.  However, that hurdle over, I made it in plenty of time for a coffee before proceedings commenced.

Well I can tell you that it was worth the long drive just to experience Andrew Thatham’s presentation.  If you ever get the chance to hear him or to see his exhibition, then grab the opportunity with both hands!  (You can find his website at www.groupphoto.co.uk).  His talk, entitled ‘A Group Photograph – Before, Now and In-Between’ was definitely more of an experience than a standard talk.  Basically he has spent over 20 years researching the lives of the 46 men depicted in one particular WW1 photograph.  The photo of officers of the 8th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment was taken while they were training on Salisbury Plain in 1915, and included Andrew’s  great-grandfather, their commanding officer.  The material he collected resulted in an exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres in 2015, a book of his research and an extremely moving animated film.

We viewed the half hour film, which, without words, conveys the lives of the 46 men.  The concept is extremely clever.  There is a continually changing visual representation of the birth and death of the men and the growth of their families, with music clips throughout the period and photographs of them, their parents and then their children and grandchildren, together with constantly changing images of iconic news and happenings of each year.  It felt an immersive experience and I could feel myself relating the constantly rolling date counter to the lives of my own ancestors, hearing the music they heard, and wondering at the inventions that were news for them.  It was truly moving. An extaordinary achievement.

Later in the day we heard very good and comprehensive talks from Sue Reid on the British Newspaper Archive and from Chris Heather of TNA on records for Railway Ancestors.

I patronised the book stall and sought advice on the best way to conserve our various WW1 family documents.  I also found out about the SFHG My Tree project, where members are being encouraged to send in their trees, ideally in GEDCOM format.  This will definitely be added to my ‘to do’ list as it is another way of preserving for posterity the research I have undertaken.

Altogether a very worthwhile day out and well done to SFHG for their excellent organisation. http://sfhg.org.uk/

SFHG; Andrew Tatham
SFHG Conference

 

 

Surrey In The Great War

So I’m making progress with the New Year’s Resolutions!

Some weeks ago I uploaded the stories of brothers William and Jack Wakefield to the Surrey In the Great War website, and I am happy to say that they have now been moderated and are available to view online at www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk.  Click on ‘People’ and you can then search for both of them.  I didn’t find it the most intuitive of processes, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to upload any images for Jack at the time.

Surrey In The Great War

However, I had a lovely and very detailed email back from Dr Kirsty Bennett, Senior Project Officer.  She wanted, quite rightly, to check a number of sources with me and the ownership of the images I did send.  I have now sent her a photo of Jack Wakefield (my Grandad) and hope that this will appear as his profile photo in due course.

She also wondered whether I had digital images for the POW letters from my Grandad to his parents, written in 1918.  This led me to double-check what I already had images of and which I had merely transcribed.  Over the last couple of weeks I have photographed all the documents I could find:  the POW letters, the letters from the War Office and from the North Staffordshire Regiment subsequent to William’s death and many other family birth, marriage and death certificates that  I don’t think I’ve ever seen before (and at least a couple that I paid good money to get hold of from the GRO some years ago, not knowing that they were already in the family’s possession!  There’s a learning point there!).

Letter from William Wakefield while in training 1917

I am now in a position to send in a number of items for Surrey History Centre’s digital archive of WW1 material so that they are preserved for posterity.  Just a little more work to do there, and then I will perhaps pluck up courage to take another look at the IWM Lives of the First World War.  I uploaded information on Grandad’s WW1 service a couple of years ago https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/4574929, but I remember it being a tortuous process, with text boxes being not nearly big enough so that I had to break it all down into a number of sections.  I know I’ve been putting off tackling another submission – I wonder whether the process of uploading will have been streamlined at all?

The other ongoing question mark is over tracking down the grave of William and Jack’s parents in Brookwood Cemetery.  We found their burial numbers easily at Surrey History Centre back in February and went straight to the cemetery office, where a very helpful lady was able to identify broadly which plots they might be in but said that finding the precise location would take a little longer.  She took my email address to get back to me….and nothing has been forthcoming.  I have since emailed them twice, but no response whatsoever.  This is disappointing – so near and yet so far.  Never mind – onwards and upwards!

 

 

When West Grinstead Went To War

Over a year ago I wrote of what I knew of Bert Mitchell’s involvement in the WW1.

He was my great uncle, born on 1 Aug 1892 in West Grinstead, and I remember him as I was 7 when he died.  It was an interesting challenge to research him as his is one of many service records that has not survived.

His ‘On War Service 1915’ badge was probably issued for his Red Cross volunteer work during the early part of the war  and finding Bert’s regiment and service number on his medals enabled me to find the matching Medal Index Card. Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps on 2 December 1915.  Although I do not know exactly where he served, I do know that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, for treatment and recovery.

Following his discharge in 1918 Bert worked as a Red Cross orderly at the Royal Victoria Hospital, making and fitting artificial limbs. Photos in my Granny’s photo album are a tantalising glimpse of his work there.  Later he worked for Pedestros Limbs Department in Southampton and subsequently at Roehampton.  I was intrigued to watch a recent episode of Call the Midwife showing families of children affected by Thalidomide receiving help with artificial limbs at Roehampton.

Having discovered that the West Grinstead Local History Group were putting together a publication on the role of people from that parish in WW1, I submitted to them what I had researched of Bert Mitchell’s life.  This weekend I had the joy of attending the group’s exhibition to mark the launch of the book ‘When West Grinstead Went To War 1914 – 1918’.

An excellent display with photos and commentary was complemented by various WW1 artefacts.  All those mentioned in the book were plotted on a large map of the parish.  I enjoyed chatting with several members of the research group, showing them my tree and my Mitchell write-up.  I also discovered a link with a lady who had travelled all the way from Cumbria to be there.

When West Grinstead Went To War
Displays at the Exhibition ‘When West Grinstead Went To War’

 

 

 

 

 

 

As well as service outlines of the men from the parish who served, there are articles in the book on Aviation in West Sussex during the war period, on the 4th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment and on Food and Agriculture.

Many congratulations to Dorothy, Norman, James, Colin, Mike and all those who brought the book to fruition – an amazing achievement!

Copies of the book can be ordered by contacting westgrinsteadlhg@gmail.com

 

 

The Battle of the Somme

The recent commemorations of the start of the the WW1 Battle of the Somme, both in France and elsewhere, have deservedly had a lot of air-time on TV.  I found it very inspiring in particular to watch the ceremony held at Thiepval and to see that so many people cared enough to make that journey and to be there to mark the occasion.

We were fortunate enough to be able to visit Thiepval a few years ago.  It was very moving to see for the first time the name of my great-uncle, William Neighbour Wakefield, inscribed on the huge Lutyens memorial.  This was, of course, built to commemorate the missing of the Somme.  Ironically, my great-uncle was nowhere near the Somme when he was killed in action on 12 April 1918.  He was in Belgium at the time and it was an administrative error which led to his name being on the Thiepval Memorial rather than on the Menin Gate at Ypres (which we have also visited).  Nevertheless, on our return home I submitted information and a photograph to those who compile the information for the database available in the Thiepval Visitor Centre and felt pleased that I had been able to contribute in this way.

Of the many projects underway during these years of commemoration of the WW1, the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/   is a fantastic initiative.  Over seven and a half million life stories have now been uploaded to the site by members of the public.

Many projects are also underway at county level, and Surrey has recently launched Surrey in the Great War www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk . When I first met the enthusiastic team behind this project I was inspired to send them some information on the Woking Wakefield brothers.  Unfortunately the total lack of acknowledgment rather dampened my enthusiasm for sending in anything further, but I should probably now put that setback behind me and see what else I can share now that the website is up and running.  Perhaps I’ll make that a summer project!

It is many years since I last visited Surrey History Centre, but we did so on 2 July for the screening of the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’.  This film was hugely popular when it was shown in UK cinemas in 1916:  many watched it in the hope of spotting a loved one.  Now the film has been remastered by the Imperial War Museum, with a new music score by Laura Rossi which works incredibly well with the silent film.  The screening was preceeded by a talk by Dr Emma Hanna of the University of Kent and the Gateways to the WW1 project http://www.gatewaysfww.org.uk/ , in which she gave very useful background to why and how the film was created and how it was subsequently viewed.  Although some of the scenes were staged before or after the event, the scenes of wounded men and German prisoners cannot fail to have an impact.  Despite the fact that we know it is a sanitised version of conditions, the film nevertheless conveys something of the life of the troops both behind and on the front line and is therefore of great interest to those of us with personal connections to those who fought on the Western Front.

I would certainly recommend seeing the film if you can – you can find out more at  http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060008206

Thiepval
Thiepval Memorial
Thiepval
Thiepval Memorial

Going to the Fair

Don’t you just love going to a fair?  No – not the kind with bumper cars and candy floss, but a Family History fair, with the excitement of new resources to browse and buy and Useful Conversations to have!

Back in November I’d been to the West Surrey Family History fair in Woking, but this was a much smaller affair – the Sussex Family History Group ‘Family and Local History Day’, held at the Steyning Centre in, er, Steyning.

When I got to Steyning it was obvious that something else was happening in the town that day, with road closure notices abounding.  I made it to the Steyning Centre car park just before some sort of procession started, I think, securing the last space in the car park and then only because I have a very little car!

Heading first to the Sussex Family History Group stall I was able to purchase the CD ‘Sussex Poll Books and Directories’ which I had seen advertised in the journal and thought would be a good resource to have.  They seemed to be having a good clearout of old booklets, so I had a good rummage and came away with a number in exchange for a donation.  They may be dated, but background reading on, for example, Quarter Sessions, Victorian Censuses and English Noncomformity are often invaluable to dip into I find.

Moving round the hall I was surprised but pleased to see that the Quaker Family History Society had a stall.  I stopped to have a chat with them, since the Musketts were some of the earliest Quakers in Norfolk.  The Society’s next London meeting is coming up on 9 July.

Staff from The Keep and from West Sussex Record Office seemed to be very busy on their stalls .  I had a browse of the postcard stall, but without success.  However, I did have a lovely chat with the lady on the West Sussex County Council stall and bought a copy of the book they have produced in conjunction with the Record Office:  ‘ West Sussex Remembering 1914 – 18’. W S Remembering

I had not seen this advertised anywhere, but looks a useful book, with chapters covering aspects such as Women at War, The Local Economy and Invasion Threats.  On this stall I also learned about West Sussex Past Pictures.  This was not a site I had known about previously, but on looking it up when I came home I discovered that it is “a free to access online database of the best scanned photographs and pictures, with detailed descriptions, owned by the County Library Service and seven of the County’s museums”.  It offers free downloadable images for use in private research, so looks a very useful resource.  I quickly found an image of the interior of West Grinstead Park house, which I had certainly never seen before.

Before leaving I had a look at the WW1 display set out in the adjacent room, put on by the Sussex branch of the Western Front Association.  I was particularly fascinated to see the photos from what looked to be a reenactment day, with mounted soldiers pulling equipment and supplies and horse-drawn ambulances.

My exit from Steyning was scarcely less eventful as it coincided with a wedding party leaving the church opposite, unfortunately under umbrellas, but they seemed a very happy party.

All the fun of the fair!

Sussex Family History Group
SFHG Family and Local History Fair May 2016 – photo from the group’s facebook page

The West Surrey Family History Society Fair

West Surrey Family History Society
Photo from the WSFHS facebook page

I hadn’t been to a Family History Fair for some time.  Despite not particularly having Surrey ancestors, the Fair being organised by West Surrey Family History Society at the end of October promised to be the biggest in the South , so I thought I’d go along.

It was a grand day out and very worthwhile.  The ‘Ask an Expert’ tables were a good idea, and I queued to speak to someone regarding dating an old photograph.  He was able to give me some ideas to pursue.

Two of the three family history societies that I belong to were there (Sussex and Oxfordshire), so it was good to have a chat with them and peruse their publications.  I was pleased to be able to buy a copy of the CD of the first 40 years of Sussex Family Historian, the journal of the Sussex Family History Group.  Dipping into that should keep me out of mischief for a while!

On the Oxfordshire stall I found a booklet ‘Abandoned, Apprenticed and Boarded Out’, containing details of Neighbour ancestors from Lewknor.

I was most interested to chat with the very enthusiastic people on the ‘Surrey in the Great War’ stand and will definitely be following its progress and sending them the information on the two Woking brothers (see the last two posts).

I spoke to the people at the Guild of One Name Studies and at the British Association for Local History, before heading to the talk entitled ‘Breaking down brick walls’.

This talk turned out to be less about breaking down brick walls than about getting the most out of The Genealogist program, but it was useful nonetheless.  Mark Bayley definitely knows his stuff and was very clear in his delivery and I made a note of a number of things to follow up.

I would quite like to have known about the car parking charges beforehand and I do think that WSFHS missed a trick in not being more proactive about promoting membership of their society to the many visitors to the fair, but I came away with a number of purchases as well as new lines of enquiry. A grand day out – thank you WSFHS!