“Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten”
Those are the closing words on the scroll which accompanied the famous ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, sent to the families of soldiers killed in WW1. In some small way I have been trying to do my bit in keeping that memory alive.
We have just returned from our planned trip to France and Belgium and I am happy to say that we were on the Messines Ridge on 12th April, exactly 100 years after my Great Uncle William Neighbour Wakefield was killed there in 1918.
It was a very special day. To start with I was sad that it was so misty, meaning that the views from the ridge were not great. But then I thought that this could have been quite typical of the weather 100 years ago. We headed initially to the British Cemetery and, finding a number of graves of unknown soldiers of the North Staffordshire Regiment, decided to ‘adopt’ one. I placed a cross there for William, with his details written on it and his photo attached.
We then drove down the road towards Wulverghem and then up towards Kemmel, pretty much parallel with where the front line would have been on 12th April. Reading the war diary of the 8th Battalion North Staffordshires, the overall picture is one of confusion, with withdrawls being stopped and lines restored and difficulties getting information. The previous day the Germans had made good progress towards Hill 63 and the Battalion had beenforced to start withdrawing from the ridge, eventually moving back to Kemmel by the 13th. Heavy losses had been sustained. Somewhere in all this confusion William lost his life. A letter from the Regiment to his family states “He was buried by his friends after the action near the scene of his death”. Was he one of those soldiers subsequently moved to the British Cemetery at Messines or another local cemetery after the war? It is possible.
Later that afternoon we arrived at Tyne Cot and for the first time I was able to see William’s name inscribed there. It was satisfying to know that he is now commemorated in the country where he died. I placed another cross there for him.
During the course of that day and subsequent days we came across a number of others following a similar personal pilgrimage. The sheer scale of the slaughter is so hard to comprehend. Which is why it is so important to remember those who “left all that was dear to them…and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom”.
I am writing this blog on the 20th November, which happens to be the date of the centenary of the first British massed tank attack. The Battle of Cambrai started on 20th November 1917 and the secret weapon which the British had been developing since 1915 came into its own in a major way.
A fascinating programme was shown on Channel 4 last night: ‘Guy Martin’s WW1 Tank’. It follows the story of Guy’s ambitious plan to build a working replica of a Mark IV WW1 tank in time for the centenary of their use at Cambrai.
At the same time I have just read an article on the use of the tanks at Cambrai in November’s Family Tree Magazine by the war historian Keith Gregson www.family-tree.co.uk . He writes regularly for the magazine and I had the pleasure of hearing him speak in person in September at the Family History Fair at Sandown Park. Keith’s grandfather was involved in that first attack near Cambrai as the British attempted to break through the Hindenburg line.
Tanks had been used earlier in the war, but many had broken down or been lost in the mud of the Somme. The Great Uncle of a friend of mine, one Harry Leat, took the very first tank into battle (a Mark I) at the Battle of Flers in September 1916. He survived that battle but was killed the following spring.
However, the landscape chosen for their massed use in November of that year was very different. The ground was hard and undisturbed – much better going for the tanks. In a visit to the Cambrai area, Guy Martin’s guide Philippe Gorczynski explained the terrain and the great swathe of No Man’s Land covered with three enormous belts of barbed wire between the British front link and that of the Germans. The element of surprise was important: in any official correspondence regarding the vehicles’ transportation, they were referred to as ‘water tanks’, and so that’s how they got the name ‘tanks’. They were transported to the front line as quietly as possible.
On 20th November 1917 375 tanks, according to the TV programme, moved into action. Philippe described it as a ‘tsunami’. They moved swiftly over the ground, ploughing easily through the barbed wire defences, and advancing 5 miles . This was a huge triumph for the tanks as the Hindenburg line was broken through. Although 8,000 Germans were taken prisoner of war on that day, tragically the Allies were not prepared for success on that scale and the reinforcements were not in place to be able to consolidate the position. The delay enabled the Germans to launch a counter attack ten days later, reclaiming much of the gained ground.
However, the Mark IV tank would then be used for the rest of war, seeing very successful action the following year at the Battle of Amiens.
With crucial assistance from JCB and using the latest technology, Guy Martin’s dream of building the 30 ton tank eventually became a reality. Though his initial plan to drive it through Lincoln on Remembrance Sunday was thwarted, the final plan of taking it to Cambrai itself for the anniversary was even better. Those involved in the project obviously gained much knowledge of how the tank was built and worked and also an appreciation for the conditions that the soldiers endured inside the vehicle, not least with the heat and engine fumes.
Another visit to Brookwood had been on the cards for a while. Back in the early Spring I had made enquiries of the staff at the Brookwood Cemetery office regarding the location of my great grandparents’ grave, that of William and Annie Wakefield. Annie had died first, in 1929 and then William in 1941 and I have burial numbers for both. However, it seems that any record of the location is harder to track down than one might imagine for relatively recent burials and all that they were able to tell me was that the grave was likely to be in Woking Ground 1.
And then, going through some papers at the family home I came across a cemetery map, with an ‘x marks the spot’! Brilliant.
Armed with the new information we headed over to Brookwood and to the Woking Ground marked on the map. As we drew to a halt, we could see the name ‘Wakefield’ on a headstone! And there it was: “In loving memory of Francis Wakefield, died 4 February 1927 aged 88”. Francis??? Not exactly what I was expecting. But no, there were no additional names on the headstone and no other Wakefield graves nearby either. What a disappointment. How we came to have a map with that grave location marked on it is a mystery – maybe on a previous occasion of someone enquiring about the grave that was the only Wakefield one they could find. I don’t know, but Francis is definitely not on my family tree.
Ah well. The second objective of the day was to head to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Centenary Exhibition. Never having been to the Military Cemetery before, it took us some time to find the entrance, which is actually off the A324. However, once we entered the cemetery and parked by the Canadian building we could see that the scale of the cemetery was vast. As with all the other CWGC sites we have visited abroad, this is immaculately kept, with beautiful landscaping and planting.
The Centenary Exhibition, though not huge, is well put together and informative. It gives interesting background on how the CWGC was set up and the people involved, including of course Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Thiepval Memorial in France and Rudyard Kipling, who advised on inscriptions.
Visitors are invited to take a postcard on which is the name of a soldier buried at Brookwood, and to find the grave, photograph it and upload it to Twitter using the hashtag #CWGC100. We did this for Signalman Harold William Rupert Parkyn of the Royal Corps of Signals, who died in March 1944, aged just 18.
Volunteers take guided tours of the cemetery twice a day. Being a bit tight of time we opted to just wander around and take in the sheer scale of the cemetery, including as it does both WW1 and WW2 graves and with a large US section and French, Italian and Polish memorials, among others.
The third visit which I was keen to make during our time in Staffordshire was to the Staffordshire Regimental Museum.
Having two ancestors who served during WW1 with the North Staffordshires, I thought that visiting the museum might give me a little background information. My Great Uncle William Neighbour Wakefield served with the 8th Battalion and Edmund Oldrieve Greenhill (who I wrote about the time before last in connection with our visit to Church Leigh), served with the 4th Battalion.
The museum website (http://www.staffordshireregimentmuseum.com/ ) was very helpful in terms of information for planning the visit. With the Surrey History Centre having been keen to have digital copies of the WW1 correspondence in the family’s possession, I thought that the Regimental Museum might similarly be interested and so I emailed them some weeks before our visit. However, unfortunately their eventual reply indicated that they were not able to receive items for a digital archive, which seems a pity. I then asked whether there was a Battalion history for the 8th, thinking that I might be able to consult it when we visited. This time one of their volunteer researchers replied, sending me a link to a subscription only website, but at least I could see that, yes, it appeared that there was indeed a Battalion history.
We took care to visit on a Thursday, which was the day that volunteer researchers might be available. We found our way there with relative ease and found it a nice little museum. Well-presented displays depicted different periods of history and there was a small shop and picnic benches outside. Probably the best bit for me was the outside area: there they had reconstructed a WW1 trench system (with due regard to British standards of health and safety and therefore somewhat more sanitised than some we have been to in France!), which then connected with a German counterpart and then a regimental timeline through a wooded area, with informative noticeboards. All very well done and I do hope it is well used by school parties as it is a great resource. It did strike us that there were not many other visitors when we were there, especially considering that our visit was during half term.
Having looked at all the displays we then enquired at the reception desk about the Battalion history and whether they had a copy which could be consulted. The volunteer who emerged was very certain that there was no Battalion history, which was disappointing. We had our lunch there and proceeded on our way.
Imagine then my frustration when we got back to where we were staying (and therefore wifi) to receive an email from another volunteer at the museum (a reply to one I had sent before we left home), but sent during the time that we were actually at the museum! This to the effect that they would be happy to make copies from the Battalion history for a charge. How frustrating! I replied, expressing some frustration but stating the time frame I was interested in, and very quickly received copies of relevant pages from the Battalion history, for which I am truly grateful. It gives a little more detail than the unit war diary and will be a useful resource, especially during our proposed visit to Belgium next Spring to mark the centenary of William’s death.
Anyway, that useful visit completed our trilogy of visits in Staffordshire – a county with attractive countryside and one I hope we will visit again.
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.
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 12thMarch. 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.
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.
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 12thMarch, 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.
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!
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/
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.
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!).
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!