War Graves Week 2022

In somewhat random fashion, during War Graves Week last year, I went to Rosebank Cemetery in Leith, with an eye out for Commonwealth War Graves.  Scottish cemeteries often have obelisks and tall headstones that make it less easy to pick out the CWGC headstones among them. I am always looking for the people who are overlooked—women, Allied soldiers and airmen, buried so far from home, seamen in the Merchant Navy and civilian dead.

On the following day, I tackled Edinburgh’s Eastern Cemetery, chosen because it is also within easy walking distance for me.

In both cemeteries, I photographed many CWGC headstones, but the ones I chose to research were chosen afterwards at home, almost at random, and when I set about researching, I found stories that I could never have imagined.  In my research, I start with the information in the matching CWGC entry.  Often the sparse details provided, prove incorrect, and other important, helpful details, like ages and the names of next-of-kin are missing.  Don’t let that deter you.  You start with broken threads, and end up with a fairly neatly woven tapestry.

You can find posts on some of those I found and researched on my newest blog, PassersbyRemember, set up to cover accidental discoveries, rather than the planned research that results in posts on my other War Memorial blogs.

Here’s the web address:


Percy’s photos

I have a threadbare wallet containing photographs of some of my grandfather’s military comrades in the Great War.  Most of these photos are either studio photographs or informal group photographs taken in military hospitals.  On the reverse of each, my grandfather, Percy, pencilled the names and regiments of those in the photos.

At the time the Imperial War Museum’s project Faces of the First World War was first announced, I read that, after the war, when families were asked (presumably by the War Office) to provide a photo of the deceased soldier, some families gave the only photo they had.  The thought of the loss of these ‘sole photos’ dismayed me.  But it shouldn’t really have surprised me since, in the course of my war memorial projects, where I’ve been able to contact relatives, it is rare indeed to find someone, apart from direct descendants, who has ever seen a photo of their relative.

So many of those who went to war were young and unmarried, leaving grieving parents, siblings and young widows, but no direct descendants.  Indeed, I’ve not yet come across a photo of my grandmother’s first husband, who died in 1915.  From time to time, I’ve made attempts to locate relatives of some of the men in Percy’s photos, particularly those on the CWGC database of those who did not survive the conflict.

A friend, who has  a ‘dedicated’ scanner, has allowed me to use it to make superior scans of Percy’s photos, making it easy to provide a digital copy to any interested surviving relatives.   My most recent such reunion of relative and photo provided a studio photograph of a man killed in 1918 to his half-brother’s son, a man not born until the end of the Second World War.

What follows is a list of the men whose relatives have not yet been located.  Apart from one Canadian, all served in either the South African or the Australian forces. Given the superior surviving records for the Australian forces—I have sung the praises of the AWM elsewhere, more than once—I am hopeful that I will eventually reunite copies of these photos with interested relatives.

By publishing their names here, at some point, preferably during my lifetime, a relative researching them may come across this post.  Most of the men on this list did survive the war.

Group of three soldiers with a nurse
In pencil on the reverse of the postcard:
4340, Sgt L Buckley, A Company, 30th Battalion, A. I. F.
Pte G Fox, No. 1 Section, 9th F. A., A.I.F.
Trooper J. H. Nash, 13th A. L. H., A.I.F.

Three soldiers, signatures on photos
Signatures read:
Patrick, C.W. Medlin, A. Willison

Reverse of card, pencilled:
Pte Patrick, S.A. Scottish;
Pte C.W. Medlin, 3rd S.A. Infantry;
Sgt. Willison, 5th Canadians.

Three soldiers, posing in Williams Pioneer Studios Ltd (Holloway)
Sgt G.A. Leak, 1st Regiment, Killed Delville Wood, July 1916
F (or T?) Horsley (or Hawsley?), 4th Regiment.

Photo of man in black tie, taken at the Parisian Studios, 27 Church Street, Liverpool
6050 Sgt Spud Murphy, S.A. Scottish

Photo of three men standing behind a nurse
Percy is the man in the middle.  On the reverse is written:

2nd London Gen. Hospital
Chelsea Hut I

With best wishes
J.A. Mitchell, 7th Battalion, A.I.F.
Home address: Queensborough, Victoria, Australia

On the right (in the space for the address):
P. A. Groves, 1st S.A.I., Abroad.

Very young soldier (head and shoulders)
Signed below portrait: Yours sincerely, Reg. L. Huckett, 11th October 1917




War Memorial Research (2): First Steps

Recently I’ve been asked to provide advice on researching war memorials, so to make access easier, I’ll be posting some thoughts on this research here.  Eventually, I’ll also be posting some ideas for tackling local history projects, which I hope could be helpful for schools considering researching war memorials in their communities.

Record the names

Researching a war memorial usually starts with noting down the names.  I try to take a photograph of the memorial from every aspect, ideally on the first visit, as it gives a helpful reference point.  This is particularly important if the engraving has suffered any damage from exposure to the elements. There is plenty of advice about taking photographs of graves or memorials online including a clear, brief guide on the website of the Maple Leaf Legacy Project .

I find it’s helpful, also, to make a list of the names on the spot, writing them down in the order in which they appear and carefully noting any additional details.  Somehow I feel, while I’m writing down the names, a sense of engaging with each person, so, unless the memorial has hundreds of names, I do that as well as taking photographs.   If names appear on more than one panel or side of the memorial, be sure to note where there is a break in names.  You’ll also need to  devise a way that clearly identifies each panel or side, not just for you, but for anyone who comes across your project.  Compass directions will not always be  as obvious to others as they may seem to be to you.

If there are details of rank, regiment or service arm, note those as well, as any additional information will help you to ‘narrow down’ the field, when you’re looking for, say, a high frequency combination like ‘Thomas Williams’.  [Pause here to guess how many men named Thomas Williams died while on military service in the course of WW1.]

Where a war memorial does include rank, or the name of a regiment do not take these details at face value, particularly if you are unable to find a record for someone with a low frequency surname.  Soldiers were sometimes transferred to other battalions or regiments in the course of their service and news of promotions towards the end of a military life may not have reached the family or the committee responsible for the list.

Match the name on the War Memorial to a specific individual—using a site with FREE access

My next step is to ‘marry’ each of the names on the War Memorial to a name on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database.   If it’s a rare surname, you’re in luck, but generally, at some point you may sense the enormity of the nation’s loss when you discover how many men with the name  ‘Thomas Williams’ died in WW1.

Search Tips for using the CWGC database
1. One of the reasons, some people are hard to find on the CWGC database, is that it works at its best if you enter the name in the exact format in which it appears on the CWGC database.  But of course, until you find the name there, you won’t know what that format is!  So, unless I’m dealing with a high frequency name/surname combination, I enter only the surname and an initial.

2.  If you are searching this database for the first time, start with the more unusual surnames on the memorial.  By the time you reach the high frequency surnames, you will have learned your way around the site and thought of a few search tips of your own.

3.  With a high frequency surname, you need to take the Forename search route for Thomas Williams because, while it will prioritise the Thomases, it also lists those who have the initial T and eventually delivers even the odd, but unique,  ‘Theophilus Tunstall Williams’ and ‘Tobler K. Williams’.   If there is more than one initial associated with the name, you’re in luck, because searching for T. T. Williams generated just three results (not 34 pages of results), one of whom was Theophilus Tunstall Williams.

Searching by the initial is the default search so to search by forename make sure that you click the radio button next to the word Forename.

If your search result is the message (0) records match your search criteria, do check that you haven’t entered a forename without disabling the radio button for initial.  (What it will have done for Thomas would have been to transform the name into t  h o m a s and to have looked for a T. H. O. M. A. S. Williams)  With a high frequency surname, you may realise that there can’t be no results at all for a Thomas Williams or a John Smith, but this possibility may not occur to you with a low frequency surname like  Camplejohn.

Other databases for WW1

If you subscribe to an online service, such as Ancestry,  it’s useful to also find the deceased on the database.  There is often slightly different information on the two databases.  Ancestry is available in many public libraries, so even if you do not have a subscription, you may well be able to access it on library premises.

If you are researching a Scot, search the Scottish National Roll of Honour as well as the CWGC database.

People missing from your War Memorial

Not everyone who died while on active service, is recorded on a war memorial. You may discover someone born in the district covered by your war memorial who is not recorded on it.  You will almost certainly feel compelled to rescue ‘The Overlooked” and you might even wish to make a case for their names to be added to the memorial.

Some of those who died on active service are recorded on more than one war memorial: in the parish from which they originate, or a town or city memorial, on a school war memorial, on a university war memorial, on a workplace war memorial as well as on war memorials in parishes with which the family was connected.

Names missing from the WW1 databases

Occasionally, you won’t find a matching record  so some lateral thinking is called for.

There’ll be suggestions on getting round the problem of missing or overlooked names in another post.


…a scrap of advice…

Two of the war memorials I am researching started off on impulse with the names scribbled down on scraps of paper, a practice my students would tell you that I frequently advise against.

Scraps of paper get lost.  By the time they turn up again, if they turn up again, you’ll have spent time searching for them and possibly having to reconstitute their contents.  You may even have to retrace your footsteps and do the research all over again.

I  use a laptop to enter, save and backup data, whenever that’s feasible.  Where archives permit photography, I use a camera and transcribe later.

Planning I tend to prefer to commit by hand to paper.   My solution to the problem of lost notes, has been to invest in a large supply of Muji’s A4 notebooks.  Muji, because they sell, for £1.95 a slim A4 sized-notebook—slim is important since it adds minimal weight to whatever else I have to carry about with me.  The cover is plain charcoal grey, (in case you have a branch of Muji handy).  Each notebook has 30 leaves to it. You should be able to find something similar locally.

I used to favour notebooks that fitted easily into a bag, but it’s more useful to have the extra writing area.  The A4 sheet is the best fit for the frame, whether I’m photocopying or printing.

In my research notebooks, each spread has its own function.  When I say ‘spread’, I mean it in its publishing sense, i.e. two facing pages.

On  the left hand page of each ‘spread’ I write the information I already have, and the specific questions that need answering.

I use the right-hand page of each spread, to write the information I subsequently find—basically that means nothing gets written on the right-hand page until I’m in the archive or library, engaged on that research. I do my best to position the search findings including any negative results, opposite the question it’s answering, though this is more difficult when research higher up the page has been particularly fruitful.

Having the details of the quest, the potential information source and the resulting information together, in the same notebook, means I know exactly where I will find that information.  I often  revisit the notebooks, even after I’ve transferred the information elsewhere.

When I first adopted this system, I allocated a spread to each of the archives or libraries that I visit regularly.  I would note down on the left hand side of my National Archives’ spread, the series, title and references for the documents I expected to view.  When the thought came, “Ah, I might find that at the National Archives, next time I’m there!” I went straight to the National Archives’ spread, and added that research task to the list of those already there.  Where possible, I used an online catalogue to note the reference and title of the information source that might be relevant.  Once I had enough meat for a feast, it was time to find a slot for the pilgrimage.  Similarly, other national, regional or local archives had their own spreads.

I still use this method, the only difference being that nowadays I might have a whole notebook dedicated to each repository, with separate spreads for each series of records.  When I have a large commission for a client, I tend to allocate an entire notebook to that research, with a separate spread being used for each resource type e.g. an archive, a library, an interview.

It’s useful to catch ‘questions’ that occur to you when you’re researching.  Too often, one is so engrossed in what one is finding and where it is leading, that any fleeting “I wonder whether…?” questions, that flit in and interrupt the flow, are swiftly dismissed.  Nobody wants a diversion when the destination is clear.

That diversion, however, could hold significant information.  So, if you always keep your notebook handy, a quick scribble on a left hand page preserves that question until you have time to follow it up. I used to keep a Post-It pad handy for that, but now I tend to jot those fleeting thoughts down on the last page of the notebook, transferring them later to the appropriate page for the search I’d need to make.

The notebook system facilitates your passage through an archive’s entry and exit points.  While separate sheets of paper will be paged through by the security staff, a quick riffle of the notebook with the thumb, and you’re clear.

Sometimes you come across a piece of information, when you weren’t expecting it, and a scrap of paper, such as a till receipt is all you can find when you empty your pockets.   Tough call, that.

If, however, you have the luxury of a ‘clean sheet’ (whether it’s paper or a paper napkin) write on only one side of it.  That way you can eventually paste it into your working book, even if you have to do something nerdy like writing on your hand to remind you.