Challenges in matching a name on a War Memorial with the correct military record

The image below shows that Face of the Ham Parish War Memorial which lists the parish’s casualties as a result of that war.  It is a stark list of initials and surnames, arranged in no particular order, and includes mistakes and spelling errors.  You might even notice that the son of Lord Sudeley, who had been Chairman of the Parish War Memorial Committee, is listed twice.  It’s not hard to guess the reason why that had to be corrected, but difficult to understand why they left the error on the face.  As you will see, they had form for erasing.

The WW1 Face of the Ham War Memorial

The explanation for the errors on this particular face is that this list dates from after the Second World War. That’s not because it took the good folk of the parish over two decades to get round to erecting it.  This face replaced what had previously appeared on the War Memorial.

Like the War Memorial for the neighbouring parish of Petersham, the original Ham War Memorial included the rank, full name and military unit of each casualty, and planning for this memorial started halfway through the First World War.

Between the two World Wars, the population of the parish of Ham had increased dramatically, with the building of housing estates on open land, to meet the urgent housing needs of the boroughs of Kingston and Richmond.  (The parish of Ham was formerly entirely within the borough of Kingston.)  This population increase meant that as many lives were to be lost in the Second World War, as had been lost in the first. In addition there were several civilian dead.

Rather than erect another memorial, the Parish Council decided that the names of the First World War casualties would be erased,  and their ‘entries’ condensed to initials and surnames. This provided the opportunity for transcription errors along the way, and this, as well as the minimal amount of information, caused considerable difficulties for me as the lead researcher.

E. PARSONS was one example.  A search of the CWGC  Casualties’ Database will generate 55 casualties for E. PARSONS, during the First World War, and with no rank, regiment or first name to go by, that’s quite a crop to eliminate.  Readers of the War Memorial blog, Ham Remembers, may remember similar challenges, particularly with those, before I could identify Ernest Parsons, who had passed through the parish yet left no record there.

One of the names on the 1914–1918 face was W.S. BENSON—it’s the tenth name in the first column.  As is the case with many local historians, familiarity with parish registers meant that I cheerfully recognised this surname as that of a large local family and surmised that he was probably the descendant of Thomas Benson.

Thomas Benson had arrived in Ham as a Market Gardener in the late and built up a business as a Potato Dealer, living in a comfortable house on Ham Common until his death. The domestic arrangements were a little complicated since Thomas’s first wife abandoned him, contracting a bigamous marriage, leaving behind six young children under the age of twelve, the youngest being an infant.  Two children had died in infancy.  Thomas soon embarked on a second relationship with his housekeeper, Sarah Fisher, having by her nine more children, most of them registered as Fisher but with Benson as a middle name.  The Fisher children simply dropped the Fisher after their parents’ marriage, some 25 years after the start of the relationship and a decade after the death of Thomas’s first wife.

While eight of Thomas’s sons survived to adulthood, I also had to factor in the possibility that W.S. Benson might be the illegitimate son of one of Thomas’s daughters, whose surname would also have been Benson.  Since the youngest of Thomas’s children was born in 1878, only he and the two a little older than him, would have been old enough to be conscripted, even when the ceiling was raised in 1916.  While I took stock of these sons, I focused more closely on the grandchildren.

In researching war memorials, one turns first to the CWGC database. This search did generate a W.S. Benson.  Following up the search results up, I found a casualty named Walter Stanley Benson, and then another, plain Stanley Benson, both serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  There was also Rifleman Jack W. S. Benson, a casualty from The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment.  Another Walter Stanley Benson, born in Hackney, served in the Royal Navy but survived.  It was helpful that the deaths of these men occurred close together, in April, May and July 1917, but a careful search of the local newspapers for that period did not report the news of the death of a Benson from either Ham or Petersham.

It was some time before a list of the original inscriptions, capturing them before their removal was found in a box in the Local Studies Library and Archive by one of our team  from the Friends of Ham Library.   Fortunately, a local historian, Sylvia Greenwood, had had the foresight to draw up a list of the names on the war memorial before the masons erased their details.  The belated discovery of this ‘Annex 4’ showed that the War Memorial had originally listed W.S.Benson, associated with the Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians).  We also found a list, drawn up by the Parish Council, and published in 1915, listing the inhabitants of the parish who were then ‘serving with the colours’, and this included Stanley Benson of Old Malt Cottage, serving with the 2nd Scottish Rifles.

I then searched the CWGC database, with a filter to extract a list of Benson casualties serving with The Cameronians.  There were five, all privates, listed in search results in the following order:
William Benson
Henry Benson
Peter Benson
Frederick Benson
M. Benson.

Tearing my hair out by then over Walter Stanley Benson, I tried a search of the Database Soldiers died in the Great War, for Benson.   Top of the list was someone in Brixton, Surrey (Go figure, as they say) but I scrolled down and further south on the list skimming over Bensons born in Islington and Whitehaven, Cumberland. Just about to leave that page, with the mouse heading to exit, I spotted Frederick Benson, born Ham Surrey, and serving in The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). Looking for the Medal Index Card of this Frederick Benson, he was at the top of the list of Fredericks and serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Cameronians, his service number being 10129.  Replicating this search more recently, searching for just  Frederick Benson, he headed the list of 14 Search Results.

There was a Frederick in the Benson brood, the youngest child of their grandfather’s first marriage and the uncle or half-uncle of Thomas’s grandchildren.  He was born in 1856 and would have been too old to serve in the First World War.  His life was not easy but that is another story.

Soon after, as I worked through Thomas’s grandsons, I was to discover a Walter Stanley Benson.  It seemed I’d found a match.  He was the eldest child  of Walter Benson Fisher and his wife, Ellen Stevens and had been born at Mayleigh Cottages, and was duly baptised in Petersham.

By this point, I was ready to concede that this Frederick was in all likelihood ‘our’ W.S. Benson, and that it was possible that the Army had made a mistake or that he had adopted an alias.  On his card in the Medal Rolls Index, he is down as BENSON, F., and another hand has filled in ‘rederick’ to complete the Frederick.  Indeed it occurred to me as I looked at it, that the F could well be a transcription error, if he had become known in the Army as Stanley, and if someone, somewhere along the line, had misheard thn S as an F.

People sometimes reinvent themselves and change their names in a new town or even in a new job.  We know from the surviving parish lists that he was known as Stanley, and that indeed, in his family unit there was a second Walter in the family, Walter Henry, nine years younger than Walter Stanley.  At that time it was not unusual for children to be named after a parent, thereby carrying on family tradition, but to be always known by their middle names.   The younger Walter, Walter Henry, was born in the year before their father’s death and if their father was known to be in declining health, that might explain why he was also given his father’s name. The two boys appear in the 1901 Census, shortly before the death of their father, Walter, as Walter S and Walter H.

Walter S appears in the 1911 Census as Walter, perhaps because the Military Enumeration Officer, like Walter Senior had been in 1901, was a stickler for the facts.  And it was the 1911 Census that brought us full circle.  Walter Benson is listed at the Meeanee Barracks in Colchester, as a Private in the Second Battalion of the Scottish Rifles. He’s 20—the right age.  (Walter Stanley was born on 11 January 1891, and would have been 20 on 2 April 1911.)  Unlike his Benson cousins, who were born in Ham or further afield, he was born at Mayleigh Cottages in Petersham, so his birthplace is also correct here.

Finally, a search in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, has ‘Stanley’ entered as Frederick.  There he is, with his gratuity divided equally between his mother, his brothers and sisters, his half-sisters, who included “Emily Morphew” (sic). I think ‘Emily’ is Violet Emmeline Buckner, the wife of Robert Morffew. I have written elsewhere about the Benson connection with the Morffews of Ham.

This makes me inclined to think that he did indeed voluntarily change his name. Prior to making the entries in the Register, the Army would have corresponded with the family to confirm their relationship with the deceased soldier.  He does indeed at last appear to be a safe match for the man recorded as Frederick on the CWGC Database.

Finally, a check of the panel list, confirms that our man is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial as F. BENSON.

Further Reading.

Frood, M.W., ‘Decision as to tribute to the gallant dead’, https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/decision-as-to-tribute-to-the-gallant-dead/, accessed 20/1/2018.

Frood, M.W., ‘Ham’s War Memorial as it was between the Wars’,  https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/hams-war-memorial-as-it-was-between-the-wars/, accessed 20/1/2018.

Secrets and Lies

First, another plug for Secret Lives, another major conference from the inimitable Halsted Trust in collaboration with AGRA, the Society of Genealogists and the Guild of One Name Studies. This will be held at Hinckley, in Leicestershire (31 August–2 September 2018).  It’s an opportunity not to be missed and Early Bird bookings are still available.

In my own research it’s Secrets and Lies that seem to be heading my way—or perhaps I’ve just got a bit smarter at anticipating them.  Recently it was a succession of examples of marriages within the prohibited relationships, about which I have already posted.

More recently still, it’s been finding evidence of a bigamous marriage.  One such marriage has a link with the grandfather of Walter Stanley Benson, one of the men on the Parish War Memorial in Ham, Surrey.   Stanley was the grandson of Thomas Benson, a Potato Dealer, who lived for many years at Malt House Cottage, Ham Common.   His records identified his father as Walter Benson.

Because Stanley’s service records are missing, only military documents relating to his death are available.  They give Stanley’s first name as Frederick, and the match seemed open to question since there were Frederick Bensons of military age in Ham.  Consequently the research was taken back to earlier generations in order to eliminate cousins, uncles and others with that name as candidates for this particular soldier.  And that’s how the bigamy was discovered.

In the 1891 and 1881 Censuses, Walter’s parents, Thomas and Sarah Benson, appeared as ‘head’ (of the household) and ‘wife’ respectively, with their Benson children.  In 1871 however,  Sarah Fisher was the ‘housekeeper’, and some of the Benson children appeared as Fishers. Walter Benson was there as Walter Fisher—his birth registration was subsequently found as Walter Benson Fisher.  In 1861, the census return showed that Thomas was ‘married’ and presided over a household which included five young Bensons aged from 15 down to 4, a housekeeper named Sarah Fisher, and two young Fishers, Emily (3) and Joseph (1 month).

Who was the wife missing in 1861 and 1871, and why could I not find a marriage for Thomas and Sarah between 1871 and 1881?  I dug further.

About 15 years before Walter’s birth, Thomas Benson had arrived in Ham with his wife, Mary Ann Martin, and two children of that marriage.  Mary Ann, the daughter of a wheelwright, Thomas Martin and his wife, Sarah, had been born in the parish of Ham on 9 February 1824 and baptised in Kingston the following month.  She married Thomas Benson, then a butcher, in 1845 at St Mary’s, Sunbury, despite her birth in Ham, when he was 23 and she was 21.  Thomas and Mary Ann moved to Ham, towards the end of the 1840s, with two children, another six being born in Ham. The last of these, Frederick James Benson, was born on 7 July 1856.

Mary Ann’s absence from the household in the 1861 census, where Thomas was clearly recorded as ‘Married’, did not, initially, seem particularly unusual.  Perhaps she was visiting relatives?  Perhaps Thomas had a housekeeper because his wife was incapacitated?

It is understandable that, following Mary Ann’s departure, and with an infant in the household, Thomas would have looked for domestic help.  At some point—whether before or after Mary Ann’s departure is not clear—Thomas embarked on a relationship with Sarah, the daughter of an agricultural labourer, William Fisher who lived a few doors away in Ham Street.   By the time Sarah’s son, Walter, was born in 1863, Sarah had already given birth to three children—Emily (3), Henry and Joseph.  These births were all registered in Kingston under the surname Fisher.

As each Fisher child had a turn to create further civil records, the Fisher was quietly shed. In  1882 Emily Fisher married as Emily Benson, a full two years ahead of her parent’s eventual marriage. Any doubts about her parentage were further reduced by the identification of her father in the marriage register, as ‘Thomas Benson, Potato Dealer’.

Emily’s birth was registered in the first quarter of 1858 which means she was born between about mid-November of 1857 and 31 March 1858.  If Thomas was Emily’s father, then his relationship with Sarah Fisher must have begun during the first half of 1857.  This cannot have been much more than 9 months after the birth of Thomas’s last child by Mary Ann Martin, Frederick James Benson, who was born on 7 July 1856.

In time, the children christened as Benson Fisher swapped the two surnames round—marrying, for example, as Fisher Benson.  Emily and Arthur, given simply the surname Fisher when registered, subsequently added Benson.  Eventually, in 1885, only seven years before Sarah’s death, Thomas did marry his long-term long-suffering housekeeper.

In preparing my piece on Walter Stanley Benson, I decided to ‘kill off’ all seventeen of his father’s full and half siblings whom I had not married off, and/or killed off already.  It’s basic family reconstitution, about which I can—and do, elsewhere—go on and on.  My U3A groups have learnt to anticipate that I’m going to prod them to reconstitute their family groups—they’ve learnt it’s trouble taken that will pay back.

While following up Thomas’s other children, I duly found Mary Ann’s daughter, Mary Ann Benson, in the 1871 Census, in Hammersmith.  She was there as ‘step-daughter’ in the household of George Hedger, a brewer, and his wife, Mary Ann Hedger.  Mary Ann Hedger’s birthplace matched that of Mary Ann Martin, though not her age. Subsequently it became clear that she was at least eleven years older than her second husband, which might explain the fudging.

Indeed, at the time of the 1861 census over which I had puzzled, Mary Ann and George been ‘married’ for about six weeks. All Mary Ann’s surviving children by Thomas were living with their father in 1861, with their mothering needs, and those of her own children, presumably catered for by his “housekeeper”.

Please click on the image below to enlarge it.

The entry in the Hammersmith Marriage Register for Mary Ann’s bigamous marriage.

Notice that Mary Ann declared herself to be a spinster, and stated that her father was Thomas Benson,  with “Dead” under the heading of occupation.  Thomas Benson was her husband, not her father, and he was anything but dead.  Perhaps she was thinking of her father, Thomas Martin, who was dead?  If the latter, the problem here was, that having lied about her marital status, and perhaps having already become known in Hammersmith as Mary Ann Benson, she could not easily switch surnames for this public event.  One small fib almost always leads to additional fibs in support of the story.

While Mary Ann Martin had given her age correctly in 1845, when she married Thomas, in 1861, the couple were simply declared to be of full age. Having found Thomas with his “housekeeper” in 1861, I’d been pretty quick to pass judgement on Thomas.  Finding Mary Ann with George, casts a different light on this.  Who bolted first?

Here are the ages provided for Mary Ann in various official records, with what I estimate was her ‘true’ age in square brackets.   At Mary Ann’s baptism on 28 March 1824, her birthdate is given as 9 February 1824.

6 June 1841: 15 [17, but fair enough, ages were rounded down].
12 May 1845: 21 [21].
30 March 1851: 25  [27].
24 February 1861: Full [37].
7 April 1861: 24 [37].
2 April 1871: 40 [47].
1876:  age at death, 45. [52].

This fudging of her age certainly made Mary Ann more difficult to find when I started this research some years ago.  Did George Hedger know that he had been party to a bigamous marriage?

Mary Ann died in 1876, so why did it take so long for Thomas to marry Sarah?  No, they weren’t married at the time of the 1881 Census.  That didn’t happen for nearly ten years.

Isn’t it often true that you solve one mystery, and a whole new set of questions bubble up?

More on the Bensons

Frood, M.W., ‘Walter Stanley Benson’, https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/walter-stanley-benson-1891-1915/, accessed 30/1/2018.
Frood, M.W., ‘Challenges in matching a name on a War Memorial with the correct military record’, https://www.discoveryourfamilyhistory.com/family-history/unravelling-an-error-on-a-parish-war-memorial/, accessed 30/1/2018.

Recommended Reading

Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide (Kenilworth, 2012) is what its title says.  It’s also lucid and fascinating.
London Metropolitan Archives, Dl/DRO/BT Item, 062/039, Saint Mary, Sunbury On Thames: Surrey, Transcript of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1845 Jan-1845 Dec, 12 May 1845.
London Metropolitan Archives, P80/PET, Item 007, Saint Peter, Hammersmith, Register of marriages, 24 February 1861.

Teasing out an idea at WDYTYAL 2015

Posting this overlooked draft belatedly.  I can’t work out why I delayed uploading it.

Despite the ridiculously tiny font on the floor plan for WDYTYAL 2015, before the train reached Birmingham International, I was eventually able to highlight the location of the stands and tables that I would on no account allow myself to miss. It’s useful in focusing the mind when you’ve got a ticket cheap enough to demand return travel on a particular train, though my careful plans were somewhat scarpered by the 69 minutes in the queue at Ancestry’s Customer Service, about which I have grumbled already.

Everything else was rosy.  I’d been dubious about the shift to Birmingham, but the day was rewarding enough for the information, announced in the course of Thursday, that it’s going to be Birmingham again in 2016, was not too disappointing.

Plaudits go to Richard Morgan of FIBIS and Chris on the TNA desk who were helpful with regard to Singapore records.and to Paul, Mark and Ian on the AGRA stand for providing welcome encouragement. If there was a specific highlight, then it’s the BALH representatives, who knew exactly to whom I ought to speak, and provided me with the opportunity to explore some options with an inspirational historian, Dr Gill Draper.

My prime target this year was to sound out the local historians on the BALH table about my plans for a local history related outing that I’ve been invited to provide for Cubs (age group 7½–9) in the early summer.

In weighing up the options, I’ve been anxious to avoid the themes and even the approaches that seem to dominate and recur in the coverage of local history at Key Stage 2—for example, Victorian Schools or the Industrial Revolution.  In creating a useful and positive experience that will foster an interest in the local landscape and its buildings in children, I have also had to to consider what is easily accessible on foot from the Scout hut.

I was looking for a theme and an approach  that would inspire me in my planning.

And I found it, when I eventually caught up with Dr Draper and sketched out what I saw as possible options in the landscape and the parish’s history with her.  While chatting to her, an idea came to me, which I felt could be the key in drawing together the various strands that I’d been playing with over the previous fortnight.

I think our conversation somehow teased that idea out of me and I greatly appreciate having been given the opportunity and time to have that conversation.  When later I wondered why that idea hadn’t surfaced earlier, I realised that I have been much distracted recently by a community project.  I needed to be able to have that conversation and to explore this challenge in a relaxed way. Perhaps it could be as simple as that a chair was drawn up and I was invited to sit down and that also switched me into a more relaxed frame of mind in which ideas could surface and gel.

I’ve been reflecting, since my return, on how rarely I am able to have that type of conversation with other local historians.  When I’m contacted about local history by other researchers, it’s usually a request for information about a specific matter, place or event, or about a source that I have consulted or mentioned e.g. in a talk.  In the role of family historian, I’m more frequently listening to others and being asked questions, and in my role as tutor, I’m facilitating learning.

So, this morning I’m having the fun of preparing what I hope is an engaging experience.

Now, what if it rains on the day?  (!)

 

War Memorial Research (3): No easy match on the CWGC database?

In my experience, at least half the time, I can match a name to an individual without too much difficulty, particularly if there is information about next of kin on the CWGC database.  Here are some suggestions on where you might look for information about those whose names appear to be missing from the database or for whom the database offers too many possible matches.

Have they moved away? Bear in mind that soldiers on your War Memorial, who have no local address attached to them, are likely to have had some close local family connections, or to have hailed originally from your parish or town.  A not insignificant number may turn out to have been serving with Commonwealth forces following their emigration, or that of their parents.

George Brisco, who was serving in the Australian Forces, appears on the Sea Scouts’ Memorial Plaque inside St Peter’s Church in Petersham, though not on the Petersham War Memorial.  In George’s case, finding the Australian Service Records was quite an eye-opener running to 40 pages of high quality digital images.  In addition to his service records, the Australian Red Cross went to commendable lengths to track down other soldiers in hospitals and camps in England, who might be able to provide information about the incident in which George lost his life—just in that file, there were 45 pages’ worth of letters, records of interviews and communications with his mother.   The Missing Persons’ File included a fine photo of George in uniform.  You can locate and view records of those serving in the Australian Imperial Forces at the Australian War Memorial and at the National Archives of Australia.  Both organisations have sites that are easy to search and provide excellent information sheets.  The digitised records for WW1 service personnel are also free to view.  And while it can be months before one hears back from the CWGC, a query about the location of a diary, brought an answer within 24 hours.  Same day really, if you consider the time difference.  [Thank you, and well done, Australia!]

Finding people who have no obvious connection with the place: Of the six names on a Leicestershire War Memorial that I am researching, three had, initially, no obvious connection with the village.  Family Reconstitution techniques played a significant part in identifying the nature of their links to the village.  This is, however, time-consuming and if you know of someone who is doing a One Place Study on the place, they may be able to assist with that part of your research.

Finding natives of the place, whose names are missing from the War Memorial: If you would like to trace some of those who grew up locally, but whose names are not listed on the memorial, then the tactic of looking for the village or district as a birthplace, leaving the surname search box empty, often generates a number of results for soldiers who had been born there, but enlisted after moving away.

Were the service records up to date? Sometimes a war memorial will include rank, or the name of a regiment: note these down, but 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 to other 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.

Can you locate the soldier in the 1911 Census?  If you are able to access the 1911 Census, you may well find your soldier recorded with those parents or that spouse or living at that address.  Most of those named on war memorials will have been enumerated in the 1901 and 1911 Censuses so looking them up may help you to ‘flesh’ out the background of those whose Service Records have not survived.

Where in the UK was the regiment based?  If you know the regiment to which the soldier was attached, that can sometimes provide a clue to the region where your soldier lived or worked.  A search engine could be used to find out where the regimental headquarters were.

Research the whereabouts of the unit and the action around the time your person died.  British Service Records for ‘other ranks’, where they’ve survived, often provide no more information than K.I.A. or D.O.W.  If you are researching an officer, or an airman, you may find, or be able to deduce, more about their military service and deaths in their files.  Search The National Archives’ online Discovery Catalogue to locate the record reference in the relevant series or start at the Records page, by clicking on Looking for a Person, which, if you are not familiar with the site gets you to the search box with opportunities to find out more en route.

The inimitable site The Long, Long Trail is the finest information resource on WW1 and if you have queries, its companion site, The Great War Forum is outstanding.  Use the first site to find some background on the regiment, or key action on a particular day during the war, so that when you ask your question on the forums, you post it to the ‘right’ group.

Once you know the regiment, you are ready to look for the battle diaries of the battalion, the regiment and the division of which it was part.  Soldiers of other ranks are rarely mentioned by name, unless for something particularly noteworthy.  You can view digital copies of the diaries The National Archives at Kew, free of charge.

Workplace Memorials: If you are researching a workplace memorial, like the War Memorial at Waterloo, which lists railway employees, or even the small memorial inside the Royal Mail Sorting Office in Kingston upon Thames, bear in mind that they will record employees who may not have lived locally.  However, listing on a workplace memorial means that if you can locate the employment records for your soldier, at least some of his or her story will be revealed.  You may even find, if you contact the organisation’s archvist, that there was mention of his death or military service in its internal publications at the time.

 

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 UK, Soldiers died in the Great War 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.