The Year of War Memorials

It’s not that I haven’t been researching, but this year turned into a year of war memorials.

I completed my research into the Petersham War Memorial before Remembrance Day, 2013, after which the Church Archivist raised the question of the Scouts’ War Memorial.  Then I was asked to speak about my research into the Petersham War Memorial at one of the events held in Richmond as part of CityRead London. And then I agreed to provide two afternoons’ worth of training to volunteers on a project to research the men commemorated on the Ham War Memorial.

During my research into the people commemorated on the Petersham War Memorial, I photographed the faces of Ham’s War Memorial, in order to resolve some anomalies on the Petersham one, as described in this post. I knew it was egalitarian: an initial (sometimes two) and a surname so I could envisage the challenges.  With four war memorials behind me, I wasn’t keen to take on another.

I knew it would draw me in.  That’s the ‘trouble’ with war memorials.  Another researcher asked me once, “Don’t you find you blub all the time?” Yes, and you fight.  You fight to rescue them from oblivion, even more so when you find them on online family trees and nobody quite knows why they’re related, or anything about them.  You read those last letters home, handle the awful telegrams, shudder at the war diary covering the ‘event’. You end up knowing more about the life behind the bare initial and surname than you know perhaps about the lost lives of your own grandfathers and great uncles, their contemporaries on that sea of red. And still you press on.

It’s time-consuming, particularly when all you have is a Sidney Wilson or an E. Parsons—you have a long road ahead to identify which amongst the rank of Sidneys and Es, matches your Sidney or your E.  E was Ernest (high frequency) Parsons one of dozens of Ernest Parsons in the Army Service Corps, not a native of the parish but employed there for, at the most, three years.  Sidney was one of a number of casualties with this name in his regiment.  He caused a special pang, because enough pages of his service records survived to tell something of his story. Fostered out to the parish, he identified no blood relatives when he enlisted in the Regular Army in, and his foster mother received the medals.  After his death, there was an unseemly squabble over the medals between a woman who identified herself to the War Office as his ‘aunt’ and his foster family, who denied all knowledge of ‘the woman’.  There is nothing in the surviving pages of his service records to explain why the War Office ruled in favour of the ‘aunt’.

So, it’s another own goal and one which leads to a great deal of additional research, double-checking the research of others, responding to queries, breaking down research hurdles, and taking me away from paid research.  And would I do it again?  Yes.  Do I learn from experience? No!

In addition to researching and writing about these war memorials, I have given three talks on war memorials, spoken twice to Scout Troops about their war memorial, shared in an Armistice Day event with local Year 6 pupils, been filmed for TV and contacted and sometimes met ‘missing’ relatives.  I’ve provided training for volunteers on two war memorial projects, conducted research for a museum exhibition, ‘shared’ hard-won resources with the Trustee of a private collection, been filmed for TV, for all of which I have neither ventured to ask, nor received, a fee.

There was also a talk on the history of a significant, often overlooked cottage as one of Richmond’s Know Your Place events—and another, the most intimidating of all in the anticipation, but before a wonderful conference audience, with my participation being in the role of an adult non-singer.

So that’s why I’ve not been writing up much on this blog or taking on much paying research.   The solution is that I’m now ‘block-booking’ weeks for professional, paid research as well as for the research that, I hope, will continue to generate ‘social capital’.

If you’d like to follow developments on my war memorial research, here are links to blogs for three of them:

Ham Remembers

Petersham Remembers

South Africa Remembers


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 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.


Worcester College

We followed up lunch in Oxford yesterday, to mark the birthday of a cousin, with a walk in the remarkable gardens of Worcester College.

Afterwards, heading out, I noticed the 1939–1945 War Memorial with, worryingly, as many as 92 names.  My post-prandial counting proving unreliable, I had to repeat the exercise twice—my excuse is the odd  triple-barrelled surname taking up most of an entire line and the incessant background chattering of my companions.

With chatterers in the chapel, the counting of names on the 1914–1918 memorial proved easier.  That’s grossly unfair on the chatterers, and is withdrawn apologetically, as here the names were in columns.  I made it 86.

In my experience of recording War Memorials, the WW2 count is usually not more than about one third of the WW1 toll.

What explains this?  In what theatre of war did they fall?  It seems to me almost like the toll of a Pals’ Battalion.

of Bomber Command bases does not show any bases near Oxford, most of the being in East Anglia and the East Midlands. I know RAF Moreton in Marsh was a training centre for Bomber Command, so I’m wondering whether its proximity drew a significant number from Worcester College.



War Memorial Research (1): Perils and pitfalls

I was asked, last week, to talk about the ‘perils and pitfalls’ of War Memorial research, but instead, I’ll be posting a few tips in the next few days, about tackling the task in ways that will help avoid potential pitfalls.

But just to get the perils out of the way, the biggest one is that you could get hooked.

Your role, in this, hinges on curiosity.  Can you curb yours?  (Trick question: there’s no ‘correct’ answer.)

Are you a  YES? 
If you have an A in curiosity suppression, then this could be an ideal project for you.  It’s not going to impinge too much on your time, especially if you choose a modest memorial—a couple of dozen names, max.  Don’t let yourself be coaxed into taking on a big project.  You should be able to put together a couple of sentences for those names on your list that you are able to locate in the online database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.   That’s probably enough information for most people anyway.

The risk is that you might not find the whole business engaging which could well bury the chance of some stories ever surfacing.   Apart from people who were decorated for gallantry, or whose fame  is already in the public domain, most of them aren’t, without some extra ‘fishing’, going to generate more than a few lines.   The only stories you have a chance of finding without leaving the house, are those whose exploits are already online.  The ‘hard’ cases mean digging in archives and running the risk of acquiring an addiction to the romance of viewing documents in folders that were last handled more than 90 years ago.  You could argue that worthy people shuffle off all the time, barely noticed, and rapidly forgotten, unless there is someone left to remember and to grieve.  (At least, nowadays, most lives are better recorded, and records are accessible digitally.  These days, how often do you enter the name of a living person  in a search engine without generating at least one result?)  For some names on a war memorial, you will find nothing, not even a military record, that links that name to a specific individual.

Can you tell where this is going yet?

Are you a NO?
If your curiosity is curb-resistant, indeed rather inclined to propel itself, then the risk is that your research could take a lot of time, but the people behind the lists of names will come alive for you.  You can expect to feel a few twinges.  You may even shed a tear. Another researcher wrote to me that she seemed to be ‘blubbing all the time’.  Developing a greater sense of the enormity of the loss felt by your community, can be somewhat disturbing.

Sometimes the circumstances in which a life was lost, will feed a curiosity that you can’t shake off, so you’ll try to learn more about the military manoeuvres at the time.

If it takes you there, watch your back.  I’ve just weighed Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War and it came in at 1.25 kg.  Peter Hart’s Gallipoli must come pretty close.  Seriously, think heavyweight, as you eagerly reach for a book.  Take your battles home from the library, one kilogram at a time .

You may well never trace a photograph or find a living relative for any of those commemorated on your memorial.  Instead, at least for you, walking to the shops won’t be the same, as even if you never trace a photo or find a living relative, you’ll know where they lived, played and laboured.  It may seem pretty pointless, that a school or a street or a house can be the sole surviving relic, but at least there’s someone around to recognise its significance, once, to someone. You might be the only person on the planet able to make that connection.

If those names come alive for you, a little of that will rub off on others—maybe more than a little, if you create a tangible record.

Can you tell where this is going yet?

Whether you’re a YES or a NO, you have an opportunity to rescue quite a few people from oblivion.  As for me, I’m a ‘NO’, my curiosity is insatiable—teamed with the elephant’s child on that.