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Sunday, 13 November 2011

Six letters on a war memorial

I shall miss the Remembrance Day parade in Chesham this year, because I will be thousands of miles away in Florida, embarking on the Wholly Genes cruise. But I will still be thinking of those who served, and in particular of those who died, in the two World Wars and other conflicts.

I have one direct ancestor, my great-great grandfather Thomas Cross, who died in the First World War, and until fairly recently I knew very little about him. It wasn't for the want of trying, but he was an Irishman in the merchant navy, and he died at sea, which makes him hard to find on three counts. I knew this much from information given to me by family members, but finding any documentary proof was another matter.

When the Commonwealth War Graves website went live a number of years ago, I didn't even think of looking for him there, because I was taking the 'graves' part of the title too literally. But of course it also includes the names of those who died at sea, or who have no known grave, but who are commemorated on a war memorial. So when I finally looked, his entry was easy to find, and I discovered that he was commemorated on the war memorial at Plymouth Hoe. I had been there many years ago when I was in my teens, unaware of my family connection with the place.

TNA ref: ADM 137/3690
I have been able to find out a great deal about Thomas's death, but very little about his life. He appears on the birth and marriage certificates of his children, but was always away at sea at census time, although he did finally make an appearance at home in Glasgow in 1911 (which I found and downloaded within minutes of the 1911 census going live!). He and my great-great grandmother are supposed to have married on 29 April in Dublin, but there's no record of it in Irish civil registration. No age is given for him in his Commonwealth War Graves entry, so I could only guess at his age until I found him in the census. He was 55 in 1911, which puts him in his 60s when he died in 1917. A bit old for war service, but as a merchant seaman he was caught up in it. His ship, the Ermine, was commandeered by the Royal Navy as a fleet messenger, and he was one of 14 men who were missing, presumed dead, when the ship was torpedoed in August 1917.

When I said I knew a lot about his death, I really meant it. He has three death certificates; in Naval War Deaths (Royal Navy) and Marine Deaths (civilian) in the General Register Office for England and Wales. But since he was normally resident in Scotland, notification of his death was sent there too. I even found a whole report on the torpedo incident that cost him his life, in the records of the Admiralty. The report is 32 pages long, and goes into a lot of detail. The page on the right lists everyone who was on board, survivors, dead, and missing.

An ever sadder postscript to the story is the effect of his death on his widow, Jane. Her first husband was a soldier, who died in 1878, leaving her with four young children. She had four more children with Thomas, but two of them died very young. She can't have expected to become a war widow this late in life. I was told by one of her grandchildren that she couldn't take it in, and the family would find her in the middle of the night, standing on the street corner waiting for her Tommy to come home. She died less than two years later, of a cerebral haemorrhage according to her death certificate, but maybe 'broken heart' would be more apt.

Three years ago I was able to visit Plymouth again, and this time I went to the war memorial to look for his name. There are a LOT of names on that memorial; the original memorial is for those who died in the First World War, encircled by another for the Second World War. But I found him, and there he is, with all the other seamen, listed alphabetically, year by year, section by section. He is listed in 'Mercantile Marine, Engineers Services'. Just six little letters among so many, CROSS T, and every one of them has a story.

We will remember them

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