Thursday 12 November 2020

Finding Uncle Geordie

My maternal grandfather served in the Royal Navy during the First World War, and fortunately he survived. but one of his brothers was not so lucky. All I knew about him was that his name was George, he was in the army, and was killed during the First World War. I had already found his birth entry, on a visit to New Register House in the days before the ScotlandsPeople Centre. He was born 15 December 1893, only 20 months before my grandfather. On another research trip, this time to the Glasgow City Archives at the Mitchell Library, I found my widowed great-grandmother’s application for Poor Relief on 23 November 1915, It included George in the list of her children, and his name had later been marked 'killed' which showed that he must have died at some point after then, but it didn’t give the date of his death.

There is no surviving service record for him, which is no great surprise, since so many of them were destroyed during the Second World War. Unfortunately George Donaldson is not a very distinctive name, and a search on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) site for First World War army deaths produced 6 results for George Donaldson, and another 6 for G Donaldson. I wanted to see if I could identify the right one, and I like a challenge. I find it particularly satisfying to find out about the family members who died too young to have any descendants, and who can so easily fade from the collective family memory. My mother used to refer to him as Uncle Geordie, even though neither she nor any of her siblings had ever known him - her eldest sister was born in 1919 - so I wanted to find the information for her, as well as for myself.

Quite separately, I had been doing a lot of research on the men who served in the First World War based on the war memorial in the town where I now live. In the course of this I had learned quite a few ways of compensating for the lack of service records. I discovered that I could find out a surprising amount by combining scraps of information from a wide range of sources, not all of them military. In several cases where there were 3 or 4 local men with the same name I was able to work out exactly which was which. So I decided I would try applying the same techniques to my search for my mother's Uncle Geordie.

Starting with the 12 CWGC results, I was able to eliminate several of them because they contained information that meant they could not be my man. Three of them died well before the date of the Poor Law application, two more were several years too old, one was too young, and another was in the Canadian Infantry. So I now had five men to choose from, less than half of the original number. 

Next I consulted ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’ which provides very little personal information about each casualty, but will usually give each man’s place of birth, and place of enlistment. Of my remaining five candidates, one was born in Morayshire, and recruited in Edinburgh, and one of the men listed just as G Donaldson by the CWGC turned out to be Gordon, not George. So now there were three who were born and recruited in Glasgow.

So far, so good, but I still needed to reduce the three to one, and then find some positive confirmation that the last one left was my great-uncle. I hoped that there would be a service record for one or two of them, with enough personal details to eliminate them from my enquiries, but no such luck. All of the deaths are listed in the GRO Index to War Deaths 1914-1921, but with no extra information, such as age at death, it was no help in establishing which of them might be the right one. But deaths of Scottish soldiers are also registered with GRO Scotland. The war deaths are part of the ‘Minor Records’ on ScotlandsPeople, and the indexes include age at death. Unfortunately the indexes don’t show regiment or service number, but by now I knew I was looking for a George Donaldson who died in 1917 or 1918, and there was only one whose age at death matched my great-uncle's date of birth, and this proved to be Pte George Donaldson 33164, 16th Battalion Highland Light Infantry, who died on 29 August 1918. 

I was reasonably sure I had found the right man, but I wanted some proof. There is a wonderful online resource for Glasgow men who died during the First World War, the index to the Glasgow Evening Times Roll of Honour. The index gives the date when the death was announced in the newspaper, and the page number. I found the entry for a Pte George Donaldson at around the right date, and on my next trip to the Mitchell Library I was able to consult the newspaper in the hope it would provide the corroborating evidence I needed. I found the entry, and there was even a photograph! but then it was sharp intake of breath time; the caption read ‘Pte George Donaldson, HLI (Killed); widow resides at 107 Maclean Street, Plantation, Glasgow.’. I thought I had been so clever, narrowing down those twelve names to one, but now it looked as though I had made a mistake somewhere, because I was looking for a single man, not a married man, so now I would need to backtrack…

Then I remembered one of my own rules ‘Never assume’. I had been assuming that he wasn’t married, because no-one in the family had even mentioned a wife. But by the time I started researching, or even asking questions, there was no-one alive with a personal memory of him. There was an easy way to find out, I could look for the marriage, and there it was on ScotlandsPeople. He had married Mary Arthur in April 1916, and the marriage entry proved beyond all doubt that I had found the right man after all. Not only were the parents’ details correct, the wedding took place at the address where the Donaldson family had lived since at least 1909, 77 Elder Park Street, Govan.

George had not yet joined the army, because he is shown with his civilian occupation of carter.  But conscription was well underway in 1916, so he may have joined or been called up soon after. He had only been only married for just over two years when he died, and probably spent most of that time away from his new wife. After he died, the Donaldson family probably lost touch with her, and I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her either (so far). When I showed my mother the results of my research, including the photograph, she said she could see a family resemblance. It’s a very small, grainy picture, printed from a roll of microfilm that had seen better days, but I have a picture of my grandfather, David Donaldson, at around the same age and I think she was right (my mother was usually right!). I have put them both here for comparison.

Glasgow Evening Times 1 Oct 1918

As a postscript, I should mention some sources I didn't use, but which might be helpful to other people trying to do the same kind of research. You can search for soldiers' wills on ScotlandsPeople or on GOV.UK, for England and Wales, either in the soldiers' wills category, or among the regular probate indexes, which also contain some soldiers' wills. Finding the name of the next-of-kin could be just the vital piece of information you need. The National Army Museum's Register of Soldiers' Effects 1901-1929 on Ancestry also gives the name of the next-of-kin. This wasn't available to me when I did the research a few years ago, and might have confused me a bit because of course George Donaldson's next-of-kin was the wife I didn't know about at the time! 

For soldiers who survived the war, the records I used to call my 'secret weapon' are the Absent Voters Lists which give a serviceman's home address along with his service number, regiment and battalion or equivalent unit. These don't all survive, but there is a good collection on Findmypast, and they are a real goldmine of information. There are also some wonderful local resources, so it pays to see what is available for the area where your soldier's family lived, such as a Roll of Honour, or a local or family history society may have researched the names on their war memorial. And of course there are newspapers, many of which are now on the British Newspaper Archive - although they don't yet include the Glasgow Evening Times (hint, hint!)