Wednesday 17 November 2021

The war memorial - and beyond

For several years I have been researching the names on the war memorial in the town where I live, Chesham, in Buckinghamshire. I know from the enquiries we receive at The National Archives that  many other people have been doing the same, especially since the centenary of the First World War. Because of the job that I do, as Family History Specialist at The National Archives, I thought it would be interesting to see what I could find out about the men who served, and who survived the war. It seemed like a good idea at the time...

In fact, it has proved very rewarding, although I have spent much more time on it than I intended when I started. But that is the nature of many a research project, I suppose. Like many memorials, the one in Chesham town centre lists names without the rank or even the branch of the armed services, and the first names are represented by initials only. This means that it can be difficult to identify some of the casualties - there are still a few names on the Chesham memorial that have defied all efforts to identify them. Fortunately, I did not have to start my research from scratch, there were already two wonderful resources that I could consult. One is the magnificent Roll of Honour site, which lists names and biographical details from First and Second World War memorials throughout the United Kingdom, as well as useful background information. The other is local in its scope, but for anyone interested in the First World War anywhere in the county Buckinghamshire Remembers is invaluable. It includes not only details from every memorial in the county, but also a lot of information on many men, and some women, who survived the war. 

I put together the some of my initial research into a talk I gave at The National Archives in November 2014 'Putting it all together: using archives to discover your community's involvement in the First World War'. Since then I have learned more, and new resources have been released online. There are 184 names on the Chesham town war memorial, and I have now collected details of more than 2000 men, and a few women, who served in the armed forces, or were in some way involved in the war, or the war effort. Deciding who to include was not as straightforward as you might imagine. It was easy enough to set the geographical boundaries; the ancient parish of Chesham, and its former chapelries of Chesham Bois and Latimer, including several nearby small villages. It was much harder to decide who 'belonged' to Chesham, and therefore who should be included. I decided that anyone who lived or worked in Chesham, albeit briefly, would qualify, so I included several men born in Chesham, but who had moved away, sometimes even to other countries, so there are some on my list who served with overseas forces, mainly the Australian or Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Many still had relatives in Chesham, and some of the casualties among them are on the Chesham or other local memorials. 

The biggest single problem encountered in this kind of research is the loss of so many soldiers' records, probably about 60% of them, during a bombing raid in the Second World War. The great majority of men served in the army as 'other ranks', so this is a major obstacle, but the records of men in the other armed services, and those who were army officers, have generally survived, so it's not all bad news. But even without a service record, there are other ways to find out more about a soldier. As a general rule, it is often easier to find information on men who died, because of the information recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which often gives the man's home address, and his next-of-kin. However, some CWGC entries give no extra information at all, but the Naval and Military Press database Soldiers Died in the Great War provides a man's place of birth, and place of enlistment. and the National Army Museum's Register of Soldiers' Effects provides information on next-of-kin. These last two resources are available on Ancestry, and using all three, you should be able to identify most of the deceased. 

It can be much more difficult to find out about survivors of the war. Everyone who served overseas with the army will have a medal index card, and these records are complete, but they contain no personal information, so you need to use other sources to identify the right person, if there is no service record for them. In fact, it is not always possible to find out if a man served at all, but there are some sources that you can use, and this becomes easier as more records are digitised and indexed online. 

The most useful of these is the Absent Voters' List, if you can find one for the area where a serviceman lived. I was very lucky in that the Chesham list for 1918 had already been transcribed on Buckinghamshire Remembers, but they are still very easy to use if you consult them directly. The 1918 lists are the most useful, because they were compiled early in that year, while most men were still in the armed forces.  Demobilisation was well underway in 1919, but there are Absent Voters' Lists for 1919 and 1920, which obviously contain far fewer names, but are still valuable. These lists show a man's home address, his branch of the service, his unit or ship etc, and his number. Most of the men in an Absent Voters' List will have survived the war, but there are some who died very late in the war, after the lists were compiled.

It would take a long time to describe all the sources I used, and how I combined the information I found in them to reach my conclusions. But I think the most important lesson I learned was that you can sometimes resolve some apparently insoluble problems using many different sources. Two or three sources may not be enough, but by carefully combining scraps of information from several more sources you may be able to work out which was which, out of several men with the same name. I used some of these techniques to work out which of many George Donaldson casualties was my great-uncle. I described this in more detail in my post 'Finding Uncle Geordie' and with my Chesham men I was able to attach four men called George Darvell, and another four called Frank Gomm, to their respective families. There were, and still are, quite a number of families in Chesham with those surnames.

Where possible, I have listed the wives of the men who were married, including their maiden surnames, and this is another way of seeing how inter-related some of the local families were. There is a lot more to explore, when I have the time, helped by some of information gleaned from newspapers. And these are not always local newspapers - several men were in the Gloucestershire Regiment, and lists of casualties in newspapers there include each man's place of residence, so several Chesham men appear in them. 

Some facts and figures

To date, I have found nearly twice as many casualties than are listed on the memorial. Some appear on other memorials in the area, or further afield if they had moved away. More than 1700 of my 2000+ names were men who served in the British Army, with 87 and 89 in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, respectively. A further 62 served in the armies of other countries, 16 were Royal Marines, and a handful served in the merchant navy or one of the Naval Reserve forces. More than 20 local women were in the Voluntary Aid Detachment or one of the women's forces, and a similar number of women were recruited into the Post Office or the Metropolitan Railway, replacing men who were in the forces.

About 300 men had joined the local regiment, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, but many joined other county regiments, or other non-regional parts of the army such as the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, Royal Army Medical Corps, Labour Corps or Army Service Corps, to name just a few. Before 1914 it was possible, but extremely rare, for men to be promoted from the ranks to become officers, but under the exceptional circumstances of the first World War it was much more likely, and 20 Chesham men were promoted.

In most cases I was able to identify the parents of the men on the list, so I can easily see which families sent more than one son to war. More than 100 Chesham families had three or more sons in the forces, and nine families sent five sons. Nineteen families lost two sons, and one family lost three of their five sons. 

About 100 of the men on my list were discharged from service before the end of hostilities, and if they were in the army it is worth looking for them in the Silver War Badge rolls, available on Ancestry. Although 'SWB' often appears on Medal Index Cards, there is more information on the rolls, which usually give exact dates of service, and whether the cause was wounds or sickness. In some cases they even give the man's age. I have found that more men were discharged for sickness than for wounds, and in either case most will have returned to civilian life suffering from some long-term damage, physical or mental. 

Yet to come...

Anyone who is still doing this kind of research will no doubt be eagerly awaiting the release of the 1921 Census on Findmypast, to see what their community looked like after the war. The information collected on children under 16, the 'orphanhood' question, will be particularly interesting when looking at how families were re-shaped after the war. How many widows remarried? I know of one who did, to her dead husband's twin brother. But this wasn't legal in 1921 (they married in 1923), so I am very curious to see if they were in the same household in the census...

Thursday 7 October 2021

The London Gazette - revisited

Some years ago I wrote a blog post about using the London Gazette, and I also gave a talk on the subject, called 'Not just the brave and the bankrupt', or something along those lines. This is because it is well known that the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes are key sources for people researching military gallantry awards, and bankruptcy cases. While this is certainly true, there is a lot more to it, and the Gazettes are full of information on many other subjects of interest to genealogists, house historians and others. While a lot of what I wrote and said still holds true, all the details about how to use the site became completely out of date when it was given a radical re-design.

In the (now not very) new version of the site, some of the old search functions have disappeared, notably the ability to perform a simple search by year and page - this is the unique identifier for any page in one of the Gazettes, and this is the reference you will find in the printed indexes. In fact, before the Gazette site was launched online, this was the usual way to find an entry, using the print versions of the indexes and the Gazettes.

The current home page advertises all kinds of useful categories and filters, but they only apply to issues from 1998 onward. To research in editions any earlier, where the printed editions have been scanned, you can search by key-word. This obviously has its limitations, especially in the earlier editions, where the print does not respond well to Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Even in the 19th century, you can still find the letter 's' appearing as a character that looks more like 'f'. Try doing a key-word search for 'miffion' or 'paffage' and you will see what I mean!

From 1829 onward, you can still search the old-fashioned way, using the London Gazette’s own published quarterly indexes, if you have an approximate date for the entry you want. They are available on the site, but this is not obvious from the home page, because there is no direct link to them, but they are easy to find once you know where to look.  

From the Gazette homepage, there is a drop-down menu ‘Notices’: from this menu select ‘Publications’, which takes you to the page where you can browse recent pages of any of the Gazettes, and at the bottom of the page you can search for and download the historic indexes to the London Gazette (the site has no historic indexes for the Edinburgh or Belfast Gazettes).

Choose an edition (London), then a year, then an index number – there were always 4 index volumes per year. The arrangement of the indexes varies a little over time, but is fairly constant, starting with State Intelligence, then Promotions (civil and military), then Advertisements, and finally various categories to do with Companies, Partnerships and Bankrupts. It is worth having a look at a few indexes, just to get an idea of the kind of content you might hope to find. The Gazettes are particularly useful to researchers looking for gallantry awards, bankruptcies, and changes of name, but there is a lot more than just those popular categories. There are official notices of many kinds; promotions and transfers within the Civil Service, registration of places of worship, quarantine regulations in times of cholera, property sales by auction following Chancery cases, and much more besides. You might also find out when tram-lines were first laid in your town, or even your street, or when a business was awarded a Royal Warrant.

When you find an index entry that interests you, the reference will be a page number. Each year the Gazette starts at page 1, and this is why a year and a page is a unique identifier, and you can use this to find the entry you want in the London Gazette itself. Although the old 'year and page' search facility is no longer there, you can still do this kind of search, it is just a bit more cumbersome than it used to be.

In this example, from Volume 1 of the 1875 index, the advertisement for the sale of properties in Bermondsey, and freehold land on Richmond Hill is on page 3170. 

Go back to the home page, and enter 3170 in the 'Search the archives' box. Unfortunately, there is no Advanced Search, you can only do a simple search, and then refine the results. In this case you will get hundreds of results to start with, but you can refine them first by selecting ‘London’ from the Gazette edition filter on the left of the page, and then you can use the ‘Publication date’ filter. You can’t just select a single year, you need to select year, month and day in both ‘From’ and ‘To’ categories, or it won’t work, - it's the same kind of system that you'll find when you want to book a flight or hotel room online. When you have done this, and updated the results, you should only have a few results to choose from – as you can see below. The search will have picked up any instance where the number 3170 appears in that year's Gazette, but one of them will be Page 3170. You can then view that page, and download it if you wish. This method works perfectly well most of the time, but it still relies on OCR, so occasionally this will not pick up the page number. If this happens, try again with a nearby number, and then you can browse to the page you need. 

The lower the page number, the greater the number of hits you will get, even using the year filter. But there are still ways to narrow the results to a more manageable number. If your initial date filter was a whole year, you can revise this to the quarter covered by the index volume (1 – Jan-Mar, 2 – Apr-Jun, 3 – Jul-Sep, 4 Oct-Dec). If this still leaves a very large number of results, you can use the ‘Sort by’ option at the top of the results to sort them into date order. This will only sort them by the date of the Gazette edition, and not in strict page order, but it makes it easy enough to scan the results to find the one you want. It’s not an ideal solution, but it does work. Fortunately, most Gazette page numbers are on the high side, so you might never have to look for a page with a very low number - each Gazette year includes thousands of pages.

When you have found your Gazette page, the viewing window is quite small, but if you click on the 'save' icon in the top left corner you can see the whole page in a new tab., You can also browse all the pages in that edition using the tools at the top of the page, or use the 'Download full PDF' tool to download the whole issue.

As well as using the indexes, you can also use the 'Search the archives' box on the home page to perform more complex key-word searches, using operators like AND or NOT etc. There is more information about this on the Help pages. This can be useful, but still has its limitations, because OCR may not pick up a word where the print is indistinct, or where it has been hyphenated at the end of a line. But it is still worth doing, because the OCR works well most of the time. You may be surprised at the kind of information you will discover - and the more you explore, the more you will find.