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...