Tag Archives: Family History

Tracing your Tank Ancestors by Janice Tait and David Fletcher

Some books land on your doormat and you think ‘thank you!’. The Tracing your.. Ancestors series books are most definitely among them, and particularly anything of a military persuasion! This book is published in conjunction with, naturally enough, the Tank Museum in Bovington. The authors are Janice Tait and David Fletcher, resident Librarian and Historian at the Tank Museum respectively.

As we might expect, this book is very strong on the history of Tanks in the British Army.Right from the Corps beginning during the Second World War, its difficult experiences in the inter-war period and the mechanisation of the old Cavalry Regiments, the crucial armoured battles in the Second World War, the era of national service, and then the modern world of the Cold War and the British Army of the Rhine. The history is flawless, as is the coverage of technical issues, tank names and industrial aspects. It is also very good at covering those quirky little historical points that are unique to the British Army – namely the manner in which men consider themselves members of their Regiment rather than the Army as a whole, and the politics of mergers and inter-Corps rivalries.

Each chapter is structured chronologically, looking at the Tank history of a particular era. Then at the end the reader is given pointers towards where to research, be it institutions, documents, websites or books. Even though I consider myself an experience military historian, I learnt a few things here. Perhaps the family history aspect is slightly light compared to the general history, but then again, I’m not sure that there is much more than could be added. I would maybe have liked to have read more about what is held in the Tank Museum’s collections, perhaps some comprehensive listings rather than ‘here are some examples…’

One issue where I feel it does let down the reader, is when the authors allow themselves to become, dare I say it, slightly snobby about family history. Yes, for us experts, we can get frustrated at ‘amateurs’ getting things wrong. But it is their family history, more than it is ours. We shouldn’t expect every person to know the difference between the Tank Corps and the ROYAL Tank Corps. Or fussing over whether someone was actually a ‘Desert Rat’. Such points are not really that important to the reader, I feel. Thats exactly why we ask the experts.

But I applaud Pen and Sword for collaborating with the Tank Museum. It makes sense, in terms of accessing unparalleled expertise, and also gaining access to an unrivaled collection of photographs. This book will be of interest to all military historians, not just in terms of family history – I can imagine it coming in handy when researching any tank-servicemen. It’s going to stay on my bookshelf thats for sure.

Tracing your Tank Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One, World War Two

Alan Cumming – Who Do You Think You Are?

The Battle of Kohima March - July 1944: View o...

Alan Cumming's Grandfather fought at the Battle of Kohima (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight’s WDYTYA was possibly one of the best yet. And what’s more, this remarkable story focussed on just one ancestor. Alan Cumming (actor, x-men: I didn’t have a clue who he was!) knew that his grandfather had served in the Army during the war and had died suspiciously in Malaya, but very little apart from that.

Tom Darling joined the Cameron Highlanders – a Scottish Infantry Regiment – in the 1930’s. After a period as a cook at the Regimental Depot, he was assigned as a motorcycle despatch rider, and saw action in France in 1940. He was awarded the Military Medal for an action in May 1940 when he drove his motorbike between Headquarters and the Rifle Companies carrying ammunition, along an exposed road in full view of the enemy.

After being evacuated to Britain and promoted to Sergeant, Darling was sent to Burma in time to fight in the Battle of Kohima. He was wounded, probably by shrapnel. He was evacuated to a Hospital India. Then, his service record is mysteriously vacant. It appears that he spent time in hospital with battle-related mental illness, as he was in an institutionĀ  in India known for treating mental illness, and which gave its name to the term to ‘go dolally’. After recovering and seeing out his service with the Army, he was demobilised. His family did not see him again after 1945. Originally it was thought that he had simply been serving abroad.

After a year working as a sales clerk at a garage in St Albans. He obviously found civvy street not to his liking, for he soon applied to join the Malay Police Force. In his application, Alan Cumming found a shocking discovery – he listed his marital status as ‘separated’. That explains why his family did not see him again after the end of the war, and also why he possibly travelled to the other side of the world.

Whilst in Malaya, Tom Darling was part of a police force that was involved in a bitter counter-insurgency campaign against communist guerillas. Darling’s job, as a Police Lieutenant, was to guard villages against insurgents. Other police units were tasked to go out into the countryside and capture and kill communists, whose bodies were then brought back to the villages for identification and display. Darling was evidently well thought of, as the locals state when Cumming visits the area.

The circumstances of Darling’s death turned out to be even more shocking than feared. It transpires that he was playing Russian Roulette with a revolver, and either his luck ran out, or he misjudged it, or both. He was killed by a gunshot wound behind his ear. Apparently he would regularly play Russian Roulette, and the local people would bet on the outcome. Such a tragic end for a very brave and distinguished man. Its difficult not to imagine how a man who had been through traumatic experiences, was wounded in battle, had experienced combat stress and who had separated from his family possibly felt nothing to lose by playing Russian Roulette.

For me this was one of the best WDYTA episodes ever. Focussing in detail on the story of one man, it was excellently researched, across some difficult subjects andĀ  locations. Not only that, but it gave us some idea of the human toll of war, something that we very rarely get to hear about.

Alan Cumming’s Who Do You Think You Are? is available to view on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010

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Filed under Army, Family History, On TV, World War Two

Hugh Quarshie – Who Do You Think You Are?

Finally, a WDYTYA episode that one, has an imperial twist, and two, doesnt try to make us all feel guilty for the British Empire! Actor Hugh Quarshie (Ric in Holby City) is of Ghanaian ancestry. The first part of the programme shows Hugh travelling to Ghana to trace that side of his family tree.

Interestingly, the programme sheds light on the fact that Ghana – known as the Gold Coast – had imperial masters before the British, in the shape of the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. And Quarshie’s family had Dutch blood, in the shape of a Dutch imperial civil servant who married a Ghanaian woman and had children with her. The Dutchman, Peter Kamerling, founded the village where Hugh’s ancestors lived. And when he visits the village, we get a surprise – none of present day inhabitants are bothered about the imperial past. In fact, he is greeted as minor royalty, and other villages who have links with the Kamerlings are very proud of their heritage. Kinda throws new light on the liberal assumption that Empire is terrible and that the natives are always hard done by.

Then Hugh travels to Holland, and manages to trace more records about the Dutch side of his family. And, incredibly, he meets a Dutch descendant of the Kamerlings, who has researched his family tree. Although Kamerling has apparently deserted his Ghanaian family to return to Holland, Hugh finds that his will made provisions for all of his children in Ghana, and he even included their birth certificates in his will in order to prove that they were his children. Although he had left them, he had not forgotten them.

The Dutch Empire of the 17th Century is all but forgotten in the race to lay on the guilt over the British Empire. The Dutch built an impressive trading network, covering parts of North America, the west coast of Africa and the East Indies. The Dutch were methodical record keepers, which helped Hugh trace that part of his family history. But they were also ruthless. I have read an account from modern day Indonesia, where Dutch merchants caught an English rival trading in one of their ports. They chased him, and when they caught him he was cut, and ‘washed in salt and vinegar’. Lovely!

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Filed under Empire History, Family History, On TV

Who Do You Think You Are? – Rupert Penry-Jones

Its not really a secret that I am not the biggest fan of WDYTYA. All too often it makes it look too easy, when in reality genealogy can be – for us mere mortals, anyway – bloody hard work. And after five series, they’re starting to run out of decent celebrities to research. But tonight’s episode was pretty damm interesting. And funnily enough, I hadn’t even heard of Rupert Penry-Jones before watching it! (he’s an actor, apparently…)

His Grandfather was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army Medical Service, and commanded a Field Ambulance in the Eighth Army from 1943 until the end of the war, including at Monte Cassino. Penry-Jones travelled to Italy and met with a veteran of Monte Cassino to talk about the battle.

As we might expext from someone called Rupert who has a double-barrelled-shotgun surname, his family were very much ‘of the Raj’. One ancestor was responsible for the ceremonial events in Dehli in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the incredible 1911 Dehli Coronation Durbar.

Going back even further, another ancestor was serving as an officer in the British Army in India during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Penry-Jones managed to track down letters that his ancestor sent his wife while taking part in the crushing of the rebellion, before he died of Cholera whilst marching to Lucknow.

Incredibly, Penry-Jones was also able to confirm a family rumour that they had Indian blood, by going back a full eight generations, to 1817. All those generations back one of his ancestor’s married a woman who was described as an ‘Indo-Britain’. Further research established that she was the product of an Anglo-Indian marriage.

Perhaps not the kind of story that most normal people will find themselves researching in their family history (and even if we did find it, who could afford to fly to India for a spot of genealogy?), but very interesting none the less. It would be even more watchable if Rupert didn’t insist on wearing an ethnic-style scarf whilst walking rould Allahabad!

WDYTYA with Rupert Penry-Jones can be watched on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010.

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Filed under Army, Empire History, Family History, On TV, World War Two

Shedding light on Second Word War Servicemen

I’ve been spending years now researching Servicemen from the Second World War, whether it be my own family members, or the names from Portsmouth’s proposed War memorial. Sadly, its not as easy as it could be. And what makes it even sadder, is that its usually much easier to research a person who died than it is to find out about someone who survived.

For a start, if somebody died during the Second World War, their name will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online roll of honour. Chances are they will appear on other memorials, and possibly in regimental rolls of honour or official histories. And if somebody died in action, there is a stronger possibility that they were awarded a medal. And if somebody died, there is a fair chance that there will be a picture of them in the local newspaper, along with perhaps a death notice and messages from friends and family, and possibly also a ‘thanks for sympathy’ message later. These often give you somebody’s address, and names of family members, and other details such as how they died. But its a case of trawling through newspapers, often on microfilm, around certain dates.

The problem is, even if you know when and where somebody was killed, you have no firm way of knowing what else else happened to them, unless somebody else has already researched them. If you’re not a next-of-kin then you cannot access service records, which give by far the most details. Service Records are made available to the next-of-kin under strict data protection rules, assuming that the person may still be alive. At some point in the future one imagines that these will become available to the public, but when that will be, who knows… for the forseable future we will have to do without them.

For the most part, Army war diaries, naval ships logs or air force operations books only record the general outline of what was happening with a unit and rarely mention names, particularly of men. For example, a parachute Battalion at Arnhem contained just over 500 men – which is a lot of blokes. And without knowing which Company a man served in, its difficult to pinpoint his movements very specifically.

Of course, if you’re researching somebody who fought in a well-known battle, then you will have a lot more to go on – when it came to researching my Grandad at Arnhem, it was a case of working out which of the books weren’t worth reading, as enough books have been written about Arnhem to clear Sherwood Forest. But if your man fought in a line infantry regiment, say in Normandy in July 1944, or Holland in the winter of 1944, you might not find as much printed material.

If a sailor served prior to 1928 – and many of the older, more experienced sailors from Portsmouth had done – then this is the genealogy equivalent of striking oil. Their service records are available from the National Archives online. With a list of ships and dates, you can get a perspective on a man’s career in the Navy. And of course, there are other nuggets of information, such as courses, assesments, and so on.

There is one way of finding out more about officers – the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. These list Each of the commissioned officers in each particular service, and what rank they held, where they were stationed, and a small amount of other information, such as if they had attended staff college. By trawling through each years volume, you can build up a picture of how an officers career progressed. This is particularly useful for pre-war Regular officers, but less so for the large number of officers who served only during wartime.

Another aspect that many people neglect is a serviceman’s background – when and where was he born? What kind of family did he come from? What about the people that he left behind? What job did he do before joining up? Where did he live? Very often these little details help you to build a picture of a man who otherwise would be just a name. To do this, is pretty much a case of working your way through street directories and electoral registers to find addresses, and register office indexes and certificates to pin down births, marriages and deaths.

A major gap in resources is the lack of any census after 1911 being available to the public. Freedom of Information challenges have all but shown the irrelevance of the 100 year rule when it comes to releasing censuses, and having information about who was living where – including younger people – would be an absolute godsend for historians. In particular, the so-called 1939 ‘war census’ – an emergency count of people in Britain just before the outbreak of war – would be invaluable.

Isn’t it ironically sad that its much easier to research people who were killed than it is to research people who survived?

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Filed under Army, debate, Family History, Navy, Royal Air Force, social history, World War Two

Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians by Ray Westlake

It would probably be best to start off with describing what this book is not. Its definitely not a cover-to-cover bedtime read. Its more something for the military historian to keep on the shelf for reference, and that the family historian may wish to have a look at if they find a Rifle Volunteer ancestor.

The Rifle Volunteers were formed in 1859 as a form of part-time defence force for the United Kingdom. Although the Government was not overly keen on the concept of amateur soldiering, the War Office finally acquiesced on the grounds of national defence in the event of an invasion of British soil. They were, along with the older Militias, the forerunners of the modern Territorial Army.

From the start the Rifle Volunteers took on a strong local tone – they were originally raised by Lord Lieutenants of counties, and were formed around local companies and battalions. There was a degree of central organisation and direction, in the form of certain stipulations and directives from central Government, but on the whole the Volunteers were very much a local force. And only later in the 19th century did the Volunteers begin the long and drawn out process of building links with the regular army. The 1881 Army reforms saw the introduction of Country Regiments, which made local links with volunteer units much more likely.

Volunteer battalions were originally only to be mobilised for home defence. However in 1900 a Special Army Order called upon volunteer companies to fight in South Africa. The Volunteer Force finally ceased to exist in 1908, when it was subsumed into the new Territorial Force. Apparently this change was not popular with the volunteers themselves, as it involved a degree of re-organisation, and some disbandments.

Unfortunately, this book does not really show the reader how to research a volunteer. To do that you would expect to see some examples of documents, how and where to find them, and advice to set you on the road to find out more. However this information is limited to one page at the end of the book, covering Army Lists, Muster Rolls, Published Unit Records, Local Newspapers and the National Archives. The upshot is, sadly, that if you want to research a Rifles volunteer, there isn’t a whole lot to go on – and especially not it if they were not an officer.

Where this book does shine, however, is in the exhaustive list of every Volunteer Rifles Unit in Britain. For example, I can see that the 5th (Portsmouth) Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteer Rifles formed on 16 August 1860. The Commandant was Captain George P. Vallaney, formerly of the Indian Army. In 1880 the 5th (Portsmouth) joined the new 3rd Corps, providing five companies from A to E. In September 1885 the 3rd Hampshire Corps was designated as the 3rd (The Duke of Connaught’s Own) Volunteer Battalion, and in 1908 the Battalion transferred to the Territorial Force as the 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. Interestingly, we also find out that their uniform was scarlet and yellow, later changing to scarlet and white.

More locally, the 23rd Corps of the Hampshire Rifles Volunteers formed at Cosham on 29 November 1860, with Lieutenant Edward Goble and Ensign Henry Monk as the first officers. The 23rd moved its Headquarters several miles west to Portchester in 1869, and became L Company of the new 3rd Corps in 1880.

Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians is published by Pen and Sword

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Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment WW1 War Diaries online

I’ve recently been helping a friend research an ancestor was killed at Galipoli in 1915. Almost by accident I found that the war diaries for 15 Battalions of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiments between 1914 and 1918 are available online at the Salisbury Rifles Museum website.

The War diaries cover the daily summary, normally written up by the Adjutant. The transcriptions on the Rifles Museum website do not include appendices, orders, reports or maps. Men are very rarely mentioned by name, but officers are.

For example, take a look at the entry for 10 August 1915, when my friend’s great-uncle was killed at Galipoli serving with the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. The war diary entry for that day shows that the Battalion suffered very heavy casualties fighting at ANZAC Bay.

War Diaries for the First and Second World Wars are also available to purchase from the Museum’s website.

Handy for researching family history, and much easier than going to Kew and leafing through and transcribing thousands of pages!

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Filed under Army, Family History, Museums, World War One