Friday, 25 January 2019

Meet The Ancestors

If there is one popular activity that has become even more popular as a result of the First World War centenary, it is genealogy or the tracing of one's family connections. Innumerable people have been spurred into the investigation of their connections with individual members of the armed forces. Finding out what Granddad did in the Great War is a pastime that has led many to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front and, in some cases, has indirectly led to valuable historical research being carried out.
Take the case of Walter Parkin, a Yorkshire miner, one of seven children whose father deserted the family when Walter was twelve years old. Walter went on to serve with distinction at Passchendaele, but arrived home in 1918, severely wounded and a shadow of his former self; he died in 1933, aged only 45. In 2014, Walter's great-grandson Richard wrote about his experience of tracing the soldier's career and how it had led to the discovery of the truth behind the family legend that "the bullets just bounced off him" when he came across a 1915 newspaper article describing how his grandfather had been saved from certain death by a uniform button which had taken the brunt of the bullet's impact; both items had been temporarily on display to the public in a local shop window!
The interest doesn't stop at ancestors, either. Those whose grandparents and great-grandparents came back in one piece, or who were in the wrong age group to participate actively in the war, have generally found that they had other relations who were involved and whose history can be traced. Others - school pupils, for example - have been encouraged to follow the lives and deaths of individuals who would otherwise perhaps have had no one to mourn them.
I'm not just talking about the war poets, or people of some notability such as artists and composers, but ordinary soldiers and sailors. Sometimes, in a corner of a foreign field, you will come across little notes attached to individual graves by schoolchildren who have found out a little of that particular man's history and written to "thank" him for his contribution, occasionally with a little poem attached.
Sometimes, in the course of their investigations, people uncover less palatable facts about the lives of their ancestors. As I've probably mentioned before, my father was delighted when he discovered that his own father had spent some time in a military prison - okay, it was only for gambling. That's because the authorities didn't realise that he and his friend had stolen armed forces' property and sold it to Italian householders in order to make the money to purchase a Crown & Anchor board, which soon brought the cash rolling in. No wonder they were jumped one night, on their way home from a local drinking establishment, by locals who resented the amount of money they had taken from them earlier in the evening!
If you're wondering why my father was pleased, it was because the documentation which proved that his father had been incarcerated in early 1919, as well as the report describing the mugging in Italy, demonstrated that his father had not been telling tall tales when he described these incidents to his family. It was all true! There was some good luck involved, as many military records from the period were lost in a fire in 1940, ironically caused by Second World War bombing. I've often wondered what my grandmother thought of her husband's anecdotes; being the daughter of a chapel elder, she probably hoped against hope that their marriage had turned him into a reformed character.
I never met my grandfather as he died before my parents got married. I always assumed that this was from natural causes, as indeed it was, but sometimes I wonder how much his First World War service might have contributed to his poor health. Many men saw the war through only to die from the after-effects of gas or shrapnel wounds like the ones my grandfather had (although it is difficult, for example, to discount the effects of smoking and other factors as causes of the premature deaths of former servicemen in the post-war period).
Just recently the pension records of First World War veterans were released. Knowing that my grandfather had one, I checked it, and discovered that his mother was living in a place called Choppington. I am assuming this to be the place of that name near Newcastle-upon-Tyne; my father was unaware of any connection with.north-east England, and it is also a mystery why my great-grandmother should have been using our family surname when we know for certain that she had remarried and was using a different name in the 1911 census. Will we ever find out?
It seems to me that the interest in ancestors and what they went through is, broadly speaking, a positive phenomenon. There is nothing that brings home historical truths to an individual like their personal effects on one's family. The knowledge of what many suffered sometimes even brings about a sea-change in the attitude of their descendants towards war.

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