You never really know where your family research is going to take you, which is exactly what makes genealogy so exciting. Add the events of war and history to the mix and you can often weave out quite a compelling, real-life story that introduces a true depth of colour to your roots.
Personal stories are an important way for us to gain insight into our history and how your ancestor may have lived during wartime. Forces War Records are not just about records of black and white data — we have a wealth of historic documents and an ever-growing war diary archive full of moving stories, and personal accounts of war.
Whether you are related to the author or not, war diaries however make for interesting reading and could introduce you to the similar experiences and events your military ancestors may have witnessed. If you’ve read any of the diaries we have on the Forces War records website then you will know that reading first hand accounts of war can really bring some colour to the black and white hard facts.
For example on the Forces War Records site and available to read are some original letters written by First World War Australian soldier Private Gordon James Alford of the 10th Battalion (A.I.F). He died on Friday May 7th 1915, at Gallipoli Peninsular, but left behind a rich collection of letters that really demonstrate the tradition of selfless service and devotion to duty that the ANZAC soldiers were all about.
Private Gordon James Alford’s war diary tells of the ANZAC plight for future generations to learn from and below is a snippet:
“You can depend on our boys playing the game wherever they go, and we will do credit to Australia...”
ANZAC Day is next week, on the 25th of April, and commemorates the Australians and New Zealanders "who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations" and "the contribution and suffering of all those who have served."
Another diary on our site you might want to read is: ‘Walts War’ is a personal account written by territorial soldier, Walter Vowels, who describes his service during World War II.
“After a quick chat with the chap behind the desk, I put my signature on the line and suddenly found myself a territorial soldier,” is one line from the transcription.
Walter served in the Machine Gun Corps and was then transferred to the 9th Armoured Brigade and fought in the Battle of Alemain. He was later captured and became a PoW in Stalag 4B.
Your ancestor may have even had similar experiences to Walter, or as some of the other individuals featured in our war diary section.
Merchant Navy Officer, William Garden’s diary, for instance, shines new light on the challenging Arctic Convoy missions of World War Two. They were also referred to as ‘the Suicide Missions’ by many of the men that sailed on them.
Finding out about life at sea in the Navy during wartime can be a real eye-opener — we so often hear about the army and air missions that Naval stories sometimes get left out at sea but that doesn’t mean they were any less dramatic.
An exert from William’s diary from April 5th 1943 details an air attack that he experienced at the time:
“3pm attack by three Messerschmitts 109, fighter bombers was made. The planes dived in singly to attack, but no direct hits were sustained. Various ships suffered near misses. Another attack was made at 5.10pm – two enemy fighters were shot down.”
Another diary that stands out is the account of Reverend Alan Maitland Fairweather, an Army Chaplain taken prisoner by the Germans during World War II.
The account talks about how the Chaplain had to spend his time in various cowsheds and barns by the Germans – often walking for miles and going without food. One exert from Sunday 25 August 1944 says: “Warned at midnight to be ready for a quick move. Marched 15km to another cowshed and warned that guards would shoot if we broke formation.” The diary also talks about the “excitable Nazi temper being much in evidence”.
Discovering your ancestors in the framework of such rich British military history makes genealogy much more than just dates and places – it’s about people, heroes, bravery, lives saved and lives lost. It’s about your history — it’s about you!
If you have a war diary in your family then please send your contact details and a few lines about your ancestor and their diary to Diaries@forces-war-records.co.uk.
We are particularly on the hunt for any World War One diaries so don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have a story in your family that you’d like to get heard.