Although social media isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, sites such as Facebook have helped to build a strong network of ex-servicemen and military genealogists that stretches around the globe. These connections have already proven instrumental in solving many a long-standing family mystery, and several stories in the press have demonstrated that they can also help friends of the Forces to take care of their own.
George William Thompson. On 14 May 2014, when he died in a care home aged 96, he was unknown - so much so, that the Royal Air Force Association was moved to launch an appeal for people to attend his funeral and give him a fitting send-off. Since Thompson’s wife had died in 2004, and there were no living relatives and few friends, it had been feared that the number of attendees would be in single figures. By 30 May that appeal, which had been started with the help of the Sheffield Star newspaper and gone viral on Facebook, proved so successful that around 400 people travelled to pay their respects, and his name was spoken around the world. Among those in attendance at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium in Sheffield were representatives of the Queen's Colour Squadron, based at RAF Northolt, The Royal Artillery, RAF Marham, in Norfolk, the Air Training Corps, and members of the Doncaster, Barnsley, Leeds and Hull RAFA branches.
Born on 19 September 1917, Mr Thompson had to fight to be allowed to join the RAF in 1942, since he had previously been an inspector in the Aircraft Inspection Department at Laycocks Engineering Works, and this was considered to be a reserved occupation. However, on finally making it in on 13 April, aged 24, he made up for lost time by going solo in just 17 days. He was demobbed in May 1946 with the rank of Warrant Officer; in the intervening years he had first been sent to the US and Canada to train as a bomber, then dispatched to Burma when it was discovered that he had exceptionally good night vision. He spent the rest of the war until VJ Day flying night interception and patrolling over the jungle, looking for Japanese incursions.
Now the Rotherham & District branch of the Royal Air Force Association wants to prevent Mr Thompson from falling into obscurity again by creating a permanent memorial in his name. Nothing fancy, just a burial plot and headstone for his ashes, but more than many a man who fell in the war was afforded. Anyone wishing to help the Rotherham and District Branch of the RAF Association can donate by visiting http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/GeorgeThompsonMemorial.
Of course, Mr Thompson is not the first WWII veteran to have received an unprecedented send-off thanks to a social media campaign. Harold Jellicoe Percival, who served as ground crew on the Dam Buster Raids, died in October 2013, aged 99. Described as a private man who kept himself to himself and lived a nomadic existence, Mr Percival also had few living relatives, so the funeral home organising the service put an advert in the local newspaper, appealing for people to attend. It was re-posted on social media sites, and soon floods of enquiries were coming in. On Remembrance Day 2013 100 people crowded into a small Lancashire church for the service, while 400 more kept a silent vigil outside in the rain.
Now the Surrey Advertiser has launched an appeal to find out more about a Second Boer War and World War One veteran who won the Victoria Cross for bravery at the Battle of Néry in North East France, when the German 4th Cavalry Division launched a surprise attack on the British 1st Cavalry Brigade. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has asked for friends and relatives of George Thomas Dorrell MBE, who, having joined the army in 1895 aged just 15, was already a Sergeant Major by 1914 and left the army in 1921 a Lieutenant Colonel (he later served in the Home Guard), to make contact, as preparations are being made to lay commemorative stones in Kensington at 11am on Monday September 1st 2014 to honour the recipients of the Victoria Cross (VC), as part of a nationwide campaign.
On 1st September 1914 the 1st Cavalry Brigade was due to march south west from the village of Néry at 4am, but their journey was delayed by heavy fog. At 5.30am the Germans dropped their first shell. The British had had some warning, since the 11th Hussars had sent out an ‘Officer’s Patrol’ which spotted the Germans making their way through the mist and warned the 5th Dragoon Guards and the rest of the 11th Hussars that they were coming, but the Germans attacked very shortly afterwards. L Battery, among them Battery Sergeant Major Dorrell, soon rushed to join the fight. 150 horses were killed, and one by one their guns were put out of action, until just one, F gun, remained. The men originally firing this gun were all injured or killed, and Dorrell and several others took over. One soldier was concussed, another was killed and a third had his legs blown off and died later. Soon only Dorrell and a Sergeant Nelson were left standing, but they continued to fire the gun and hold off the Germans until relieved by the 4th Cavalry Brigade, and the whole German attack ceased very soon afterwards. You can learn more about the battle here: http://www.britishbattles.com/firstww/battle-of-nery.htm.
Mr Dorrell died in Stoke D’Abernon on January 7 1971 aged 90, survived by his sister, a son, two daughters and eight grandchildren. If you knew or have any association with Mr Dorrell, please call Shirley Long at the Royal Kensington and Chelsea council on 020 7361 3238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is your family’s military history waiting to be discovered? Is there a hero in your family waiting to be remembered? Did any members of your family get awarded medals for their actions in war? Our forums are a great way to spread the word about your search or get connected to those who might know more about your relative. Alternatively, why not take a look at the wealth of records and historic documents that Forces War Records holds and let us help you start your family history quest? You can also contact us to spread the word about your own social media campaign.