From not really interested – to genealogist guru
Hello, my name is Paul Connell. I am a Historical Researcher and along with my genealogical research I do other more general historical work, for instance, myself and John Knowles compiled the military research for the very popular Forces War Records WWI Troop Movements online interactive maps.
My introduction to genealogy was certainly not the traditional way, or intentional. I started off my working life as a bricklayer/builder and then returned to academic study with first a history diploma at an adult education college (Ruskin), before doing a degree in the subject. I then moved into museum work, where I had several jobs, including a spell as acting curator at the Royal Logistic Corps Museum at Deepcut.
If there is anyone reading this who was at Ruskin with me back in the depths of the early 1990’s I am sure they will be quick to remind me – ‘you used to say you were not interested in genealogy’, which at the time was true. However you soon learn that studying people’s history and background adds context to historical events and vice-versa, historical events become more interesting if you know something about the people involved. An example of this is the research I have been undertaking into people remembered on local war memorials.
From microfilm to digitisation
I began looking at census returns in the late 1990’s. This was back in the days of paper copies and microfilm in the local library, so research took more time and trouble than it does today. Digitisation has been a huge boon for anyone interested in historical research and genealogy. Now we can all access material from our own home instead of having to travel across the country. People today don’t know how lucky they are!
It was the death of my father in 2005 that stirred me into actually researching my own family. Although he and his immediate family were from Lincolnshire there was a story that the family came over from Ireland in the mid-19th century. I wanted to see if this was true and if it had connection with the Potato Famine.
Where to start?
I have used all the major genealogical sites, Ancestry, Find My Past, Family Search, My Heritage as whilst they all have similar records they do also have something a little different. I honestly cannot remember which I used first - something with a free month’s trial to see if it was worth pursuing I would guess!
I found that there was no truth to this immigration from Ireland in the 1800’s story. Looking at census and church records both my mother and father were brought up in the same small town in Lincolnshire and his family arrived there in the 1860’s from Leeds where they had been since at least 1804.
For quite a time this was as far back as I could go online and I was always planning a visit to the Record Office in Leeds to see if I could get back any further. Then a year or so ago some more records were made available which took them back to living in the same area since the 1600s. So if we did come over from Ireland it was a very long time ago.
Conversely my mother’s family, who I have traced back to the mid 1700’s, have moved no more than 5 miles in 300 years.
I found a couple of interesting things about our family. The ancestor who moved to our town in the 1860’s was a butcher – and there has been a butcher in the family coming down to my brother. Although he gave it up in the early 2000s, so that is another tradition gone. I also discovered that my paternal grandmother’s second husband was my maternal grandfather’s cousin. I did say it was a small town.
However my partner’s family is far more interesting. She is American and like most American’s her ancestors all emigrated from somewhere. In her case, England, Germany and Norway.
We have been able to trace one of her ancestors back to Great Shelford in Essex in the late 1500s. They were one of the pioneer families who settled in America, emigrating in the 1630s not long after the Mayflower. We think that one of his family who remained in England may have fought for Parliament in our Civil War.
What we do know is that members of another branch of the family fought in the American Revolutionary War. Two brothers, one of whom fought with the American’s and the other with the British. One was rewarded by the government with a grant of land, the other had his house repossessed and was forced to move to Canada.
A member of her father’s side of the family, George Washington Naugle, fought with the Union Army during the American Civil War. I though members may be interesting in seeing this document which are the Union Army discharge papers from the 6th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry.
According to his service record he was present at both Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Gettysburg. After Antietam he was assigned to be a nurse in the field hospital set up at Smoketown to look after the many casualties of the battle. We don’t have any photographs of him but there are a few photographs of Smoketown Hospital available on the internet. Maybe one of the men on nursing duties there is George?
They resided in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, and the place they lived in was raided by Confederate soldiers. We don’t know if the family farm was one of the places attacked, as the local newspapers for the area have yet to be digitised. It would be nice to go and visit the local history society there to see what they have.
George’s grandson saw service with the American Army during the First World War. Serving with the 77th Infantry Division he went out to France in 1918. He saw action at Marbache and was gassed at Puvenelle, although thankfully not seriously as he lived to be 100 years and 6 months.
His son, my partner’s father, also came out to Europe with the American Army during the Second World War. Arriving in 1945 just as the war was ending, he didn’t take part in any of the fighting. Just the Army of Occupation in Germany and the clearance operation afterwards.
So her family has played a part in four, maybe five, major conflicts across two continents and 400 years. In contrast my direct family has had very little involvement with the military.
No-one from my father’s side of the family served at all during either wars. On my mother’s side, my maternal grandfather was in the Labour Corps during World War II and helped as a fireman in the aftermath of the bombing of Coventry. My grandmother’s father died with many others in the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry defending Ypres in May 1915, when she was only a few months old.
There are a couple of members of my family whose military service I would like to know more about. My uncle is said to have died in an air crash in Cyprus (or possibly Malta) during his National Service with the RAF. My mother’s uncle was also in the RAF and supposedly interned in Norway during World War II. At present, there is no information whatsoever on either of them available online but I know that Forces War Records is working on digitising more RAF records so hopefully I will be able to find some detail behind these events at some point in the future.
So much to learn from Forces War Records – let the battle unfold
I first came across Forces War Records whilst researching men who were mentioned on local war memorials. Being military specialists this website seemed the obvious place to go and I have found it invaluable in researching military records, with information that is not available elsewhere.
This is not just for the two World Wars. I did a bit of research for someone who wanted to recreate his ancestor’s South Africa War (Boer War) medals. Whilst there are several sites that have Boer War information, none of them mentioned him, other than Forces War Records. He was also in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 4540 Pte. Albert Frost, and I was able to find him on the site as, having both South Africa medals, the Queen's with the clasps Be (Belmont) Mr (Modder River) and Of (Orange Free State), this information helped me to track him down.
I am not saying this just because I was involved in the project, but I do think that the most important and useful part of the site is the unique WW1 Troop Movement interactive maps. It puts some context behind a regiment name and service number. Now, without too much trouble, you can answer the question; “what did my ancestor do during the First World War?”
To give you an example of this I have researched the career of Pte 491 Edward Witherden. He is doubly fortunate as he also appears in the MH106 Hospital Admission & Discharge collection. So whilst having a bit more information to use, the following took me around 30 minutes to put together:
Born in Kent in 1891, Edward was one of four brothers who joined the Army in 1914 (a fifth brother later enlisted in the Navy). Unlike his brothers who joined the local regiment, Edward enlisted with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and was placed in 16th Battalion (3rd Birmingham). As he was given army number, 491, this would have been around September 1914.
The 16th Royal Warwickshire Regiment were originally part of the 39th Division, in Kitchener's Fifth New Army. The Division later became 32nd Division, Fourth New Army, when the 'original' 32nd Division was broken up in April 1915 to provide recruits for the Western Front. The division faced the same problems in supply of arms and equipment that confronted all the New Armies, compounded by the lack of quarters for training which meant the men were billeted at home until early 1915.
In May 1915 the infantry brigades of 32nd Division were sent to Prees Heath, Shropshire to begin training. Unfortunately the ground at Prees Heath proved unsuitable, so in the latter half of June the three brigades moved to Yorkshire, two being quartered at Wensley and the third at Richmond. Musketry training began at Strenshall in late July, mostly with worn and defective rifles. In August the Division moved again, to Codford, for final intensive war training on Salisbury Plain.
On 11th November 1915, 32nd Division had completed its war training and received orders to move to France. Advance parties left on 12th with the main body of the Division (less the Divisional Artillery which remained in England and was replaced by 31st Divisional Artillery) beginning its embarkation on 19th November. Crossing to France, the Division completed its concentration around Ailly-le-Haut-Clocher on 26th November. At Ailly-le-Haut-Clocher, in order to mix the new recruits with more experienced soldiers, 16th Royal Warwicks were transferred from 95th Infantry Brigade to 15th Infantry Brigade in 5th Division.
5th Division saw no major action until 20th July 1916, when they relieved 7th Division outside Longueval and it is here where 491, Sgt E J Witherden enters Forces War Records. An entry in the Hospital Admissions & Discharge Registers shows that on 28th July 1916, he was attended by 14th Field Ambulance, RAMC, with a gunshot wound to his left leg. The same record shows that from 14th Field Ambulance he was transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station at Vecquemont at 21.00pm the same day. From the date of this injury it would appear that Edward was almost certainly involved in the attack by 16th Royal Warwickshire Regiment on the village of Longueval.
Not involved on the first day of the Somme, 5th Division had moved to the Longueval area on 19th July to participate in the Fourth Army attacks on High Wood (Bois des Foureaux) and the adjacent Wood Lane and Switch Trenches. 15th Infantry Brigade extended its line to the right on 26th July in preparation for a renewed attack on Longueval the following morning. The operation was the first time a brigade of 5th Division would attack under the new 'creeping barrage' pattern.
The attack began at 07.10am with 1st Norfolk Regiment the lead battalion, 1st Bedfordshire Regiment in support and both 16th Royal Warwickshire Regiment and 1st Cheshire Regiment in reserve. The leading companies of 1st Norfolk Regiment suffered badly under the German counter-barrage, but managed to follow their own barrage into the outskirts of the village, held by German 5th Division. The defenders putting up a stiff fight, 1st Bedfordshire Regiment moved forward at 08.20am. As did 16th Royal Warwickshire Regiment and 1st Cheshire Regiment later in the morning. House to house fighting continued throughout the day, with the village finally being secured during the late afternoon. Consolidating the positions on 28th July, 15th Infantry Brigade were relieved by 13th Infantry Brigade during the night of 28th-29th July.
Presumably Edward then spent some time at home convalescing before returning back to France, around December 1916 - January 1917. This time he was posted to 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, in 10th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division.
His next appearance in Forces War Records is a second hospital records entry that shows on 17th March 1917, Sgt Witherden was admitted to Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, Millbank, with a shrapnel wound to his left knee. Sustained whilst on attachment from 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment to Second Army Musketry School. This record shows he had travelled over from France on the hospital ship, Princess Elizabeth and was discharged on 10th May 1917 to convalesce at Charing Cross Hospital.
Edward would thus have been recovering in hospital when the remainder of his unit were involved in the First Battle of the Scarpe, the opening attack of the Battle of Arras. On 9th April 1917, 4th Division in XVII Corps, Third Army were in Corps Reserve as 9th Division, 34th Division and 51st Division attacked on the north bank of the River Scarpe. Passing through 9th Division in mid-morning to carry the attack beyond Athies towards Fampoux.
11th Infantry Brigade and 12th Infantry Brigade led the attack. 12th Infantry Brigade fighting their way to the outskirts of Fampoux, before 2nd Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment) passed through 1st King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) to complete the capture of the village with a bayonet charge. 11th Infantry Brigade reaching the Hyderabad Redoubt strong point, 1st Rifle Brigade passed through the two lead battalions to take it as 1st East Lancashire Regiment held a defensive flank.
With 10th April used for consolidating gains, the attack was renewed on 11th April by 10th Infantry Brigade attempting to advance towards the final objective, known as the Green Line. 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2nd Seaforth Highlanders were the lead battalions with 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment in support.
The attack suffered before it had even begun. Enemy artillery observers spotted the men of 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2nd Seaforth Highlanders as they assembled in a sunken lane and directed a barrage onto them. The survivors advanced across a half mile or so of open ground, before coming under heavy enemy machine-gun fire from Roeux Chemical Works. Out of 430 officers and men who began the attack, fewer than 60 men survived unscathed; all 12 officers were killed. Lieutenant D.W. Mackintosh, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions on 10th April.
What this record for Edward also shows of course is that whilst your ancestor may have been injured at the same time as his unit participated in a major battle, he may not himself have been a casualty at that battle.
Edward’s final appearance in Forces War Records is in the 1918 Army List which notes the award of his commission as a Temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade on 27th March 1918. He served out the final few months of the war with the Rifle Brigade, gaining a further promotion to Temporary Captain.
Following the end of the Great War, Edward pursued a different path. Training for the church he became Reverend E.J. Witherden and held a position as the Vicar of Eastoft, on the Lincolnshire/Yorkshire border, before moving to Wadworth in South Yorkshire.
Other members of the family also played a part with the military. His son served in Burma during World War II and his grandson had a major input into the NATO position during the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces that ended the Cold War in Europe and then with NATO in Bosnia.
Paul’s top 3 tips
- Don’t trust other people’s research. Cross check. When we started doing the research on George Washington Naugle there were at least 10 existing family trees on the internet – all of them wrong
- Go and see the original documents and places your ancestors lived. It will inspire you.
- Keep going. Only a fraction of all the historical documentation that has ever been produced is available on the internet. With more becoming available all the time it is worthwhile reviewing and renewing your research from time to time.
“I have researched the historical records of hundreds of people. Whilst there are several places to go to search for them on census records there is only one place to go to start searching for their military records and that is Forces War Records.” Paul Connell