I’ve taken part in the Trans-Tasman Anzac Day Blog Challenge in the past, and thought I’d run out of things to say.
How one search can change your perspective.
When War is a preferred option to staying home – what is that home like?
With the Centennial of WWI ahead, Archives New Zealand uploaded, and made publicly accessible, the records for WWI soldiers.
Family stories said that two of my father’s father’s brothers served in the war. I have a rare surname, so chances were, I’d find them. And I did. But their records led to more questions and searches.
A distant relative has done extensive family research, which she has shared with me, so I knew what their dates of birth were#. Thanks to research from the lovely Maureen, I know that volunteers had to be over 20, and fit and meet other criteria.
And, now let me introduce my great-uncles, neither of whom were 20 when they enlisted:
Robert William – Uncle Billy – was born 25 February 1896. He joined the Army on 15 June 1915, aged 19 years and three months; and was 19 years and seven months old when his 'foreign' service began. His stated DOB on the army records was 25 February 1895 (before his parents’ wedding). His listed next of kin was his brother Philip, aged 14 at this point (see below).
His theatres of operation were:
Egyptian EF: 1916
Western Europe: 1916-17-18
His decorations were: 1914-15 Stars, and the Military Medal – for an ‘act of gallantry in the field’ 30 November 1918 (I do wonder if the charge of ‘drunkenness’ on 22 June 1918 was as a result).
Trying to read the writing of the records is tricky, but I think he was wounded three times; once a gun shot wound to the back. He embarked for New Zealand, from Glasgow, on 10 March 1919. He was discharged 23 May 1919, aged 23 years and two months.
Philip Alexander – Uncle Philip – was born 3 October 1900. When he joined the army on 19 September 1916, his stated date of birth was 3 October 1895. He was 15 years and 11 months old on enlistment, 16 years and three months old when his 'foreign' service began. His name was written as ‘Alexander’ which was corrected to ‘Alexanda’. He served in Western Europe in 1917.
He left for France 28 May 1917. He was wounded, but stayed in the field, on 8 July 1917; wounded in action 14 July 1917, this time seriously. There is a list of transfers between wards and hospitals from this point – his condition varies between 'dangerously ill' and 'seriously ill'. On 10 November 1917, he is classified as unfit and placed on the NZ Roll. He embarked for New Zealand from Plymouth on 10 January 1918. He was discharged 28th May 1918, aged 17 years and seven months.
These could be cases of boys’ derring-do: off to join the army for ‘fun’ or patriotism. To counter that, I offer some more facts:
- Their mother died in August 1909.
- Their father’s mother died in October 1908.
- Their grandfather (father’s father) died in 1913, aged 78 – making him 76 in 1911. Alas, I haven’t found their mother’s side for this information. Although, there is a strong likelihood that their maternal grandmother had died in 1885. (There are eight William Chappells to sort through…. I’m not up to that at the moment.)
- Their father died in October 1911 in horrendous circumstances. Newspaper reports vary on the amount of dirt that landed on top of him – whatever the real amount was, it was over five tonnes. That he didn’t die immediately horrifies me. He left behind four young sons, the oldest was Billy (16), down to nearly-five-year-old Ray. My grandfather was number three. (Thanks to PapersPast and DigitalNZ for all those amazing records / articles.)
From fact to story. The boys were sent to an orphanage (or orphanages), and members of their mother’s family took their money.
If this is true, it goes a long way to explain – at least to me – why Billy and Philip would fudge (or blatantly lie) about their ages, particularly Philip – who should have been aware of the realities of war by this point. Where else but the Front would you be assured of a steady income, and a chance to get away from hated / resented family? Maybe they were avoiding their family obligations, but the closeness of their four brothers after the war belies that.
Sadly, the family tragedy doesn’t end there. The youngest, Ray, died of TB in 1928. Ray had spent time in work camps, helping build the roads down Clevedon-way (at least, that was what I was told – I thought it was during the Depression, but a death date of 1928 rules that out).
Post-war? Uncle Billy died in 1968. Billy had two children, his daughter died at five weeks old. His son, known to my family as ‘The Professor’, went on to have two sons.
Uncle Philip died in 1945. Phillip had two sons, one married, but neither had any children. And, scandal of scandal, was accused of murder in 1919...
#of course I’ve checked and requested their birth records myself. Always check any received information, right?
*a history of serious workplace accidents, as my father also had a serious workplace accident, one very-close-to-fatal. Three in three generations is enough, thank you very much.