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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 2

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Week 2 – Favourite Find.

At pretty much any point on my genealogical journey if you asked me for my “favourite find” to date I would almost certainly reply with my most recent discovery or breakthrough. Following that reasoning, my current answer would be the DNA matching which recently helped me to discover siblings and parents for my Irish great-grandparents, but as I’ve already blogged about that (twice!), I needed to find a different subject for this week’s prompt.

I decided to revisit what may seem like a relatively modest find, but which for various reasons was a major genealogical highlight for me at the time: the discovery of my grandfather’s WWI service papers. (Yes, you read that right – two successive longer-than-average generation gaps mean that my paternal grandparents were born in 1881 and 1882.) To provide a little context, I left the UK in 1989 shortly after my marriage and have lived in Switzerland and France ever since, so when I started researching my family history a visit to Kew was on my wish list, but with no guarantee that Granddad’s record had survived (and - more importantly! - living family and friends to visit on our trips back) it was inevitably a fairly low priority. Then suddenly digitisation of service papers began, and I was on tenterhooks until the tranche of surnames beginning with J came online and Granddad was there.

Before his service record came online, I knew from Dad and his older sister that prior to the war Granddad worked as a clerk and that the family lived in Sherrington Street, Longsight (confirmed by the 1911 census), but when Granddad enlisted, they took a shop on the corner of Clopton Street/Romford Street to provide income for the family while he was away. Granddad volunteered early in the war and served in the Army Service Corps. Dad told me that the ASC was short of motor drivers and although his father had never driven, he volunteered to try and was sent on a short course at Grove Park, London. He passed the test at the end of the course, although (according to family legend!) several London bus drivers failed. According to Dad, his father mainly drove lorries containing supplies to the front line, but occasionally drove officers, and on one occasion when the officer was late returning to the vehicle, he went to look for him. Having met up, they returned to the lorry, only to find that a shell had destroyed everything except the cab and chassis. He said that Granddad also did some dispatch riding with a motorbike and sidecar, and later in the war was attached to a photographic and reconnaissance unit.

After my aunt’s death in 2003 I discovered an amazing series of WWI photos annotated by Granddad in the family photo album, from which I learned that he had been stationed in Doingt and Namur, as well as his medal trio (“Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”) which provided his service number. This led me to his medal card and his date of arrival in France on 19 April 1915. Doingt was retaken by the Allies in September 1918, so I knew where Granddad was at the very end of the war, but I knew nothing about his movements from 1915 until then.

So how well did the service record correspond with Dad’s memories and what else did I learn?

Probably taken at Grove Park: "X is me".

Granddad attested at Grove Park on 22 March 1915. The cover page of his service record gives his address as 18 Sherrington Road (sic), and his occupation as “motor lorry driver”, but elsewhere in the record he is correctly shown as a builder’s estimating clerk. He sailed from Southampton to Le Havre on HMS Lydia on 18 April 1915 as part of 337 Motor Transport Company, which was allotted as a Divisional Ammunition Park to 50th (Northumbrian) Division. The MT Companies called Ammunition Parks operated dumps, or stores, of ammunition. This included the larger calibres of artillery shells which required special handling equipment, as well as smaller shells, mortar rounds, grenades and small arms ammunition. In April 1915, 50th Division was in the area of Steenvorde, and over the next few months participated in the Second Battles of Ypres.

In September 1915, Granddad was transferred briefly to 317 Company ASC, a transport unit at Abbéville, before being posted to 251st Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers in October 1915. With the war on the Western Front bogged down into siege conditions, both sides faced the need to break through the enemy's defensive entrenched positions, and one effective technique proved to be mining under enemy lines. Tunnelling Companies were hastily formed in 1915, and were soon engaged in digging subways, cable trenches, saps and chambers (for such things as signals and medical services), as well as offensive or defensive mining. In October 1915, 251st Company was in the Loos area around Cuinchy-Cambrin-Auchy, where it remained for a considerable time, detonating the last mine fired by the British in the Great War, near Givenchy, on 10th August 1917. I presume Granddad was responsible for bringing up their supplies (which would tie in with Dad’s memories) or perhaps transporting men or material to and from the tunnel entrances: he remained with 251st Company until May 1917.

At the end of May 1917, Granddad was posted to No. 5 Advanced Photographic Section, Army Printing and Stationery Services. This Department was charged with the production and distribution of printed matter, the supply of material and machinery necessary to office administration and the issue of Army forms, books and stationery generally. In addition, in France and Italy, it was also responsible for photographic printing and distribution, and Granddad was possibly assigned as a driver to a military photographer. He would have been with this unit during his time in Doingt and Namur.

Granddad in Namur, 1918

After the Armistice, Granddad was sent as Army of Occupation of the Rhine, joining the Army Printing and Stationery Depot in Cologne on 13 April 1919. He was finally demobilised from Cologne on 4 July 1919, when his home address was given as 131 Clopton Street.

Although I found nothing to confirm the despatch riding (alas!), the rest was consistent with what I had been told, and there was plenty in the service record which I could combine with information from military websites and other sources to give me a clearer picture of Granddad’s time in the army. My "favourite find" isn't exactly earth-shaking, but it gave me a great deal of pleasure to learn a little more about a man who died before I was born.

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