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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

Warts and all

Along with my husband I first started actively researching my family history in 1992, and whereas my oldest aunt (an unmarried lady born in 1909) happily hauled skeletons out of the cupboard and held them up for inspection, my husband’s grandfather (just one year older), despite his deep interest in the family’s history, refused to acknowledge anything touching on illegitimacy, divorce, or same-sex partners. This was our first encounter with the ethics of genealogy, and we quickly concluded that it was essential to use a lot of tact and even keep certain details to ourselves rather than risk upsetting people we cared about. Fast-forward 25 years or so, and my post-graduate course in genealogical studies at Strathclyde University formalised this ethical approach with regards to researching on behalf of others: among other things explaining to clients the possibility of encountering potentially upsetting facts and establishing beforehand whether they want to hear about them or not.

However, when I followed up my MSc thesis by building a website to share my database of World War I servicemen online I blithely assumed there would be no such complications – after all, I thought, there couldn’t be anything controversial in the brief service details of these now-deceased men or anything to potentially upset their families.

I was wrong.

My first problem was the apparently innocuous detail of illnesses. Approximately a third of WWI deaths were due to disease, and many men who survived the war received a temporary or permanent disability pension for illnesses such as malaria, tuberculosis or influenza contracted during their service. Various military records as well as contemporary newspaper records refer to these, and I felt it was an important element to include as part of the overall picture. However, service, medical and pension records also give details of a significant number of STDs – in my opinion definitely not something to include (except perhaps as anonymised statistics) on a public database. Given the lack of effective treatment for most of these diseases prior to the development of antibiotics, they were mostly longstanding conditions unrelated to a man’s military service, and under these circumstances I decided with relief that it was neither relevant nor appropriate to include them.

Then there was the grey area of mental illness. With the coining of the term “shell shock” doctors and psychologists took the first steps towards acknowledging what is now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder and I felt that this was something which today’s generation would understand and accept, so I had no problems including this in the database. I was far more hesitant about other mental issues such as “melancholia “ (depression), dementia praecox (schizophrenia), or the vaguer terms of neurasthenia and insanity. After much reflection I decided that as most of these conditions were acknowledged by the army as being caused or aggravated by military service they should be included, but with the mental proviso that I would remove the details if a close relative objected.

In addition, there were other men described crudely as “feeble-minded” or “mentally deficient”, who should evidently never have been accepted for military service in the first place and who were discharged from the army very soon after enlistment. (One man’s father had to come to the training camp to take his son home because he was deemed incapable of travelling alone.) Again, I hesitated for a long time over this, but finally decided that it was important to acknowledge their desire to serve their country and I therefore included their details after checking that (as far as I could see) the handful of men in question had no direct descendants.

The database also includes three men who committed suicide while on active service. While not uncommon, suicide during WWI was rarely reported for reasons of morale and at the time was generally regarded as the result of mental weakness. However, a more compassionate attitude was slowly starting to emerge, and post-war newspaper reports of ex-soldiers’ suicides are more nuanced (despite the fact that suicide was classed as a crime in the UK until 1961), usually concluding in a clumsy but well-meant verdict of temporary insanity. Today we not only have a better understanding of mental health issues as mentioned previously, but also benefit from a historical perspective on the sheer hell these men endured at the front, so I felt that it was important to include their true cause of death: in my opinion they were just as much casualties of war as those killed in action or permanently incapacitated.

The next problem was men who deserted. No one in my database deserted while overseas, so I didn’t have the problem of courts-martial for cowardice or men shot at dawn, but upwards of two dozen soldiers in the database were declared deserters in England - either while still in training or during hospitalisation/furlough after overseas service. To provide a little context, service records show that soldiers frequently overstayed their passes on leave or broke barracks for a matter of hours or days with or without being recorded as being officially AWOL - most of them simply reported back late to their regiment (or were occasionally picked up by the military police) without incurring more than the loss of a few days’ pay: the military equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Although I obviously can’t prove it, I suspect that some “desertions” were men who overstayed their pass for rather longer and reached a point when they felt unable to return. (A couple of men who deserted after enlistment only to re-enlist in a different regiment might possibly fit into this category.)

Many of the remaining cases of desertion were men who had previously served at the Front with no known disciplinary issues – one had even won the Military Medal! When these men were apprehended, the charge was in several instances reduced to being absent without leave, and although they were typically sentenced to a period of detention, in practice the punishment was often commuted or reduced, implying that there were potentially mitigating factors. For instance, two brothers serving in different regiments deserted within 24 hours of each other and received comparatively lenient sentences when apprehended, implying (at least to me) that they had family problems of some kind. For these men I chose to record only the lesser charge where applicable and otherwise let the length of sentence speak for itself.

The most problematical category for me comprised a handful of men who were convicted of a civil felony or a serious military disciplinary offence. These men automatically forfeited their campaign medals (a fact indicated on their medal index cards) and were discharged from the army. In some cases the crime was reported in contemporary newspapers and/or surviving service records, and the offences I was able to identify ranged from petty theft to one case of sexual assault, although newspaper accounts of the latter offence left me with the impression that it was potentially a consensual (but then illegal) homosexual encounter. I finally decided that as medal forfeiture is fairly easy to establish, I would record the basic facts but gloss over certain details.

These were the decisions I took, bearing in mind that all those involved were born before 1900 and are now deceased, and that their personal details in the database are limited to name, year of birth and wartime address. Are they the correct ones? I could possibly be persuaded to make some minor alterations, but in the end, this was my best-faith compromise and one I feel happy to assume.

The database currently comprises just over 5,000 men (and a handful of women) from the Stockport districts of Heaton Chapel, Heaton Mersey, Heaton Moor, Heaton Norris, Norris Bank and Reddish. It has a separate dedicated website and a Facebook page.

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