Rob Liddle's grandfather, Tom Reynolds, pictured in late 1914
Many of those who suffered the horrors of war in the past century were reluctant to talk about their experiences. Now, as official documents go online, Rob Liddle uncovers a missing link in his family history.
I can't deny that I have been lucky in researching my family history. I have traced my line back to the 16th Century with some certainty and uncovered some fascinating characters along the way.
I feel I know quite a lot about these people, through documentary evidence relating to them and contemporary accounts of their times. I can identify the ship my ancestor served on in the Seven Years' War, his father's house on Holy Island and probably the building in central London that my great-great-great-grandfather was working on when he fell to his death.
Tom Reynolds volunteered at 15
And yet it is those whose lives overlapped with mine whom I still want to know more about. My grandfather Tom Reynolds, for instance, who fought in both world wars and died a few months after my birth.
My interest in him was awakened early on as I read published tales of great escapes and wartime adventures as a schoolboy. I knew that Tom had been in the trenches in France and had been decorated for gallantry.
Between the wars he served in Jamaica, Egypt and India, and in the later conflict he had been a lieutenant in the division covering the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. But by the time he and his comrades reached the coast there were no boats waiting for them.
He was captured and saw out the rest of the war in a prison camp. It caught my youthful imagination that he was understood to have spent some time in Colditz, where he supposedly met Douglas Bader, before being sent to an oflag in Rotenberg.
My interest persisted into adulthood, as the love of adventure was replaced by a desire to know how the experiences of Ypres and the Somme, and of wartime confinement, might shape a person's life.
But, like so many that had witnessed the front line of battle, Tom was reluctant to share his experiences - and when people enquired about his award of a military medal he simply said things had become "busy" when he had been part of an advance party at the front.
So I tried to piece together what I could from other sources - some of the most important of which are the World War I service and pension records held by the National Archives, and are now being published online for the first time by the Ancestry website (see Internet links on right).
Most of the service records were destroyed by enemy action in World War II - and Tom's are not there. But I am lucky; another grandfather, who fought at the Somme with the King's Own Scottish Borderers, does appear. So does Tom's father - and among his records are letters to officials, mundane in subject-matter but fascinating to me, written in my great-grandmother's hand.
I have been helped by the campaign medal records, held at the National Archives for all servicemen and now online, which told me Tom's unit was the 3rd (City of London) Battalion The London Regiment. The information led me to discover that he had volunteered in 1914 at the age of 15, when the minimum enlistment age was supposed to be 19.
Life in the raw
Then there is his battalion's war diary - a day-by-day record of its activities. This begins in conversational tone, the officer writing the diary remarking that on arrival in Marseilles, the men were "determined to do the thing properly", making "a point of singing Tipperary and the Marseillaise as a compliment to our allies", who showered them with gifts of chocolate and oranges.
But in the midst of battle, the drama is often reflected very matter-of-factly. The entry for the hellish first day of the Somme, for example, after a geographical account of targets attained or missed, ends simply: "Approximate casualties for the day - three officers and 120 other ranks."
The Battle of the Somme claimed nearly 200,000 British lives
I now know when Tom won his military medal, in March 1918, as the Germans were launching a major offensive on the allied line, pushing it back, but ultimately failing to break through. What drama lay behind the words of the war diary, which read: "Battalion fighting at Chauny... casualties from March 21st to 25th 18 officers, 341 OR [other ranks]"?
Frustratingly uninformative though these records may seem, they provide the raw materials for a further understanding, because, of course, there were those who gave voice to their thoughts, and whose experiences were recorded for posterity.
And an officer in Tom's battalion, quoted in Lynne Macdonald's Somme, reflects on the first day of the battle: "So many gone and we'd never even got past our own front-line trench... The trenches were indescribable. We were simply treading on the dead."
This tells me more than any service record could.
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Just returned from France having visited Verdun on the way home from a holiday. These places lose none of their significance despite the period since the end of WWI. Equally they revive my memory of talking to a great uncle who fought on the Somme and his brother, my grandfather, who later told me of the family party held for his brother prior to his departure - in effect a wake, held in the sure and certain knowledge that he would not return. By 1917 (after the main Somme offensive) there were no illusions back home.
My grandfather, Frank Warner, joined at 18 and was in the cavalry. As a child, I would often ask him to tell me stories of WWI but he either would not or could not talk about it. He would let snippets out though, telling me about how on the boats to France, if horses became sick, they were shot and thrown over the side. He said that you could walk to France on the bodies of dead horses. This broke his heart, as he was an animal-lover. His first horse, Queenie, took a bullet meant for him; his second horse Jacko survived the war and we have one of Jacko's horseshoes mounted in a frame with a photo of my grandfather in uniform. My grandfather was shot and mustard-gassed but survived to the age of 80. Who needs Superman when we have heroes like these living among us.
Chris Gridley, Windlesham, Surrey
The comment about some soldiers' silence is true. One evening in the pub about 30 years ago an incident on TV caused my friend's father to cry openly and then go on to explain in great detail the horrors of the day they liberated a German concentration camp. My friend said it was the first time he'd ever heard him mention the war let alone describe personal events in such detail.
Dave Taylor, Sheffield
My grandfather never talked of his experiences of WWI but gas took his physical health, and what he saw gave him nightmares for the rest of his life. In an effort to understand I read some of the WWI Poets and there descriptions are truly horrific, but probably not as bad as the reality that our granddads and great-granddads endured. We owe them so much.
Carol Welsh, Hardanges, France
Tracing both grandfathers' war records was the subject of the recent BBC Who Do You Think You Are episode featuring Robert Lindsay. This made me realise I knew nothing about my own grandfather, who died in his 50s way before I was born, who was a very nervous and anxious man and had to serve for four years in the trenches. He never spoke of his experiences and my mother always blamed WWI for his premature death. Suddenly it seemed imperative to find out about him - for me and for his surviving daughter, my aunt. I employed a professional research agency who did a splendid job - but sadly could only offer me half a dozen men all with the same name, with no certainty which was my grandfather. Apparently the best next step is to find which "absent voter" list he appears on - there was an election during WWI and servicemen were registered on these lists. Does anyone have experience of such things as "absent voter lists" who can advise me how I should go about this?
Never knew my grandfather. He survived both the Somme and Changi. He left few recounts. I have read and re-read the history of WWI and it never fails to amaze me the deep horrors of war. Or that we repeat them.
Hosking, Gaborone, Botswana
I am in the deep throes of writing a novel partly based in the trenches of WWI. The derth of really personal infomormation about life in the trenches is frustrating, but it raises an interesting question. What is it as contemporary readers and writers that drives our interest? Is it because (men particularly) look at those horrendous statistics with awesome wonder and praise god and those men that we have not been forced to participate in such a conflagration in modern times in the West? Or are we indulging some morbid fascination in a destruction far too from our comprehension to fully appreciate?
Andrew Hamilton, London
I've only recently looked into my great-grandad's exploits in WWII. He was attached to the 5th battalion of the Cornwall Light Infantry and played a part in capturing Hill 112. I wouldn't want to imagine what that was like as they lost 320 men from the DCLI in 35 hours. The loss was so great that the woodland at the top of the Hill is now called Cornwall Wood. The history of any war should never be forgotten but learned from so not to make the same mistakes.
Tristan Netherton, St Austell, Cornwall
Interested to read about Tom joining up aged 15. My Grandfather's brothers joined up on the same day aged 15 & 16; both were killed at the Somme. My Grandfather (who was a regular soldier before the war) did not find out until after the war that his brothers were dead. This was partly due to the fact that his widowed mother could neither read or write. He found out that his brothers' platoon had probably passed through his trench on the way to the "start line". He had never spoke to anyone of his experience, however when I was a child he would play cards with a neighbour who had lost his leg in the Somme. I can vividly remember him telling his comrade of from having to take part in a firing squad at the execution of a "deserter". All efforts to trace his army record have been, so far, fruitless.
Allan Martin, Glasgow
My grandfather was born during WWI in Hungary. He studied and trained as a vet. As WWII unfurled, I am told he was made to fight for the Germans against his wishes after Hungary had been invaded. He marched all the way across Central Europe to meet the Russians at Stalingrad. Against orders he turned his men back. He was then placed in two death concentration camps. In 1956, he left Hungary with a Wallenburg pass as The Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising. I know relatively little of his extraordinary life, however I do know that he endured a great deal of hardship and sorrow. Nevertheless, whilst he was alive he did talk a little about his experiences.
Nick Farkas, Sheffield
I don't think we truly realise how lucky we are. My grandfather was a mess when he came back from service. He drank to numb the pain and this is what caused him trouble in later life and ultimately cut short his life. He would never talk about what he had seen but he would scream during the night in his sleep.
Bobby Deaves Jr, Liverpool
I never had a chance to know my Grandad. He fought in WWI and although he did not die during it he died only a few years after from lung complications caused by gassing. Even my dad didn't really get to know him as he was only four when he died. Would that I could find out more about Grandad but I can't, no records of him survive. So to all of you who can find details I say, treasure them and pass them around so that we can all share and learn.
Debs Lewis, Monmouth, Wales
I am only 30, and I cannot watch WWI documentaries; with talking heads without weeping. My daughter is only 13 months old and I went to my neighbours house to talk to her about the War, whilst she didn't fight in it, I wanted my daughter to have a first-hand experience passed to her. On a lighter note, my great-grandfather and his two brothers fought in the trenches; all three returned at the end of the war.
Max Allen, West Bridgford
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