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Tracing your family's military past

Sgt William Bagshaw

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Alun Bagshaw knew little about his grandfather's record in World War I until he chanced upon a diary in the attic of his mother's house.

Sgt William Bagshaw thought he was dying at one point during his time as a prisoner of German soldiers during World War I.

"I am going weaker and my eyes are going dim and inwards", he wrote in his diary, kept in 1918 during his time in camps in France and Belgium.

This 31-page document was discovered two years ago by his grandson, Alun Bagshaw, when he was clearing out the attic of his family home. It was as if a flare gun had been fired over his grandfather's captivity at the hands of German soldiers in 1918 - his dark contemplations and expressions of dry wit.

"I sold my mother's bungalow after she died, and went for a last look round on the last day, before it was handed over.

Sgt William Bagshaw

"For some reason I started crawling in the roof between the eaves in the pitch black, when I came across an old box. In it I found the diary, which is an old exercise book.

"I read the first few lines of my grandfather's diary and thought 'wow'. It was very emotional to see it and it's nice that his actions and his time has been recorded."

The diary is a compelling account of time spent as a WWI prisoner - covering the banality of imprisonment, the worsening conditions and occasional brutality of the guards. It even piqued the interest of historians at the Imperial War Museum. Click here to see highlights and download the full 31-page document.

Camp stories

Sgt Bagshaw's spelling is erratic but 91 years after the words were written they resonate with personality.

He talks obsessively of the lack of food and the poor quality of that which is provided, the absence of soap and general cleanliness, complaining early on that he has not taken his trousers off for many days.

Sgt Will Bagshaw
Sgt Will Bagshaw returned to North Wales after the war ended

He also mentions how when a knife was stolen from the German interpreter, the British culprit had to walk through his fellow prisoners and each one was forced to aim a kick as he went.

But Sgt Bagshaw, who served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, relates lighter moment too. At one point he records how POWs gathered one morning for work, only for the the German officer to suddenly remember the clocks had changed and that they were all an hour early.

"Some army this," the British Tommy notes sarcastically.

Anthony Richards, archivist at the Imperial War Museum in London, believes Sgt Bagshaw was captured in a battle during a period that was known as the German Spring Offensive, which began on 21 March 1918.

This was a desperate effort by the Germans to break through Allied lines before the newly-involved troops from the United States could have an impact.

"It's possible he was captured in the Battle of the Lys, which began on the 9th of April [although] Will says he was captured on the night of the 10th. That began with a gas attack, which is what he describes, and ended up with a lot of soldiers being captured."

"He talks a lot about the lack of cigarettes which is a product of his time, and he is also very concerned about the food, which is of poor quality.

It's quite daunting to think that should anything have happened to my granddad, if he hadn't been strong and survived the war, then neither I nor my family would be here now
Alun Bagshaw

"He also mentions several times that he cannot write home, it's four months after he was captured before he can write a letter, so there's a complete lack of communication. In World War I people back home didn't know if someone was dead or captured - they could go months without knowing their relatives' fate."

While Sgt Bagshaw describes harsh conditions, he also mentions pay several times, marking down how much he and his fellow prisoners were reimbursed for their efforts in what appears to be a factory at a railway works. But there was little they could buy with their rewards.

"It was part of the Geneva Convention that if you were a prisoner of war and were made to work," says Mr Richards, "then you had to be given payment. In a way it was pretend money, as the only thing you could spend it on was food. It was an academic process for the captors to obey regulations."

Mr Richards is impressed with the diary, noting Sgt Bagshow's refreshing sense of humour - "It could have been as a therapy in a way. In World War I people wrote because they wanted to publish their work, but I don't think he did it for that. He seems to do it more for himself."

Family legacy

But there are also sobering moment of sheer morbidity. In one entry, which appears to be in August 1918, Sgt Bagshaw notes that several men have died in the camp, and that the German guards "are getting the wind up over so many dying".

Alun Bagshaw
Alun Bagshaw found his grandfather's diary in his parents' attic

A doctor is called to inspect the prisoners.

With hindsight, it this could have been the start of the Spanish Flu pandemic that ultimately killed millions of people around the world This prompts the arrival of a doctor to inspect the prisoners

The diary ends suddenly at the end of October 1918, while its author is still a prisoner. But Sgt Bagshaw did not perish in the muddy battlefields of Europe. After the war he made his way back to north Wales, got married, had six children, and even set up a branch of the Royal British Legion in the town of Bagillt.

He died in the late 1960s, aged 74.

To his grandson Alun, reading this first person account of life in the war has made appreciate how fragile were the events that kept his family line continuing.

"It's quite daunting to think that should anything have happened to my granddad," says Alun. "If he hadn't been strong and survived the war, then neither I nor my family would be here now."

Who are the last WWI veterans?
30 Jul 09 |  UK

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