Inspired by Who Do You Think You Are?

Although currently away from the library our colleague and genealogist Elizabeth is still providing lots of support for our WW1 queries and has even found the time to write this post – all about the resources shown on a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? -- Pictured: "Who Do You Think You Are?" Logo -- NBC Photo

Were you inspired to find out about an ancestor after seeing Cheryl in Who Do You Think You Are? She spent part of the episode following the story of her Great Grandfather, Joseph Wilson Ridley, who was in the thick of the fighting for nearly four years.

This post looks at the documents she viewed on the programme and how you might locate equivalents for your own ancestor. It finishes with a few documents and resources that would have been used but were not shown on screen.

Cheryl’s journey started with the 1911 census. We need to remember that soldiers in the Great War were very likely non-soldiers before it, and the census contains a ‘lost generation’ as well as men that came home. In Cheryl’s case the census showed Joseph as 29, a grocery warehouseman, married to Mary Ann for seven years with three children born and surviving. The census also includes his birthplace – Beamish, West Stanley – and his address, 44 Towneley Street (sic). All of this is useful information to take forward into military collections.

Next, she was able to view his army service record from the National Archives’ WO 364 collection, the First World War pension claims (referred to in the programme as his service record, the record set title rather than the series). Several pages are available covering his admission, discharge, postings, leave, address, next of kin, and more. Around 40% of service records survive for soldiers below officer rank, so Cheryl’s ancestor was one of the four in ten.

Both of these types of records can be found and viewed from Norfolk libraries through the service’s subscription to FindMyPast. They are also available on several other websites, including Ancestry, which is available at Norfolk Record Office along with FindMyPast.

The next record Cheryl viewed was a letter written by another descendant of ‘Old Man Ridley’ which gave a very personal insight into his character and circumstances. Similar information for your own subject might be found by tracing forwards from the 1911 census and identifying cousins that could help you. Perhaps they might be researching too, or they might have access to medals (with that all important regimental number) or other ephemera that could help you. To find relatives, you might like to try online family trees, the Lives of the First World War website, genealogy fora or even the local newspaper.

Cheryl was also given a photograph at the same time. If you find other descendants, they may be able to show you an image of your ancestor if you don’t have one already. In Norfolk, don’t forget to search Picture Norfolk’s incredible collection of brave boys, collected by the library in the 1920s.

While not a document, Cheryl was shown a Pioneer’s collar badge. Cap and collar badges and other insignia visible in photographs can be extremely helpful, especially where a service/pension record no longer survives. The library has several useful titles that could help you identify the rank and regiment of your ancestor. Try typing ‘cap badge’ into the library catalogue to find available titles, and then place a reservation to order one to your local library.

Finally, a diary entry was also found. This was a prime example of how the writings of another person can shed light on the experience of your own ancestor. As with letters, where diaries survive, they could be in several places. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have one in your possession, or know a family member with access. If not, you might find personal letters and diaries in Record Offices, Regimental Museums or town archives.

Behind the scenes, Cheryl’s story must have involved other reference material, very likely including battalion war diaries (many of which can be browsed on Ancestry or downloaded from the National Archives) and regimental histories. If you know which battalion your ancestor served with you are all set to find relevant diaries online and search catalogues for books written since the end of the war. If you only know the regiment, reading about its history may help you pinpoint the battalion by cross referencing with a certain place that you know your ancestor served in, or a particular battle you know they fought in.

As a final note, it’s important to say that there was more to the story than documents. While we may not all get the celebrity Who Do You Think You Are treatment, many of us now have opportunities to visit relevant places. Cheryl’s story was brought to life by visiting the battlefields and seeing not just where Joseph spent part of the war, but the sorts of trenches he was digging. She was also able to visit the memorial at Pozieres to pay her respects to those that never returned. I speak from experience when I say that nothing has such an impact as visiting the areas where your ancestors fought and died. The scale is astonishing, heartbreaking, and sombering.

For more on researching a First World War soldier, see the research guide (created by myself and colleagues) available in Norfolk’s museum shops, libraries and Norfolk Record Office or visit your local library and ask for help.

Good luck with your research!

This epsidode of WDYTYA will be available on the BBC Iplayer  until about the 15th January 2017.


The Battle of the Somme as reported in Norfolk newspapers of 1916

Newspapers 100 years ago looked rather different from what you see at the newsagent now, and the reports that they printed were nowhere near as up to date as today’s rolling news feeds. But it’s fascinating to see how the papers reported on major events in the Great War, so I’ve been reading ‘The Norfolk Chronicle and Cromer and North Norfolk Post’ of July 1916, which is available on microfilm at the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

The newspapers from 1916 are now incredibly fragile and viewable on microfilm.

The newspapers from 1916 are now incredibly fragile and viewable on microfilm.

This was a weekly paper, published on Fridays, which meant that there was time for news of ‘The Great Push’ to reach the editor’s office and be included in the edition of Friday 7th July.

fake news paper 1

Further updates from the Press Bureau and ‘from Headquarters’ dated throughout the week are also reproduced in these columns, but it’s only in the editorial that any opinion or judgment is put forward:-

fake newspaper 2

In contrast to the official war reports, the Chronicle of 21st July, carries two columns headlined ‘The Great Battle – Thrilling experiences of Norfolk men – told by themselves’. Here are a few extracts:-

Pte Fred L Campling of the Norfolk Regiment, a well-known Norwich man, who writes…Precisely at 7.20, countless guns broke out into the promised final ten minutes’ intense bombardment and a pandemonium of noise arose which absolutely beggars description.

The assault was immediately precipitated by the explosion of a series of mines which our sappers had laid close up to the German front line, and the shower of debris had hardly fallen when the order came for the first wave to advance. I must now leave the general scheme and confine myself to my own individual progress and observations. With a thrill of excitement I received the order, shouted down the trench, “Over 16,” and every man leaped to the parapet at the exact moment our artillery “barrage” lifted from the Bosche front line to his first support line. The opposing artillery fire, consisting wholly of shrapnel, which had sent the two men on my immediate left hobbling to the first-aid post, now practically ceased. Quickly crossing our own front line trench, we reached the Bosche firing trench, and there a scene met my gaze which will remain stamped indelibly upon my memory for the rest of my mortal existence. Cowering in the trench, clad in the pale grey uniforms we had longed for twelve months to see, unarmed and minus equipment, with fear written on their faces were a few of these valiant warriors of the Kaiser, whose prowess we were out to dispute. Here let me digress to say that the absence of arms and equipment suggests that the exact moment selected for our attack had taken the Huns by surprise. This view was subsequently confirmed by prisoners who said that they had expected us earlier in the day, and had since stood down. Many Germans rushed forward, hands high in the air, cringing for mercy. It was obvious that they were past any pretence at fighting, so ignoring them, I leapt the trench – it was occupied only by dead and wounded – and gained the second line. At this stage we began to feel the effect of a deadly machine gun fire and sniping from the fourth line, and our gallant captain was amongst the first to fall, as also was my platoon officer. Not a single German did I see attempt to offer the least resistance at close quarters. I mentally relegated the whole mob to the category of a lot of miserable cowards.

Bullets were now flying fast and furious; how I escaped them I cannot explain. Without wavering for an instant the lines advanced steadily, preceded by our artillery fire, which was the marvel of us all. Glancing round I found myself amongst the regiment on our left. Seeking to correct this I bore off to the right, crossed the German third line, which like the others was practically demolished, and was delighted to see my section commander Lance Corporal R C Goulder, accompanied by Private John Hotblack (Holveston Hall) his left bomber. I came up on their right and almost immediately Goulder made a sign for us to get down; not a moment too soon for we had now topped a rise in the ground, and were in direct line of fire of a machine gun traversing from the right. Glancing over my left shoulder, I was greeted by a wave of recognition by the company officers’ cook, who had apparently lost his platoon. Almost in the act of conforming to our line he was shot. With consummate bravery, and crouching to his task, Corpl. Goulder applied the field dressing but the poor fellow soon died. Having completed this merciful act, Goulder glanced to right and left, and gave the word to advance, having observed our left flank making headway. Rising to my feet, I saw Hotblack collapse with a bullet in the foot, and Goulder a few yards ahead shot through the head. Getting down at full length, partly concealed by the vegetation, I got slowly forward, and came upon Sergeant Lewis Colman and a few of his men similarly held up. Peeping out cautiously, we observed that our bombers had gained a footing in the German fourth line trench, and were working their way up to the position of the machine gun, which was causing the discomfiture of our little band. After taking a few shots at the machine gunner we crept in single file to the left, entered the trench, and were delighted to see the survivors of our company. We had now reached our first objective, and awaiting orders to proceed, had time for a hearty handshake and a comparison of notes.

Our respite was short-lived, however, for the worse was yet to come in the shape of a cruel bombardment of our position by a battery of heavy calibre guns firing high explosive shells. Never shall I forget that night. Bursting on all sides with an ear-splitting roar, these missiles caused us several casualties. This state of affairs continued throughout the following day until evening, when we were relieved to return, exhausted, weary, but triumphant to our new support line, there to discuss our adventures and compare the helmets and other souvenirs we had captured.


Another Norwich lad, Pte C G Cleveland, also tells a fine story of the great charge of the Norfolk Battalion. Following are extracts from a letter dated July 4th he has written home to his parents:-

The great day has come, the charge has been made. I have been through the battle, and the gallant old 8th has covered itself with glory. No doubt you have read the glorious news by now, and you will be cheered by knowing that the Huns are beaten at last in trench warfare, and that it practically means open work now. It was all a horrible nightmare. War seemed the worst thing made by man, the Huns the most treacherous, but God the most wonderful. I’ve read of, I’ve seen pictures of, and I’ve imagined similar battles, but never did I realise how awful it was, and yet it was a most glorious victory. We won what we were supposed to win, and, what is more, we held on to it.

It was Saturday morning, the 1st of July, at half-past seven. I was in reserve. The shells from our guns were hissing over in a constant stream, when bullets began to crack and we knew the boys of the first line were over. No shouting, no cheering, all bullets and shells as the boys rushed over, scrambling round shell holes, one line catching up the other, until they leapt into what remained of their front lines. It was a mixture of mountains and valleys in miniature, no straight cut trench anywhere. We were supposed to go over at a quarter to eight, but we had equipment on, magazines on, bayonets on, and “one up the spout, and nine in the tin box.” Down in the trench we certainly felt a little windy, but once up, we felt as if we were on a field day. Shells and bullets in the air, great holes, scraps of wire, shells, etc., laying everywhere but we kept on – a little bunch of men, artillery formation. Then we crossed our front line, from one hole to another in case a machine gun opened, until we slipped into the front trench. Two Huns were running about frantically like mad men. We went into the second trench, and we had a rest, while we found out where we were, and we had to keep our eyes “skinned” to the corners and our rifles ready.

German names on boards naming the trenches, where a trench mortar gun used to be. The entrances of deep dug-outs blown in or otherwise filled up. I wonder how many men were buried in them. They had stood to from midnight till about four, expecting us to attack at dawn, and had then entered their dug-outs for a very little necessary sleep. After a rest we went along a communication trench to the third trench. Half-way along we had to stop, so we commenced to make a fire step facing the opposite way, and began to consolidate. We were near two deep dug-outs. Down the first one went a bomb, and then came up one Hun, shaking and trembling, Hands above his head, shouting as best he could, “Mercy, comrade,” with eyes staring. He seemed so utterly scared that the majority could only pity him. His hand was bleeding a good bit, the result of the bomb. Just behind him came another, as mad and shaking as the first. Then another dark one with a handsome beard, staring eyes, a wounded forehead, a red cross on his arm, to which he pointed. There were five of them. An officer told off an escort, and they were off, and the dug-out was set on fire.

Then we went on to the third trench. One of our sergeants was shot through the ankle, another fellow through his side; these were the first cases of bloodshed we had seen, but I will not speak more of it than I can help. In the third trench we had to wait. Huns lay about in the most awful conditions, and we had to steel our nerves and look away, but we tried to see the best side. We were winning, we were in German trenches; so we lit up our cigarettes and were happy.


The press was also full of detailed accounts of the injuries suffered by Norfolk men in the Battle.

Among the recent arrivals of wounded at the Norfolk War Hospital are some men of the Norfolk Regiment who took part in the memorable charge. One is Private Strange, a London-born youth, who joined the Norfolks for the reason that he is of Norfolk extraction, both his father and mother having come from the neighbourhood of Diss. “I had been in France,” he says, “ eleven months. On Saturday, July the 1st, at twenty-seven minutes past seven we jumped quickly over the top. It was fortunate for me that I was on the extreme left, and therefore not able to go ahead quite so quick as some of the others, for the foremost party, after going about 200 yards ran right into a mine explosion, there was an awful and almost continuous roar of shells as we ran. I could see my pals being bowled over, but I have not much knowledge of what happened to other people individually. Then at the first line of the enemy trenches came the roar of the explosion. The earth seemed to rise up and rock; and I have a memory of great clods rising high in the air, and of dodging about to escape them as they fell. The first-line trench when we reached it was almost unrecognisable as a trench. To my surprise I found myself almost on top of a dug-out, and lucky I was to have turned and seen it, for there were four Germans coming up the staircase, and they could have shot me if they had been smart. I threw five bombs among them just to cheer them up. Some of their wounded came running out at the other end. It won’t do to show these Germans too much mercy; there have been so many cases in which they have turned on us after we had spared their lives. In the second line trenches we met no opposition whatever. I had got into the third line where we dealt with some Germans, and was just getting out again when I saw a rifle pointed at me from the fourth line. I lay down to get cover, knowing that some of our men were taking the Germans in the rear, when a bit of shrapnel caught me in the thigh. Making my way back to our own lines as well as I could, I saw a wounded German. I asked him to come with me and he came, but only as far as our first line trenches, where I last saw him taking off his coat as if to look at his wound. My impression of the Germans is that they are at heart cowards. They are all right while in their trenches. But once get alongside of them and they put up their hands and scream. In my company most of the men were Norfolk bred. We lost heavily; but I saw no sign of funk among them.”


The convoy of wounded men who arrived at the Lakenham Military Hospital on Thursday last week included one man of the Norfolk Regiment, Private J W Knowles by name, who comes from Walsoken and who had been at the front four months. He is badly fractured in the right leg and has a lurid story to tell of how his company fared on Saturday, the 1st of July. He says: “We were in the third wave of the advance. As we approached the third line of the German trenches the machine gun fire was very hot, and our fellows were cut down severely, but we took the trench all right, and in front of me six or seven big fellows came out and gave themselves up. When we were over the trench the machine-gun fire got hotter still, so much so that to advance further was impossible, and we had to lie down a minute. It was then that I got hit, about eight o’clock in the morning. I had to lie where I fell till six o’clock at night. For about a quarter of an hour I must have been insensible; but all the rest of the time I was awake and conscious of a terrific shell fire, so severe that it was impossible for any bearer party to reach me. The Germans before us were, I was told, Bavarians. I certainly had not expected to see such big, fine men. For all their size they did not strike me as particularly brave. They worked their machine guns to the utmost while we were advancing, but as soon as we were on them they were ready enough to surrender.”

Reading these accounts with the benefit of hindsight makes them all the more poignant to me. Having the briefest details of the soldiers whose reports are reproduced here I was able to research them on our Library subscription to FindMyPast (details here) and discovered that:

  • Frederick Campling was promoted to Corporal, but died on 27th September 1916.
  • Private Strange was probably Thomas Frederick Strange, who died on 1st May 1917 and is remembered on the Loos Memorial.
  • Private Knowles was John William Knowles, discharged from service in June 1917 due to the gunshot wound in his right knee; he didn’t survive the war, however, dying at the age of 29 on 6th November 1918.
  • Private Cleveland, we think, suffered a misprint in the newspaper record – Granville George Cleveland was born in Norwich in 1896, and enlisted in September 1914. He survived the war and was discharged on 3rd April 1919 at the age of 23, having reached the rank of Lance Corporal. He married in 1931, and I wish I could report that he lived a long and happy life, but he died at the age of 41 in 1937, at least being spared the dreadful experiences of World War 2.


Coins of the Realm

The Royal Mint is commemorating World War One with a series of silver coins depicting different aspects of the war and on 27th May they released details of the newest coin in their set:coin 6 cavellEdith Cavell, originally from Swardeston near Norwich, was working as a nurse in Brussels during the First World War. This area of Belgium was behind the German lines and Cavell helped allied soldiers escape from this occupied area. For this she was arrested by the Germans and after a military trial was shot by firing squad in October 1915.

As this anniversary draws closer we will feature more about Edith Cavell but for now there is a lovely piece about the coin and the Cavell family here on the Royal Mint’s webpage.

The other 5 WW1 coins that will be minted are below:

coins b
coin 1 coin 2 coin 3
coins c

Holocaust Memorial Day



Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the 27th of January was picked for this day as it marks the date that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Russians in 1945 – 70 years ago today.

The word holocaust has become synonymous with the atrocities of World War Two but there have sadly been many acts of genocide before and after the Shoah.

The word genocide was in fact coined in the 1940s to talk about the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks during World War One.

Between 1915 and 1923 over one million Armenians were forcibly deported from the Ottoman Empire and a further one and a half million perished – from starvation or disease in concentration camps, on forced marches into the Syrian desert or just out-right murdered by the ‘Young Turks.’

This massacre has never been formally acknowledged by the Turkish government and there is a new legal trial pending on this matter so we are likely to hear more about this tragedy over the next year or so.

Louis De Bernieres covers this genocide in his epic novel Birds Without Wings  and there is a non-fiction book A Shameful Act  both of which can be borrowed from Norfolk’s Libraries.

There is also an informative website giving many more details of the events of 1915-1923.

Christmas Truce 2014

Did the Christmas Truce really happen or is it a myth?

Here are some articles about it so you can make your mind up.

The Real Story Of The Christmas Truce – Imperial War Museum

The Christmas Truce – Dan Snow BBC

The Christmas Truce – BBC

Christmas Truce of 1914 –

Silent Night

Silent night, Holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant, tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

Silent night, Holy night
Shepherds quake, at the sight
Glories stream from heaven above
Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.

Stille Nacht

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Armistice Commemorations

Cotman Housing Association, with the support of its partners and the local community, organised a special Armistice Day event to remember those who served and fell during the First World War.

cotman planting 1

In the calm surroundings of the Bowthorpe Community Gardens on 11th November 2014, over 140 people, including staff from Cotman Housing, Future Projects, Novus Solutions, Mow & Grow and children from St Michael’s V.A. Middle School and Clover Hill V.A. Infant School and the local community joined together in memory of those who served during World War I.

cotman planting 2

The proceedings began with a welcome from Vicar Mark Elvin and he introduced special guest Len Fox, a Normandy Veteran and a Cotman customer, who thanked everyone for being there.

Len Fox, Normandy Veteran

Len Fox, Normandy Veteran

The students of St Michael’s Middle School, had been assigned with writing poetry to mark this year’s Armistice Day. A selection of these were read out by the students, with their evocative poems perfectly capturing the tragic nature of the First World War and the solemn mood of the event.

cotman planting 6

Major Rushmere and Veteran Len Fox

At 11.00am the traditional two minute silence was held and following this, everyone gathered at the Heritage Gardens to plant poppy seeds and daffodil bulbs.

Cotman planting 5

The event came together as a result of the Association being awarded funding from the Norfolk Armed Forces Community Covenant Board, Norfolk World War 1 Fund. The unique nature of the occasion attracted considerable media interest, with BBC Look East on hand to capture the proceedings. The Association wishes to thank everyone involved in organising the event and those who were in attendance who helped make the day a success.

Exciting WW1 Projects

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station, taken by Rob Burnage. This photo appears with his kind permission

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station, taken by Rob Burnage. This photo appears with his kind permission

The BBC launched its World War One at Home project on 24th February. This project focuses on how the events occurring and the work done on the home front influenced the conflict. On the 24th, Stuart White of BBC Look East broadcast live from a WW1 film-set trench at Trench Farm in Suffolk and Kim Riley ran a piece on what life was like on the home front which was filmed at Gressenhall. The rest of the week saw fascinating stories recounted from the rest of the region.

 All the stories broadcast on 24th February and subsequently will be made available online throughout this year and onward.

Schools across the region will be taking part in ITV News Anglia’s First World War Centenary School Report project. Schools have been invited to investigate a local story from the Great War and submit an idea for a news story in 250 words. The top ten ideas have been selected and the will have the opportunity to create reports to be included in the evening news programme.

From Norfolk, Flegg High School’s Year 8 pupils  tell the story of Walter’ s War and Hellesdon High School tell the story of Henry Allingham, a relative of one of the students.

The stories will be broadcast from mid-June to mid-July.

 Another exciting project which launches a little later this year is authors’ Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger’s ‘A Letter to an Unknown Soldier’.

 Inspired by Charles Sergeant Jagger’s life-size bronze statue half way down Platform One at Paddington Station, the project invites people to write letters to the unknown Soldier. Letters can either be submitted online directly to a website or they can be sent to an address at Paddington Station.

 The website will be launched in March 2014 and will initially focus on publicising and explaining about the project. On 28th June, the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, A Letter to an Unknown Soldier’ will open up for everyone in the country to take part in. The project will be open for contributions until 11pm on 4th August 2014.

 Once the memorial is complete, the archive will remain online for the full five years of the WW1 commemorations, and will be accessible for people to read until Armistice Day 2018.

 The project has been commissioned by 1418 NOW, which is commissioning leading artists to create new work as part of the UK’s WW1 centenary commemorations. For more information see