Great-Grandad, what did you do in the Great War?

Seeing family at Christmas time and being asked to research some family history appears to becoming a new family tradition. Last year I was asked to investigate my husband’s grandfather and this year it is my great-grand father.

My mum has been investigating our family tree for many years, and while we knew that my paternal great-grandfather served in the navy we hadn’t researched his career in depth.  A chance tweet on the @NorfolkinWW1 twitter led us to the Naval-history.net website. This wonderful resource dedicated to the Senior Service is a place to lose hours but a sub-section of the site is dedicated to the (ongoing) transcription of ships’ logbooks. This means that you can now see exactly where ships were – and what the crews were up to – throughout the war this information can in turn add real ‘colour’ to family history data.

In 2015 it also became easier to find out which ships relatives did serve on during WW1 as the Registers of Seamen’s Service (1900-1928) has become available on ancestry.com (This website can currently be accessed free of charge at all of Norfolk’s Libraries)

With this in mind and armed with information about my great-grandfather, Horace Edward Collar, I set off to find out more about his service.

Horace Edward Collar, c.1920

Horace Edward Collar, c.1920

Horace officially joined up on 31st July 1916, the actual date of his 18th birthday, and from reading his service record it can be seen that his wartime ships were:

  • HMS Ganges
  • HMS Impregnable
  • HMS Pembroke
  • HMS Centaur
  • HMS Curacoa
  • HMS Dido
Screenshot of Horace Collar's Naval record taken from ancestry.co.uk

Screenshot of Horace Collar’s Naval record taken from ancestry.co.uk

(It is interesting to note from the dates on this documents that Horace actually started his service on HMS Ganges & HMS Pembroke in May 1916 a couple of months before his official enlistment date.)

The first thing I discovered on comparing this list of ships to those on the naval history website is that only one of them actually appears (HMS Centaur).  Google became my friend at this point and I found out that Ganges, Impregnable and Pembroke were all non-sea-going training ships. HMS Dido was also not on active service but was a depot ship based in Harwich.

HMS Centaur and HMS Curacoa were on active service and formed part of the Harwich Force. This was a patrol flotilla which supported both the Dover Patrol (protecting the English Channel) and the Grand Fleet, based in Scapa Flow (protecting the Atlantic).  Ships in the Harwich Force also escorted Allied and neutral ships between Holland and the UK and undertook some missions within the North Sea.  The Harwich Force didn’t actually take part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 but had been on patrols and other ‘shouts’ shortly beforehand. After the German naval surrender in 1918 the Harwich Force became responsible for the remaining German submarines, which were surrendered at Harwich.

Although not a part of any major battle it can be surmised that at some point during 1917 Horace saw some action as in December of that year he was reimbursed £1.7.6 for “loss of effects.” There is a record on the National Archive website, Damage to HMS Centaur by Mine, which tantalisingly hints at what happened. Intriguingly a website dedicated to the history of Harwich lists this happening in June 1918 which deepens the mystery… As yet this document has not been digitised and I haven’t ordered a physical copy of it, although I feel that my interest in knowing what happened will lead me to do so very soon!

Horace signed up as a Ship’s Boy in 1916 and by the end of the war was listed as Ordinary Telegraphist, he ended his career in 1928 as a Telegraphist. Wikipedia’s entry for this role reads:

A telegraphist or telegraph operator is an operator who uses the Morse code in order to communicate by land or radio lines. Telegraphists were indispensable at sea in the early day of Wireless Telegraphy. During the Great War the Royal Navy enlisted many volunteers as telegraphists.

In the case of Horace Collar these new (well new to me and my family at least!) websites haven’t actually added a lot of details to our knowledge of his war time service as he was so land based but my mum informs me that he did have a brother who also served in the Navy during the First World War and then there are the following 10 years of Horace’s service to investigate too…

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What can service records reveal?

Since starting my traineeship at the Norfolk Record Office I have read extracts from a number of diaries from the World War One era, and have found them a fascinating insight into the lives of soldiers. However, I had never really given huge consideration to service records, and how much they reveal.

In the autumn, the Norfolk Record Office will hold World War One workshops for schools. As part of the workshops, pupils will recreate a life sized soldier using information gathered from service records.

In preparation for these workshops I have been reading a number of service records of men who stated that they lived in Norfolk. I have found the experience of reading these service records both interesting and moving.

Even though the information provided is restricted by the fact they are based on printed forms and tables, it is possible to flesh out the story of a soldier from this bureaucratically formatted information.

propaganda poster

Propaganda Poster

For instance, there is Charles Abbs, a man who stated his trade was ‘professional footballer’. From a quick Google I found that he is listed as playing his debut game for Norwich City on 24 October 1914. He joined the 17th Middlesex (the footballers’ battalion) in 1915.

This website gives an outline of the Footballers’ Battalion. It says that ‘Following the outbreak of World War One, a heated debate took place in the letter pages of many national newspapers about the continuance of professional football during a time of national crisis…such was the strength of feeling that it was even suggested to King George V that he should withdraw his patronage of the Football Association.’

The 17th Middlesex was raised at a meeting in Fulham Town Hall on 15 December 1914.

Charles Abbs was captured and became a prisoner of war from 28 April 1917, for a total of 261 days. He survived the War but was ‘30% disabled’ and injured in his breast and thigh.

Another compelling story is that of 21 year old Richard Plane. His service record shows that for ‘not complying with an order’ and ‘making an improper remark to a N.C.O’ he was given fourteen days field punishment Number 1. This form of punishment consisted of the convicted man being placed in fetters and handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a fixed object, such as a gun wheel or a fence post, for up to two hours per day. Later that year Plane died in hospital of pneumonia.

Richard Plane's service record

Richard Plane’s service record

But what’s also interesting about service records is what they don’t reveal.

In the service records of George William Baldry, there is a memorandum and part of it is a note from his wife saying that Mr Baldry has stopped sending his allowance to her, and she asks why she hasn’t received anything. Why would he have stopped?

Also, 17 year old Robert Edward Forsythe was promoted to Corporal on 26 September 1914. But after this point he starts to commit a number of offences such as overstaying leave, irregular conduct, and neglect of duty while in charge of brigade guard. Then on 10 May 1915 on request he changes rank back to Private. Was he misbehaving because he didn’t enjoy being a Corporal?

I wonder what other stories are held within the 2.8 million service records that survived the World War Two bombing…do readers of this blog have any interesting stories or things they’d like to share relating to Service Records?

Emily