Sunday, 7 June 2015

Researching British Army Casualties: "new" source

Researching casualties of the Victorian British Army has always been difficult because their service papers were destroyed, although a few have survived. So, the prospect of finding out more about "Pte T Smith" was always slim. War memorials are a potential source in giving the area they came from or giving a first name, but "Thomas Smith" of Birmingham is still difficult. War memorial information is shown as part of a soldier's record on The Register.

On January 15th Ancestry made available the "UK, Army Registers of Soldiers' Effects, 1901-1929" from the National Army Museum, Chelsea. These books contain 872,395 records detailing the disposal of monies owed to a soldier who died in service. A typical entry shows first name, surname, service number, regiment, date of enlistment, place of enlistment, for early records a trade is shown, date of death, place of death, how much was owed, to who it was paid: wife, parent, sibling.


The entry for Lance-Sergeant 5414 Henry Wyatt 2nd bn South Wales Borderers. New information: enlisted 22-09-1896, London, trade Blacksmith's mate; next of kin: mother Sarah.

The value of this data in tracing the family history of a soldier is huge, census searches are more accurate with a first name, an assumed date of birth based on enlistment year, next of kin details and possible location.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

More "secrets" from the Casualty Rolls

The casualty rolls for the Anglo-Boer War do not tell the whole story, a big problem is that the location given is often the place the casualty return was created. This can be many miles from the actual location and, of course, when trying to research what happened leads you down a false trail. This point was observed when The Gazetteer was published in 1999. The published Gazetteer with its 2400 entries resolved many of these problems allowing researchers to quickly learn the exact location and importantly what occurred leading to the death, wounding or capture of soldiers. This process is on-going.

Two recent findings have led to updates to the gazetteer and casualty details in The Register. In the South African Field Casualty Roll for 11-03-1901 there are casualties for "Balmoral", "nr Balmoral" and "nr Wilge River". Are these incidents connected? The casualty roll gives no clues. Using a fabulous resource "Surrenders" (WO108/372 The National Archives, London) we can find out these casualties are connected and exactly what happened.

On 11 March 1903 a train left Pretoria heading north to Middelburg, a line frequently targeted by Boers. The escort composed of men from a variety of regiments was commanded by a young officer recently arrived in South Africa, 2nd-Lt JP Wilson, Army Service Corps. The train was derailed by an explosion, 2nd-Lt Wilson turned out the escort who lined a ditch and began to return fire on the attacking Boers. 2nd-Lt Wilson spotted a group of Boers advancing up a donga, as he organised a counter-attack he was hit in the thigh losing consciousness immediately. Another part of the defence became disorganised and surrendered forcing the remaining defenders to surrender too. Three men had been killed, three wounded and 38 men surrendered. There is no evidence these men were actually detained and removed from the battlefield, reinforcements from Balmoral arrived. There is no record in the casualty roll nor are any listed in The Times.

Because British soldiers surrendered a court of inquiry was held. 2nd-Lt Wilson and a "Colour-Sgt Butler" (senior NCO) were "honourably acquitted". However, Lord Kitchener in his review, did not feel that Butler's conduct was honourable as he surrendered unwounded. Unfortunately there is no positive identification for "Colour-Sgt Butler".

By checking The Times a casualty was revealed not shown in the Official Casualty roll, Pte 6174 J Scott ("Acott" in The Times), King's Own Scottish Borderers. In the medal rolls Scott is shown simply as "deceased". Nor is Scott shown in Watt's In Memoriam indicating he has no known grave and is not listed on a memorial in South Africa.

Additionally, all the casualties for the Berkshire Regiment at Zilikat's Nek (02-08-1900) are recorded in the Official Casualty rolls are recorded as "Rietfontein". There are 15 Rietfonteins in The Gazetteer in all corners of South Africa. Correcting the casualties to Zilikat's Nek helps researchers, and crucially for collectors and dealers focused on "associations" reveals that these casualties occurred in a Victoria Cross action for the Berkshires. L-Cpl WJ House was awarded the VC for rescuing a wounded sergeant from under a heavy fire when warned not to do so.

Only one sergeant of the Berkshires is recorded as wounded at Zilikat's Nek, presumably this the man rescued by L-Cpl House: Sgt 3744 A Gibbs, Berkshire Rgt. Unfortunately Gibbs died of his wounds the same day.

The Register has been updated with these details for all these men.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The youngest assailant of the war?

Today's research began with the 5th (militia) battalion Royal Irish Rifles, moved on to expanding the gazetteer and finally uncovering the tragic death of a British soldier shot by a six year old boy. Such are the avenues opened by researching for The Register, one must be disciplined to stay on course!

On May 17th, 1901 an outpost of the Royal Irish was attacked by 100 Boers near Leeuwspruit. They kept the Boers at bay until all their ammunition was exhausted, three men were wounded, one fatally, all were captured. Unfortunately this episode is not recorded in Surrenders (WO108/372). The casualty roll records the location as either Leeuwspruit or Wolvehoek; which is correct or are they different places? Such questions have to be answered to make The Register accurate and help researchers know the facts and add colour to their findings.

In the published gazetteer (A Gazetteer of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 HM & MGM Jones, Military Press, 1999) there is only one Leeuwspruit, the location where, on June 14th 1900, Lord Kitchener fled for his life across the veldt when the train he was travelling in was halted by the Boers. Later that evening the Boers attacked two trains and a construction party capturing 350 men (not all soldiers).

To identify the location of a place one useful resource is Steve Watt's In Memoriam which gives burial locations (where known). In The Register there are 70 men whose casualty location from the official casualty rolls is "Leeuwspruit". Refining this list by date one can identify individuals not connected with the June 14th attack or the Royal Irish Rifles. Using In Memoriam to check the burial places I have added three Leeuwspruits to the gazetteer; one in the Free State and two what was the Transvaal. All the "Leeuwspruit" casualties now have gazetteer entries.

So, what of the six year old boy? In Watt the place Orebyfontein is mentioned alongside Leeuwspruit. Orebyfontein is not mentioned in the gazetteer, there are three casualties for the 1st Dragoon Guards - two officers and one man. In creating the gazetteer Orebyfontein did not feature in any of the initial sources used - mostly contemporary accounts which do not seem to have reported this incident.

Another good source for casualty information is contemporary newspapers and this where the amazing story of Orebyfontein appears (The Times January 24th, 1902 ):
Whilst skirmishing Pte 4163 HH Hughes 1st King Dragoon Guards was fatally wounded by a six year old Boer boy who approached and shot him in the abdomen with a concealed pistol. Cpt EA Williams was killed and Lt HH Harris wounded in the skirmish. A report to the War Office was made by Sgt C Probertts of Pte Hughes' troop and his comrade Pte MF Elmer.
 I cannot find any further trace in the newspapers about this incident. But, now the fate Pte of Hughes is permanently recorded.


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Splitting Groups - Good business or greed?

For as long as medals have been bought and sold groups of medals have been split up, you just have to browse a few dealer's list to see how many single medals are missing their mates.

The reasons are many; the owner could split them amongst his descendants so they have one each (my Great-Uncle did this), medals get lost (then a singleton is discovered in the back of drawer by the house clearance folk) and there is the deliberate action by collectors and dealers.

Collectors will split a group because they are only interested in one of the medals.

Dealers will split groups for profit. One such dealer who admitted they do this is Liverpool Medals, as I was told by Joshua Rosenberg they buy groups and will separate them to sell them more quickly:

“If what you are asking is that we list them as one, It would make it much
more difficult to sell as a group, and it is not even clear if it is the
same person due to difference in service numbers and units, the two groups
appeal to different collectors.”

They also do this to increase profit - or try to.

A recent example from Liverpool Medals is the splendid group to Colonel FH Chapman Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry: MVO, IGS, QSA and Union of South Africa Commemoration Medal.


The group was sold by the Truro Auction Centre in August  2014 for £1600.

It appeared on Liverpool Medals' website the next month in two parts; the three campaign medals for £1395 and the Union medal for £995. You can easily tell it is the same Union medal by a pin hole in the top centre of the blue stripe on the ribbon.





The two lots remain unsold.

This is a huge shame as the Union medal is rare and is issued unnamed. Colonel Chapman's entitlement is verified. If the group remains separated then in the future Colonel Chapman's entitlement to the Union medal could be lost. This is an important point relevant to all split groups; how many sources does a collector search in the hope someone was entitled to a rare or unusual medal?

The Register is recording as many QSA and KSAs it can that are offered for sale or known to exist in private collections. In this way groups such as Colonel Chapman's are being recorded for posterity. Unfortunately The Register can't afford to reunite such groups - or more importantly refuses to feed the greed of Liverpool Medals.

The split that prompted my conversation with Liverpool Medals over their policy concerned the medals to Pte 6270 JJ Jackson Northumberland Fusiliers: QSA, KSA, 1914-15 Star trio (RAMC & CAHTC) and Silver War Badge. Sold by Alec Kaplan & Sons, Johannesburg in May 2013. Liverpool Medals bought it and split the QSA and KSA from the WW1 medals (the SWB was not with the group sold by Kaplans), because they could sell the QSA & KSA to a Northumberland's collector quickly and they didn't believe it was to the same man. Jackson was discharged in South Africa so could easily have earned the WW1 medals. Most dealers would not split the group together and leave it to a keen collector to prove the group.

Jackson's QSA & KSA were sold quickly, the WW1 trio languish on the website.



Collectors strip out (or lose) medals.

The QSA, Kimberley Star pair to Cpl 86 J Laskey Kimberley Light Horse have been sold in 2011 and 2014. In February the QSA only turns up with London Medals, a discussion with them indicates they only bought the QSA, not having seen the Kimberley Star. This is annoying but not disastrous, the Kimberley Star was issued unnamed to all defenders of Kimberley and there is no roll. Unlike the examples above, one can easily tell if a man was eligible for the Kimberley Star. Laskey's missing Star is unfortunate but not irretrievable.

In the upcoming Bene Merenti Auktionen sale they are offering the group to Lt-Colonel S Bogle-Smith 2nd Dragoon Guards and Remounts. This group was sold in 1962 and 2014, now it is missing and Austrian Order of the Iron Crown. Why? I don't know, I just hope the Order has not been stripped out for a collection or for profit.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Researching World War I - War Diaries

Lots of soldiers who served in the Anglo-Boer War also went on to serve in World War I. There is plenty of research material on the internet, most of which is well known: Medal Index Cards (Army), medal rolls (Royal Navy) and Silver War Badge (all on Ancestry), Service and Pension papers (FindmyPast and Ancestry) and RAF papers (FindmyPast).

 Recent additions to add to the fund of knowledge are the medal rolls (Ancestry) and war diaries.

WW1 was the first war in which British forces were required to keep detailed records of their activities and submit the records to the War Office. Prior to 1914 any form of a day to day account of a unit’s activities only existed if someone, usually, an officer kept a diary and wrote it up afterwards into what we call a “regimental history”. An exception is the Royal Artillery who collected a "digest of service" from each battery - these are kept at the Library of the Royal Artillery. If you are researching a soldier from the Anglo-Boer War to WW1 you will probably find a wealth of detail in a WW1 war diary not so easily accessible for the Anglo-Boer War.
 
War Diaries are available from two sites on the internet; The National Archives and Naval and Military Archive. The best search engine for War Diaries on the Naval and Military Archive as you quickly zero in on the required time frame (if you are searching by date of death, wounding or capture), simply select the regiment name (or division, brigade) and select a year and month, quickly you get a list of pages with the place the page relates to and the days covered. This is great to quickly get an idea where the unit was on a certain date and whether it was in battle or not. You may need to cross reference these dates with additional information from sites such as The Long, Long Trail. Of course a page can cover any amount of time, less than a day (when describing a long battle) or multiple days (moving in and out of the line). But, the information displayed can be useful.
 
If you want to read the actual page, this where you need your credit card. Before you commit have a look at The National Archives. Their Discovery catalogue is not the best, but persevere. Each War Diary costs £3.30 to download. The War Diary from the Archives will cover a higher formation, say Brigade and include other battalions and a greater time span (months). Buying this could be more economical and useful that using Naval and Military.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Casualties on-line

There are two sources on-line for British Empire casualties; Ancestry and The Register which is the one I have been compiling for about ten years now.

The Ancestry data comes from Naval & Military a well known publisher of military history books, maps and other source material.

In helping a family history researcher on AngloBoerwar.com I was made aware that the casualty data on Ancestry compiled by Naval & Military has been edited to remove facts such as the severity of a wound (slight, severe, dangerous), cause of death and most importantly dates of death. This last piece of information really important and knowing the severity of a wound adds colour to the story of a man's military service.

I have found a number of examples where the wound data is abbreviated to just "Wounded":

Pte 29832 WH Grantham IY - "Dangsly wounded Accidentally"
Pte 32616 J Renton  IY - "Sev wounded Self Inflicted"
Pte 26744 JH Wilson IY -"Slightly wounded"

Dates of death published in the casualty roll are missing from Ancestry, here are two examples:

Pte 482 AL Tilley SAC - "Wounded 9-11-1901 Died 13-11-1901" - the wounding is shown but the date of death is omitted, and the same for Pte 31776 LR Stewart Scottish Horse

Some men died of unusual causes which are not noted in Ancestry, but simply recorded as "Died" or "Killed":

Pte B Smith, Nesbitt's Horse - bee stings
Trpr TC Fenton, BSAP - killed by a lioness
Trpr S Smart Steinaecker's Horse - killed by a lion
Pte W Cunningham 2nd Dragoons - gored by a bull

The internet has been hugely positive in making research material more easily available. But, where the data has been pulled from original material it is clear some companies are more concerned with profit and show little respect for the historical record or the people they expect to pay to view the data.

There are also errors in the Ancestry casualty records, the non-existent 12th Hussars make an appearance: Pte 3098 W Muirhead was in the 13th Hussars. Such errors are in every single source I have consulted to build The Register which is the only casualty roll that is corrected and enhanced. When errors are found in The Register, they are fixed immediately - no other online resource does this.

And when looking at casualties The Register offers unique gazetteer data to help you locate the place a casualty occurred.

The Register's casualty database won a Gold medal at the Order and Medals Research Society Convention in 2017. You can read more about that display here.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Ohlsen, Ohlson, Ohlsonn, Ohlssen, Ohlsson - Variations on a Surname

In The Register database one can find many variations in the spelling for a surname, this doesn't normally cause a problem unless it impacts the same man (or woman); one may miss a crucial piece of information. This is true also for the other sources, whether on the internet, printed or in an archives. Unlike these sources The Register is the only source that actively corrects such anomalies to create the most accurate source on British Empire participants in the war.

For this Scandinavian surname there are 12 variations:

Ohlsen, Ohlson, Ohlsonn, Ohlssen, Ohlsson, Oleson, Ollson, Ollssen, Ollsson, Olsen, Olson and Olsson

So far there are three examples where the same man has his surname recorded differently between the medal rolls and the official casualty rolls which have been faithfully copied by others.

For many the research into a soldier starts with a medal. The medal rolls and Nominal Roll (WO127) shows a Trooper 681 F Olsen 2nd Brabant's Horse, he is entitled to the QSA with the important Wepener clasp for the siege of Jammersbergdrif. Searching the online casualty roll on Ancestry for 'Olsen' shows two different soldiers:



So this 681 F Olsen was not a casualty. In fact he was wounded near Hammonia on May 28, 1900, the official casualty roll records the surname as 'Ohlssen'.

Charles G Ohlsson was Trooper 25737 in the Prince of Wales' Light Horse and later Trooper 183/36040 in 2nd Kitchener's Fighting Scouts. Like his namesake above Ohlsson was wounded, at Tweefontein November 14, 1901, and on the official casualty roll his surname is recorded as 'Ohlsen'. Happily Ancestry shows 'Ohlsen' when searching for 'Ohlsson'. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Carl Olsson served, albeit briefly, as Trooper 230 Utrecht-Vryheid Mounted Police then enlisted as Private 540 2nd Kitchener's Fighting Scouts. Just like the two men above he was wounded, at Boschbult March 31, 1902. In the casualty roll the surname is recorded as 'Ohlsson'. Again, searching by 'Olsson' on Ancestry fails to show the casualty record.

The records for these man on The Register show all their units, medal entitlement, honours and casualty information in one unified record - saving time for researchers and ensuring they don't miss key facts.