Monthly Archives: April 2017

Batman – My Family History SuperHero 

Just when I thought I’d reached the limits of what I realistically could hope to find out about my great grandad in the Great War, family history threw another curveball.

Last year I wrote about the 16 December 1914 German naval bombardment of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool prompting my 46-year-old ex-Army great grandfather, Patrick Cassidy, to enlist on my grandma’s sixth birthday. He was discharged from the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry the following month as unlikely to become an efficient soldier. 

Undeterred by this knock-back, by the summer of 1915 he returned to his original regiment, the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment. In the Electoral Register of 1918 he is shown as an absent voter due to military service. No Medal Index Card exists for him, so it appeared he must have seen the war out on home shores. I did keep an open mind about which regiment, but if I’m being honest, my assumption was the Duke of Wellingtons.

Wrong. 

This month, idly looking at Find My Past’s military records, I saw the familiar name of Patrick Cassidy. But not in the Army records. Instead it was the AIR 79 Series, British Royal Air Force (RAF) Airmen’s Service Records. It is definitely him. His Hume Street address in Batley, his birthplace (County Mayo), his marriage and children’s details are all correct (except eldest daughter Ellen is written as Helen). So no doubt whatsoever.

He attested on 12 July 1918, and his service number 267675 fits in with June/July intake of civilians. Clearly Patrick had not lasted the duration of the war with the Duke of Wellingtons. A tribute to his persistence, he was now trying his hand with the fledgling RAF arm of the military.

The RAF was born out of the difficulties arising from the competing supply needs, including men, of the Army-operated Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and its naval counterpart, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). As a consequence design, technology, tactics and training were not being managed cost-effectively.  From 1916, ideas of unification surfaced, with an Air Board being created to attempt to resolve the issues of purchasing and supply. 

But the problems continued and increased. Alongside the competition for aeroplanes and aircrew, concerns arose around supplying air support to the Army on the Western Front, dealing with the U-Boat menace at sea and improving the inadequate air defences at home. The latter was initially highlighted by Zeppelin raids. However by late May of 1917 huge German Gotha bomber aircraft began a bombing campaign, particularly targetting London, causing hundreds of deaths. 

As an interesting aside to these raids, the accompanying fresh wave of anti-German sentiment engendered by them, with the name of the Gotha aircraft now on lips countrywide, finally prompted the Royal Family name change.  George V by royal proclamation on 17 July 1917, announced the dropping of the  German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to be replaced by the English Windsor.

In the wake of all this General Jan Smuts, a member of the War Cabinet, was tasked to look at air defence and broader air organisation. The South African Boer war opponent of the British, military leader and politician, who after the World War became South Africa’s second Prime Minister, recommended the creation of a united Air Force. On 29 November 1917 an Act of Parliament establishing an Air Force and an Air Council received the Royal Assent. The Royal Air Force came into existence on 1 April 1918. 

RAF Badge and Motto – photo by Jane Roberts

Recruitment for this new branch of the Armed Forces now began in earnest, desperately required to fuel its rapid manpower expansion. Posters, adverts, newspaper articles and local recruitment rallies appeared appealing to 18-50 year olds, offering attractive pay rates and the promise of no compulsory transfer to the Army or Navy. 

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5277) – free to reuse for non-commercial purposes under the IWM Non Commercial Licence

From June 1918 onwards the recruitment tempo increased, as eligibility criteria was correspondingly decreased. The drive also played on the fact that lower grade men would be serving in comparative safety. For example, this from “The Midland Daily Telegraph” of 6 June 1918:

Opportunity is now offered during the months of June for enlistment in the Royal Air Force of men who are suitable as employment as clerks (in pay offices and stores as shorthand typists), as cooks, as hospital orderlies, as store men and as bat men. The men recruited must be over 35 years of age if in Grade II, or of any age from 18 if in Grade III.

Specially strong men are required as labourers for airship landing parties and for thr Mediterranean Balloon Section. Grade I men over 40, Grade II men over 30 and Grade III men of any age are required. General labourers are also required in Grade II over 30, or Grade III any age“.

And, more locally, the pronouncement of the Chairman of an Ormskirk Tribunal was reported in “The Yorkshire Evening Post” of 10 June. Grade III men were now required for the Air Force because:

…instructions had been received from the Ministry of National Service that owing to the urgent necessity of maintaining all aerial craft, men of all ages and grades were required for the Royal Air Force. Certain branches of this work are being done and must be done by Grade 3 men. Higher grade men were needed for the fighting line.

In the national interest, tribunals must consider the absolute necessity of Grade 3 men for the Air Force“.

These pleas obviously appealed to my great grandfather, whose records show his occupation as one of those much in-demand labourers. His RAF attestation papers describe him standing at 5’3 1/2”, with grey eyes, a sallow complexion and dark grey hair. The grey hair is unsurprising. He was no spring chicken. His stated age is 49 and he gives his date of birth as 24 May 1869. This, yet again, is a false declaration. But not as wildly out as his 1914 attempts to get in the Army. He was in fact born in March 1868. He had shaved a year off in order to meet the age criteria for enlistment. His papers also show his Grade III category, able to serve at home.

His rank was Private 2nd Class, so a service role. He was assigned by the RAF Reserve Depot (Blandford) to No.1 (Observer) School of Aerial Gunnery at Hythe, in Kent, as a batman: in other words a personal servant to a commissioned officer. Is this the man my grandma remembers coming to the house seeking my grandad, as recounted in my earlier post

His service record goes on to show his character as “very good” and his degree of proficiency “satisfactory“. However, on 6 November 1918, days before the Armistice, he was recategorised as Grade E. In other words permenantly unfit for service. He was finally discharged on 22 January 1919. 

His record also shows that he apparently received a modest pension for his service, but the writing is extremely faint. And on 1 May 1919 he was awarded a Silver War Badge, 7162. 

Silver War Badge (not my great grandad’s) – Photo by Jane Roberts

The Silver War Badge (SWB) was instituted in September 1916. British and Empire service personnel honourably discharged due to old age, wounds or sickness received or contracted at home or overseas, received this medal. To qualify, the recipient had to have served for at least seven days between 4 August 1914 and 31 December 1919. Therefore those discharged before the badge’s institution date received the honour retrospectively. 

The badge was worn on the right lapel of civilian clothes, an indication of the recipient’s loyal war service. This visible display aimed to put a stop to men discharged as no longer fit, but without any obvious physical injuries, being publicly humiliated, harassed and accused of cowardice and refusal to serve. 

The rolls for the SWB generally record the man’s date of enlistment and discharge, and whether he was discharged as the result of being wounded or through age or “sickness”. RAF men’s badge numbers bore the prefix “RAF“, with over 10,000 issued.

These SWB rolls are at The National Archives and also available on commercial websites. Often, where service records no longer exist, these are the only indication that a man who did not go overseas served in the First World War. The bad news for me is my great grandad’s is not there. According to The National Archives, the only true RAF record relating to the SWB is in AIR 2/197/C33296. So, unless your RAF ancestor was a RFC recipient (WO 329/3244) or RNAS (ADM 171/173-87), you’re likely to draw a blank. This is something not made clear in the description on the commercial sites.

Similarly, although RAF personnel did receive campaign medals, there are no medal rolls in The National Archives for men who joined after the formation of the RAF on 1 April 1918, unless they transferred from the RFC or RNAS. For direct RAF entrants you are reliant on service records for medal entitlement including, in the most part, for their SWBs. 

I’m immensely proud of my great grandad on a number of levels:

  • His steadfast determination to do his duty despite his age;
  • His refusal to let age hold him back;
  • His never-give-up attitude, in the face of repeated rejection; and 
  • His willingness to embrace modernisation and progress, taking a leap into the future by joining the newly created RAF.

I’ve also delighted in being able to tell my dad he wasn’t the first member of his family to join the RAF. The story has also reminded me of my own happy work-days in RAF contracts and, later, aero-engine supply management. Also the frightening march of time: I think most of the aircraft I dealt with are now obsolete, including Phantom, Buccaneer, Nimrod, Hunter, Harrier, Sea Harrier, Victor and  Jaguar. I think the Hercules, Tucano and Hawk are the only ones left. But I’m a bit out of touch with aircraft now, so don’t take my word for that.

From a family history angle, the moral of this story is don’t rule out the improbable in researching family history. Ancestors were real people and, as such, often made the unlikeliest of choices. 

Sources:

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“Who Do You Think You Are? Live” 2017 – A Very Different Show Experience

2017 proved a very different “WDYTYA? Live” show experience for me on a number of counts. The major shift this year, instead of cramming everything into one day including the travelling, I did the full three days and stayed within walking distance of the NEC. It made for a far more relaxed, sensibly paced visit, with plenty time to chat, plan, rehydrate, refuel and rest. No running round like an episode of “Challenge Anneka” #ShowingMyAge.

It meant I could visit all the exhibitors I planned to see and more besides. I’m not saying I didn’t forget things – on the journey home I realised I’d not made use of a £5 voucher I’d picked up with one of my purchases. But there were very few “kick myself” moments on that homeward journey.

As ever a wide range of exhibitors and experts were present, representing a breadth of family history aspects. From the big dataset providers, genealogy and software suppliers to Family History Societies and the archives sector. From companies providing family history courses to professional organisations and publishers. Niche interests were represented too such as theatrical ancestors, the ShipIndex for researching vessels associated with ancestors and the Canal and River Trust: The Waterways Archive, described as “a treasure chest for anyone with waterways’ ancestors”. There’s the international aspect too. Not just England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales but Belgium, Luxembourg, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, the Caribbean and Canada.

A Little Bit of Yorkshire in Birmingham

An aside, not sure if this was just my perception, but did there seem to be far more non-family history related stands this year? I really wouldn’t like this to get out of hand in future and detract from what is the country’s largest family history show.

Digging for Victory

The military sector was there in force, fittingly including ancestral tourism such as Mons Memorial Tourism, in this period of centenary commemorations. In addition were the excellent displays by Dig for Victory and The Battlefields Partnership. At the latter I achieved a long-held ambition to hold a Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) from the Great War. My arm and shoulder ached afterwards – it was quite heavy and I was fairly slow on the uptake as to what to do.

Fun with Guns – Not Killing Off My Ancestors (as was suggested)

The MoD stand proved of particular interest to me. TNT Archive Services, which holds those as yet unreleased MoD service records (essentially 1920 onwards depending on rank) had a database where you could ask them to search for a record of interest. I had a few to check, and confirmed they held them all, including records for those who did National Service. I definitely intend applying for two of them but I’m holding off for now. During the show Chris Baker, military historian, researcher and author, tweeted: “MOD saying today that an exciting announcement concerning post-1921 army service records is soon to be made”. So is this a transfer to The National Archives, or a digitisation project enabling speedier access? I’m waiting to see.

Queue at the MoD Service Records Database Stand

As ever you could always seek expert help in interpreting finds, breaking down brick walls, finding pointers for further research and identifying and dating family treasures and photos. Besides the Military Checkpoint manned by a range of military museum specialists, the popular Ask the Expert area returned for wider queries as did show stalwart Eric Knowles with his Heirloom Detectives section.

Expert Advice at the Military Checkpoint

There were however some notable absentees amongst the major players, who I really expected to have a presence at this prestigious annual national event. These included The National Archives, The Imperial War Museum, Forces War Records and Fold3. Yes, money is tight, the public and charity sector have taken massive Government funding cuts, and having a presence at these events does not come cheap. And yes, others may be off-shoots of bigger companies. But I really was disappointed not to see them at the show, and I think many others will share that sense of disappointment.

It wasn’t as if all Government departments were absent. The MoD turned up, as did the General Register Office. I’m still thinking about ordering a couple of certificates in Phase 3 of their trial, those certificates not held in a digital format (births 1935-2006, deaths 1958-2006 and marriages 1837-2010). They were apparently overwhelmed by Phase 1, the £6 PDFs of those certificates digitised under the now suspended DoVE (Digitisation of Vital Events) project. Take up of Phase 2, the £45 three-hour turn round option, aimed mainly at probate companies, was far lower than anticipated. Once Phase 3 is finished they will all be evaluated and a decision taken of which (if any) to roll forward.

A Busy Exhibition Hall – My Favourite Stand Title of the Show

DNA was promoted heavily in the 2017 show. Some unbelievable offers featured, with a constant stream of customers buying multiple kits. For example Ancestry sold at £49 (with no P&P addition); Living DNA £99; and Family Tree DNA Family Finder was £40, Y-DNA 25 £70, Y-DNA 37 £80, MtDNA Plus £50 and MtDNA Full Sequence £100. I desperately tried to engage my family, but in the end the only “persuadee” was my husband. So no direct DNA breakthrough with that one. Although with the number of kits flying off the shelves this will hopefully result in an expansion of the U.K. DNA pool, more matches and more of these matches with trees attached (please). So maybe I’ll get lucky that way.

In fact fantastic offers abounded throughout the hall. In addition to DNA, I succumbed to a number. These included a show discount on Family Historian 6 and accompanying guide book; a subscription to Family Tree Magazine with three issues for £4.99, a goody bundle, £10 cash back, a £5 voucher to spend at the show (which I forgot about) and a discounted quarterly subscription rate which kicks in later this summer; I picked up a discount from Ancestry which I will use when my annual subscription comes up for renewal; I signed up to a Pharos Tutors course, “In sickness and in death” with a 10% discount, cheery soul that I am; and as for books…..a 30% discount at the History Press stand lured me into my first show purchase. As for Pen and Sword I was one of the hoards flocking round flashing cash, which saw their books flying off their stand with their offer of three for £25 or five for £45. I’m not sure I saw the logic of that price strategy and I think the sign was amended later to six for £45. I was so pleased I bought my Pen and Sword titles on the first two days, because a number of books did sell out.

Afternoon of Day 3 and Stocks Running Low at Pen and Sword

In and amongst this shopping frenzy I also found time to renew my Shropshire FHS subscription, as I do at some stage intend researching my husband’s family history. Family History Societies are a wonderful, and in this digital age possibly overlooked, source of information.

My Book Purchases

As for talks, again the three day visit meant I could do a selection without brain overload. One thing I found a tad frustrating was how the schedule came through in dribs and drabs leading up to the show. Based on previous experience of talks selling out before the show date I pre-booked mine, only to find nearer the date others were announced which I would have opted for. Too late as they clashed with ones I’d already coughed up cash for.

Kirsty Gray talks to a full house – illustrating the value of pre-booking talks

I attended 10 talks over the three days. These combined a mixture of specialties, general research techniques, and my specific Irish and World War 1 interests. I felt I got the balance right and I’ll be checking the Society of Genealogists website for the slide uploads. One or two were particularly challenging and perhaps less suited to those with a casual interest or beginners, which was reflected in the numbers leaving during these talks. I’m not sure if there is any way in advance of indicating the level of the talk as it must be off putting for the speaker, as well as distracting for the audience, to see a steady trickle of leavers.

My Pre-Booked Talks

It’s difficult to pick out a favourite talk. All were insightful in different ways. And I’m full of admiration for the speakers as its not an easy task to talk in front of such a big audience and pitch it at the right level. I’ve already put into practice a tip I learned from Jackie Depelle’s “Bridging the Gap – Tracing Forward from 1911” talk, and added to some German family research I undertook a few years ago by looking at the German baptisms on Ancestry. But in terms of general enjoyment, I loved Neil McGurk’s “The British Soldier of 1917” looking at the uniform, equipment and its evolution. A great presentation packed with interesting and often amusing information!

Jackie Depelle and Neil McGurk’s Talks

DNA featured as prominently in the talks as it did amongst the exhibitors. This year I only attended one talk loosely related to this topic, and that came from a more general interest rather than a tips and explanation angle. “Identifying the Missing of World War 1″ by Maurice Gleeson examined the practical application of DNA technology married with solid genealogical research to put names to the remains of those service personnel periodically unearthed from the soil of the Western Front.

The Fromelles project, which aimed to put names to the 250 men in the mass graves discovered in 2009 near Pheasant Wood illustrated how vital DNA proved in all cases of the 150 men so far identified. Work continues to try to put names to the remainder if at all possible. Hats off too to the genealogists involved in tracing “informative” Y and MtDNA line ancestors. I’d love to be involved in this kind of worthwhile work, a wonderful way to give something back and enable these service personnel the dignity of a named final resting place and their descendants a sense of closure.

Identifying the Missing of World War 1 – Maurice Gleeson

A video of this talk, given at another event, is online. I would definitely recommend viewing it.

Another shift for me this year was doing a stint on a stand. Only for 90 minutes, but it gave a whole new perspective on the show. I helped on the Pharos Tutors stand, to give the student view of the courses and structure. I really enjoyed chatting to people and it gave an indication of how much effort and how tiring, but rewarding, it can be to have a stand at the show. It was also interesting to observe the ebb and flow of visitors and general show footfall.

Taking my turn on the Pharos Teaching & Tutoring stand

And the final big difference at a personal level this year was the social aspect. Over the past year or so through courses and social media, including #AncestryHour at 7pm-8pm on Tuesday’s, I’ve “met” so many folk with a passion for genealogy. “WDYTYA? Live” was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with some I had met previously, and meet even more for the first time. That for me was the real highlight of this year’s show.

Meeting up with Carolyn, another Pharos Student

Last word on the 2017 show is a massive thank you to all those involved in organising the event, and to the speakers and exhibitors. Another fabulous event and I’ve returned with fresh ideas and renewed vigour for my research.

Packing Away at the End of “WDYTYA? Live” 2017

Other reviews of the event can be found here: