Genealogy research
History

Who Do I Think I Am? My Family’s WW1 Story

Following on from the centenary of the end of WW1 is an example to inspire others in genealogy research on their own relatives' war service.

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At some point during the First World War, probably during the Battle of the Somme, George William ‘Billy’ Gregson, a former telegraph boy, was sent into a nearby wood to get water for his platoon.

Reaching a river, he set his canvas water carrier down and prepared to fill it when:

“’(All) hell let loose’ from the other side of the river in the shape of an enemy (artillery) bombardment.”

Billy flung himself into the water where, surfacing only for breath and being greeted by flying shrapnel every time he did so, he rode out ‘the storm of steel’.

“After what seemed like an eternity, the bombardment came to an end and he crawled onto the riverbank.

"The wood had been reduced to a smouldering mass, his uniform and the canvas bag had been ripped to shreds and he was in pain – caused mainly by the desperate dive into the water”.

Weakly, Billy dragged himself back to the front line, getting weaker still with each step.

“By the time he reached his section of the trench, he was on his hands and knees.

"Eventually, Billy’s haggard face appeared over the lip of the trench. Beneath it was the face of one of his pals, who was sitting on the floor of the trench smoking a woodbine.

"He smiled at Billy, took the ‘tab’ out of his mouth and queried, ‘Where’s the ****ing water then, Bill?’”

This is just one of several family stories related in the book ‘A Tommy in the Family’ by Keith Gregson, which, along with Geoff Bridger’s ‘The Great War Handbook’, gives plenty of tips and guidance to would-be family historians interested in researching their ancestors’ war-time service and trying to better understand the war they served in.

I used both books, as well as benefitting from the help of various individuals, such as staff at the Public Records Office (PRO) at Kew and the British Library, in the process of researching the war records of my paternal great-grandfathers.

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Of the two, ROBERT CHARLES HARRIS, my grandmother’s father, was more difficult to research because none of his personal effects, besides some old photographs, were available to me.

What I did have was a copy of his birth certificate issued in 2005 to my aunt, several basic records from the National Archives (formerly the PRO, Public Records Office, and the Historical Manuscripts Commission) at Kew, in London, and other sources (including family members) to help provide historical context.

From these, I knew that he was born on August 8, 1898, that he was Roman Catholic, a grocer’s assistant before the war and a milkman after it. 

The birth certificate of his wife, Jessie, also showed that she was almost five years his senior, having been born in November of 1893.

There is also a Robert Harris on the 1911 Census, a 12-year-old who was born in Kensington. His birth certificate lists the sub-district of Chelsea Kensal Town, and his war record (also obtained from the National Archives) has Kensington as the place of birth, so this may well have been the same Robert Harris.

If it was him, at the time it says he was living at 65 Burnfoot Avenue in Fulham, which is adjacent to Kensington. 

It also indicates that he was not living with family, but was a boarder, and that his occupation was a school news boy, presumably doing a paper round. 

This was a reasonable fit, given that my aunt had told me his family had very little money. On his birth certificate, his father is shown as having been a labourer, and he and Jessie apparently shared the house with others when, years later, outside of wartime, things got tough economically.

His later work as a milkman might only have come after a considerable period of unemployment.

So it seems likely that, as a boy in 1911, perhaps, with other siblings in the picture, there wasn’t space for him at home anymore.

Living nearby instead, paying his way with money from his newspaper job in exchange for food and lodgings makes sense. 

There were also six others in the house with him, including another lodger, a 55-year-old tailor maker, as well as the head of the household, 50-year-old Margaret Moss (a widow) and her adult sons – a warehouseman and packer and a cycle and motor mechanic – and two teenaged daughters, a nursemaid and a dressmaker’s apprentice.

london map
65 Burnfoot Avenue today, shown near Kensington (image: Google)

The only bit of information that didn’t quite fit was that the summation page provided by the National Archives gives the birth year as well as age, and shows Robert Charles, who went by Bob, as having been born in 1899.

This may simply have been an error in extrapolation, it not being clear from just his age whether or not he’d had his birthday that year yet (which of course he hadn’t, given that the census was taken in April.)

In all likelihood, this probably does explain it, but there were sometimes other reasons why the information on the 1911 census (such as age or birth year) didn’t exactly match other official documentation, as Keith Gregson explains in 'A Tommy in the Family':

“(The 1911 Census) was the first census which had to be filled in personally by the head of the household (and one of my family spilled a pot of ink over he census form!)

"The evidence so far from my family is that some heads of household decided to be lenient with the truth.

"My hold on this is that between 1901 and 1911, the so-called Liberal Reforms had taken place, which benefited many but also brought the State into the daily lives of more and more families

"These reforms also came at a cost which would make some people less than keen for the authorities to know too much about them as such knowledge could, in the future, hit them in the pocket.”

Whatever the level of lenience with the truth displayed by some who filled in the census, Robert Charles’ war record indicates that he was a fine, upstanding, diligent, and therefore presumably very honest, sailor.

In a portion labelled ‘Character & Ability’ on his war record, several VGs (Very Goods) appear under the C (Character) column, and ‘Sat’s (i.e. perfectly satisfactorys) appear in the A (Ability) column.

The physical description helps add colour to the black and white photos: brown hair, grey eyes and with a fair complexion, with no wounds or distinguishing features.

Robert Charles Harris
Robert Charles Harris looking smart after the war

His chest was 35 inches and he was 5 feet 5 and one-quarter inches tall.

(This seems overly precise – don’t most people lose half an inch or so of height over the course of the day?)

Furthermore, according to my aunt, Bob volunteered for the Royal Navy, rather than waiting to be drafted.

This seems likely because his record indicates that by February 1916 he was at HMS Pembroke, the name for naval barracks ashore at Chatham, and that he was an ordinary seaman, the lowest naval rank. 

He would have been 17 years old and the Military Service Act, which didn’t even come into effect until March of that year, mandated that young men aged 18 and over were liable to be called up.

He would, though, have had his 18th birthday by the time he first went to sea, because he spent a year at Chatham, presumably training.

A line at the top shows the date and period of engagement as being from December 21, 1916 until ‘Hostilities’ (i.e. the end of hostilities).

He was demobbed in April 1919.

post world war 1 Britain
Bob tending his garden after the war

With him having not spoken too much about his war service, it’s hard to know if Bob joined up because he wanted to, or because he was compelled by social pressures.

Propaganda was pervasive and not very subtle.

As well as the now iconic image of War Minister Kitchener pointing his finger at ‘YOU’, every individual potential recruit, willing them to ‘do their duty’ for King and Country, there were others that were brazenly manipulative.

One poster read:

“TO THE YOUNG WOMEN OF LONDON

“Is your ‘Best Boy’ wearing Khaki? If not don’t YOU THINK he should be?

“If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for—do you think he is WORTHY of you?

“Don’t pity the girl who is alone—her young man is probably a soldier—fighting for her and her country—and for YOU.

“If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will NEGLECT YOU.

“Think it over—then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO-DAY.”

First world war propaganda poster
Another propaganda poster from the time

Peer pressure also seems to have been common, as evidenced by a letter – made available by the Imperial War Museum – that is a response to a request for employment made by a Mr. T. Harold Visick, a conscientious objector.

The company he’d applied to was ‘Parke, Davis & Company’, a manufacturer for chemists located in London:

“Dear sir:-

“…The policy of my firm is not to discuss, or to assume any particular attitude on political or religious questions; therefore, what I am about to say to you is merely an expression of my own personal views as the manager of this branch… I express, to the best of my belief, the feeling of over 99 per cent. of the population.

“We have 182 of the employees of this branch serving with the Colours. They have given up their jobs – although we undertake to re-employ them if they live – sacrificed their pay, their comfort, and are jeopardising their lives (a number of them have also been killed), to save their homes, and your home, from the violation of the Germans.

“…what do you think our 182 fighting men would think of me if, while they are sacrificing so much, I should give employment to someone who not only disapproves of, and condemns as unrighteous and unworthy, all that they are doing, but is willing to enjoy to the full the protection that their sacrificie alone secures?”

Not surprisingly, Visick didn’t get the job.

Royal Navy first world war
Bob in his sailor’s uniform

In the process of defending Britain from ‘German violation’, it was said in the family that Bob was shipwrecked at one point off the coast of Africa, but that he eventually made it back. 

I focused some of my time at the National Archives trying to find evidence for this, but it proved elusive.

Part of the problem is that there were no gaps in his time aboard various ships.

What is shown instead is the following:

“Pembroke I (the barracks) – 21 Feb 16 (as in, 1916) to 27 Feb 17;

“Sirius – 28 Feb 17 to 17 Jan 18

“Pembroke I – 18 Jan 18 to 6 March 18

“Wallington (Peterel) – 7 March 18 to 15 Jan 19

“Hecla (“) – 16 Jan 19 to 11 Feb 19

“Hecla (PC 57) – 12 Feb 19 to 28 Feb 19

“Prince George (“) – 1 March 19 to 16 April 19 shore and Demob (the end of his service)”.

Since the alleged ‘shipwreck’ is meant to have taken place during the war, that limited things to only two vessels, HMS Sirius and HMS Wallington.

The National Archives classifies logbooks under the prefix Adm (as in ‘Admiralty’) 53/, and then adds a specific number for each ship’s records for a given period.

HMS Sirius, for instance, was Adm 53/60339, which covers 1917 and 1918.

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Bob with his daughter, Eileen – my grandmother

These records usually come in very large boxes filled with stacks of large books, one for each month, and looking through each one in depth requires a great deal of time, which I didn’t have much of.

Seeking to find a shortcut, I presumed any ‘sinking’ or ‘wreck’ must have occurred towards the end of Bob’s time aboard a given ship, and I therefore concentrated my efforts on logs for the last three months, November 1917 to January 1918.

There was nothing to indicate any dramatic event taking place, though there were entries that shed light on what everyday life aboard a naval vessel a century ago might have been like.

There are daily entries for how many pounds of fresh beef, vegetables and bread were received, and how many tons of fresh water had been received, distilled (purified), expended (drunk or used for cooking) and how much was remaining.

And there were specific entries that leap out. In November, several references to “gun watch” being performed, and then, on the 29th at 9am:

“9.0 Stopped… Sighted white object which proved to be a dead whale.”

In January’s log book, there were remarks like:

“Hands employed cleaning ship”

“Routine clean decks”

“Division Prayers…”

At the end of January 1918, the log book says:

“6:30 Called Hands

“Hands employed preparing kit etc for paying off

“8:0

“9:0 Discharged 8 marines to Portsmouth main depot

“Discharged 16 marines to Chatham main depot

“Discharged… officers and men to leave

“Ship paid off.”

This means that it had finished its time at sea, though Bob hadn’t.

I had time to check a few more log books and looked over some of those for the HMS Prince George.

This vessel was a large battleship launched in 1895 that served in the Dardanelles in 1915.

I wondered if my great great uncle, Edwin Ambler, was aboard – a Royal Marine who died of wounds sustained during the Dardanelles campaign.

She was stationed at Scapa Flow in 1918 and renamed Victorious II before being redubbed Prince George again 1919, when Bob served aboard her.

The log book here revealed much the same – hands cleaning the ship multiple times, fires allowed to burn themselves out at night.

Since the Prince George had eight coal-fired boilers, this must have referred to these.

There is also a note about one seaman named Rogers being admonished for neglecting his duty, something that “resulted in a serious accident”.

In fact, there were multiple entries of this nature in the logs for HMS Wallington, which Bob served aboard in 1918:

“Admonished Sub Lieutenant James E Slaymark R.N.V.R. for carelessly performing his duty as mail officer in allowing a Registered letter for an unknown ship to remain in mail office for nearly 2 months without taking any steps to discover the identity or whereabouts of the said ship.”

“Admonished Lieut Commander Alexander for neglectedly performing his duty in not furnishing written reasons for 6 days after an order to do so had been given.”

Royal Navy first world war
One of many admonishments in the log book

“Admonished Lieut Commander W. R. Alexander for carelessly performing his duties in causing delay to official correspondence.”

“Admonished Sub. Lt. Mills RNR (Royal Naval Reserve) late of HMS ‘Leopard’ for making an insubordinate remark to his Captain.”

“Admonished Lt Edward Job Hodgman Skipper of H.M.T. ‘STRATHCLUNIE’ for being absent from his ship without leave.”

“Admonished Lieut: Trewer R.N.V.R. (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) for negligently performing his duty in the Base Intelligence Office, in leaving the office unattended with the secret safe unlocked.”

It was difficult at first to determine if Wallington was a vessel or another shore establishment, like HMS Pembroke.

The signature of the commander issuing all the above admonishments was always accompanied by a stamp that read: “Commander in Command R. N. Depot, Immingham”.

When I contacted the National Museum of the Royal Navy, they checked their logs and found that Wallington was originally a hired vessel named St. George, is described as a trawler, but also a parent ship and command centre, known as ‘the Humber’, in Immingham.

It had also been involved in boom defence and was then “renamed to Oriflame as the parent ship on the Humber… Duties as a parent ship related to pay and administration for the Destroyer Flotilla rather than (it being) active.”

But the parent/HQ ship role may not have occurred until later – prior to that, they said that Wallington was probably deployed on minesweeping duties at the start of Bob’s service aboard her.

It seems then that she may have been a larger support vessel for minesweeping vessels, the role HMS Enterprise (the large ship in the pictures) performed recently during Exercise Trident Juncture in Norway:

This certainly explains the other entries in the log book that jump out when leafing through it.

Either the string of admonishments issued to subordinates by the commander of Wallington were necessary to run a tight ship in dangerous times, or the stress and danger caused him to become very strict, or both.

Interspersed with the stuffy reprimands are lists and lists of men killed. The cause-of-death column has items like:

“Injuries sustained in explosion”

“Killed by explosion”

And then again:

“Killed by explosion”

On June 8, a list of 21 names appears, men who ranked from a temporary lieutenant, to engineer, to boatswain, to seaman, to deck hand, greaser, fireman, second hand and ordinary seaman, my great grandfather’s rank.

Every one of them was killed, this time, according to the final column in the table, by enemy action.

Then five more names – again, all killed by enemy action – a sixth with an unknown cause of death, but with injuries attributed to a mine explosion.

After that, there is a report with several more men killed by enemy action, then things seem to let up and men start dying of other things instead: 

“Accidental drowning.”

“Natural Causes…”

“Accidental drowning.”

“Pneumonia”

“Pneumonia”

“Killed by accident”

Then back to potential hostilities: 

“Lost at sea – enemy action”

“Scolds” (as in, died of burns, perhaps from a boiler accident or injuries sustained during an enemy action);

Then natural causes again:

“Influenza to Pneumonia”

“Cardiac failure” (this man was only 20, though his heart problem appears to have been a consequence of pneumonia);

“Pneumonia”

“Meningitis”

Then a dozen more men killed by enemy action, then, and by this point the date was September 4, 1918, 14 more men ‘killed by enemy action’, followed by more ‘natural’ deaths, from pneumonia, bronchitis and one poor chap “accidentally killed by falling nets”.

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Robert Charles on the beach and by the water after the war

In examining the dangers to servicemen in the First World War, much of the attention is paid to soldiers, and they did indeed bear most of the risk, the Army also having far more men than the Navy at that point.

But life in the Royal Navy could still be dangerous.

Just how dangerous is revealed in ‘Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914 – 1920’, a book compiled by the War Office after the conflict.

According to a table on page 339, as a non-officer, Bob had a 1.39 percent chance of death and a 1.72 percent chance of becoming a casualty overall in 1918.

This may sound like a small percentage, but with thousands of men spread across multiple ships floating around one parent vessel – the Wellington – this explains why Bob could face less than a 1 in 50 chance of becoming a casualty himself yet also be surrounded by men who were frequently dying.

Just below is a British propaganda video from World War 2 that shows what minesweeping was like then.

It presumably must have been very similar to the kind of work Bob may have been involved in during his service in the First World War.

It only occurred to me after leaving the National Archives that my great grandfather’s ‘shipwreck’ incident may have been something similar to one of those fatality listings.

Perhaps he fell overboard, or perhaps a smaller boat going between the shore and its parent ship, HMS Sirius, was sunk and it was Sirius he managed to ‘get back’ to (i.e. as opposed to Britain).

After all, HMS Sirius was stationed off the west coast of Africa, and Britain did have a few colonies nearby, such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone. 

Unfortunately, Bob died relatively young, in his forties.

He therefore wasn’t around into old age to tell his family much about his wartime experiences, so unfortunately I may never know just how true, or not, the shipwreck story is.

Bob’s wartime tale contrasts markedly with that of my other paternal great grandfather, ERNEST ARTHUR ALLWOOD.

In his case, I not only had access to some of his records at the National Archives, but also to some of his personal effects.

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Ernest Arthur and his father Charles John Allwood on his right

I’d also heard bits and pieces of his story from my father and grandfather over the years – that he was a 5'6" Grenadier Guardsman, which is pretty cheeky given that the height requirement for the Guards regiments was 6'0".

I’d also heard that he’d been in the British Army already when war broke out and had served as a messenger at Mons, before being shot by a German sniper – the bullet just missing his heart.

After he recovered, his musical skills were needed back in Britain (he was a bandsman) and he served out the rest of the war in Britain.

There was also something about him being on television, and attending a funeral for members of a downed Zeppelin.

As with Robert Charles, the immediate question I had to ask was just how much of this was true? 

From his birth certificate, I saw that Ernest Arthur, or just ‘Arthur’, was born on October 9, 1894, to Ellen and Charles John Allwood, a government stamp teller.

They are said to have lived on Frederick Road, in the sub-district of St Peter Walworth.

His wife, Louise Annie, was born on March 28, 1897 to Catherine and Henry Ambler.

(It was her brother Edwin Ambler who would be killed in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 fighting as a Royal Marine, perhaps at Gallipoli.)

Henry was a printer’s foreman and the parents lived at 66 High Road in Willesden Green, northwest London.

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The man who would have been Arthur’s brother-in-law, Edwin Ambler, who died of injuries sustained in the Gallipoli campaign
google maps
66 High Road, Willesden Green - all my paternal great grandparents were born and grew up in and around London (image: Google)

That all made sense – I wondered what I would find in his service book (or rather his one ‘service book’ and his one ‘service and pay book’ and on the medal card my father had retrieved from the National Archives years ago).

Immediately I noticed that the service numbers didn’t match – with 14325 on the medal card and 2604241 on the first page of the service book.

However, a few pages in his certificate of discharge, issued on December 26, 1930, helped explain this

After more than 21 years in the Army (he’d enlisted as a drummer boy at the age of 15 in April, 1909), it seems he must have resolved to start a new life outside the Army in 1931.

His timing was bad, of course, given the 1929 New York Stock Market Crash and subsequent global depression.

This is why he evidently re-enlisted, this time in the Royal Fusiliers, in the mid-1930s, after having found presumably less-well-paid and satisfying work as a store assistant. 

marching band
Arthur, in the front, shown around 1930, before he first left the Army
British Army band
Another picture from roughly the same period – again, he must be one in front

Though a letter written to him by an R.A. Micklewright, the Secretary-Superintendent at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Ealing shows that Arthur had certainly been keeping busy:

“Dear Sir,

“On behalf of the Committee of Management of the Hospital I write to express to you very sincere thanks for your kindness in acting as Adjudicator for the Bands contest at the Red Cross Fete on the 27th, ult.

“The Contest was a great success and the Committee fully realise how much they are indebted to you for your splendid co-operation in this Contest.

“Your practical help is, I can assure you, greatly appreciated.”

Also shown in the log and pay books are his physical attributes – he had brown eyes and hair and a “fresh” complexion and he was 140 lbs and 5’7” on discharge, though that was only towards the end of his life when he’d starting aging and was struggling with his pulmonary tuberculous (which may, of course, have been lung cancer.) 

During the rest of his adult life, he’d actually not been 5’6”, as I’d been told, but 5’8”, the same height as me.

So it’s nice to know that a century’s worth of improvements in nutrition and post-natal care have had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the Allwood height genes.

This might seem like an insignificant observation, but, as noted, getting into the elite Grenadier Guards as a mere five-eighter does raise an eyebrow, given the standard height requirement of 6’0”.

When I contacted Alan Ogden, the Regimental Archivist for the Grenadier Guards, he cleared that mystery up immediately – the height requirement didn’t apply to drummers, or musicians in general.

The log book and pay books also showed his religious denomination had been C of E and that he’d been very well educated, especially by the standards of the time, having been a grammar school scholarship boy (at Wilson’s School in Sutton, southwest London, according to my aunt).

Upon leaving the Guards his military conduct was declared “Exemplary” and the testimonial below that made specific reference to his education:

“A smart and intelligent man, sober, honest and hard working a good musician. 1st Class Certified Education 26. 3. 13.”

At first, I had thought this meant his grammar school education, but since that finished before enlistment at the age of 15 in 1909, that didn’t make sense. 

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The inside of my great grandfather’s Grenadier Guards service book listing his war medals and educational certificates (at the top)

Though a few more pages into the book there were three stamps, for a third, second and then first-class education, in May and July 1909 and then in March, 1913.

According to A R Skelley’s ‘The Victorian Army At Home’, these were internal methods of study introduced into the Army in 1861.

Third and second-class educations had basic arithmetic, reading and writing benchmarks that, once met, qualified the person examined to become first a corporal (which Arthur was during World War 1), and then a sergeant, which needed to attain in order to become Drum Major, which he was by the time of his discharge 1930.

But the first-class certificate, requiring not only higher level maths and English skills, but also literary and subject matter knowledge (in history and geography), would have enabled him to become an officer.

Given the dire shortage of people educated enough to even read orders when the ranks swelled suddenly under Kitchener, it’s surprising that Arthur wasn’t offered a commission along with public schoolboy university leavers and graduates, people like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.

Though Arthur’s brief stint on the Western Front in 1914 and subsequent posting at home possibly explains why this didn’t happen.

Perhaps if he’d gone back to the Western Front he would have been made an officer.

His medal card mentions the award of the 1914 ‘Clasp and Roses’, otherwise known as the ‘Mons Star’, since it was awarded to members of the BEF who fought in France at the opening of the war (Mons being the very first battle for the British.)

(The medal roll at the National Archives, which I found using his name and service number – 14325 – also showed the Mons Star as well as the British War Medal and Victory Medal had been awarded to him.

I couldn’t help noticing that a few lines up was a note about one soldier having his medals struck off, because of desertion.

For his part, Arthur’s papers show that he would go on to get the Long Service and Good Conduct medals as well).

His pay book also has, under a section entitled ‘Distinctive Marks and Minor Defects’, the following:

“Gun shot wound, left shoulder.”

That would be the pesky German sniper’s handiwork then.

Apart from that, his medical records show he was in good health for much of his service, even after he re-enlisted as an older man, being up to date in his inoculations for tetanus and typhoid, and he still qualified as an A1 (the highest standard for health and fitness) in August, 1940, at the age of 45.

But then things clearly started going downhill. The following year he’d become a C – only suitable for home service in garrisons. This then goes back to B1 in 1942, but by 1944 he’d been classed ‘Cat E’.

I learnt from the Imperial War Museum that ‘Category E’, at that time, meant:

“All non-Regular soldiers (Arthur was in the TA by that point), of whatever medial category, for whom no suitable employment in any capacity could be found in the Army… on the ground that their services were no longer required… (and) that of the several hundreds of thousands of men who have been discharged from the Army since the beginning of the (Second World) war, far and away the great majority are men who were in Category E.”

That is, at least, how it was described during a discussion in the House of Commons in 1945.

The result was a medical discharge, his certificate, issued in August 1944, stating that Colour-Sergeant Allwood was being forced out of the army because he was “Ceasing to fulfil army physical requirements”.

His conduct was again classed as ‘Exemplary’, and he was given the ‘Efficiency Medal’ for long service. His last place of residence was listed as being 169 Elm Road, Kingston.

london map
169 Elm Road (picture: Google)
london streets 1930s
London streets, probably in the 1920s or, more likely, 1930s – Arthur isn’t visible

It seems that many were sad to see him go because there are two pictures, obviously from the same period, one showing him wearing his Royal Fusiliers cap embedded amongst his then comrades, and another similar picture of young military women, his name written on the bottom of the frame and the women’s signatures surrounding the picture. Possibly a goodbye gift.

My grandfather had once told me that Arthur had aided in training young air cadets (i.e. by showing them drill) during the Second World War – perhaps he’d helped with training these young women.

In fact, this seems to have been a trend over the latter portion of his life, with Arthur having done all sorts to make himself most useful to the community. One letter written to him in 1940 opens with:

“Dear Drum Major,

“Glad to know you are back with the Army and I hope you are comfortable… We have decided to hold our annual Contest for the Girls Brigades (a Christian youth organisation) but it will not be possible to do this until the end of the season between Sept. and November.

"Could you let me have the name of a Test Piece so that the girls may be practising.

"It is difficult to fix up a date for the Contest but even if it has to be held in one of our large Dance Halls at the later date in the year we are still most anxious to carry it through…

"If you could drop me a line give the piece you consider they should study this year I would be much obliged to you.”

Second world war photos
The young women who signed their names for Arthur and appear to have a lot of affection for him

The air cadet theme may have sparked an interest in aviation in my grandfather, because he would later end up becoming a pilot, going to Canada (via New York) to train:

“Dear Dad,

“At the moment, I should think you and Mum are just about to go to ‘Park’ (presumably Richmond Park) – to see Guen (a family friend), of course.

"Personally, I’m thinking about tea. We’ve finished early this afternoon, so I’ve condescended to write to you. (After writing to Eileen, of course).”

Eileen was my grandmother, and his then girlfriend.

My grandfather had a habit of playing with words, saying things like, “As a child at the beginning of the war, when I was evaporated (as in, evacuated) to the country…”, so it’s possible ‘condescended’ is a replaced for ‘considered’, or it could also be a fun dig at his dad, since he was now ‘coming down a level’ after having first written to my grandmother. 

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Arthur, apparently practicing drill – there was writing amongst his effects that my grandfather appears to have copied from a sheet of drill instructions, probably to help him learn

He continued:

“Well, I wasn’t sea sick although a good few were, but I’m glad to be able to tell where the floor will be at any time. (He had good sea legs, apparently).

"Still, with so many missing from meals, there were extra rations for those left, which please this Ollie, of course.”

My grandfather’s name was Peter, but he was often called ‘Ollie’ by my grandmother.

He in turn called my father, John, Henry; my father also called me Henry; and Arthur apparently also sometimes referred to his wife Louise as ‘Tease’, and himself as ‘Bob’ – the real Bob of course being my other great grandfather.

Word games seem to have been a thing with the Allwoods.

“We’ve had white bread ever since we embarked, bags of sweets and chocolate.

"And I’ve had a banana! The first night here we had hamburgers, and ice cream and cake.

"That’ll make Pauline (his younger sister) jealous!... I haven’t yet got used to the traffic being on the ‘wrong’ side, and still look the wrong way every time I cross.

"And I can’t get used to no blackouts on the windows, and lights in the streets.”

The Blitz had, of course, forced Britain into austere measures to reduce the risks of night-time bombings, leading to ‘the blackout’ of city streets after sunset. This was in stark contrast to America:

“New York by night is a wonderful sight, although the tops of the skyscrapers are blacked out, and there’s a terrific glow in the sky from the lights on Broadway. I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building, the Skyscrapers of Manhattan, etc., and I’ve experienced the FREE hospitality of the American Red Cross. Cheerio. Love, Peter.”

Genealogy research
Arthur with Peter, my grandfather, and ‘Auntie Pauline’, my grandfather’s sister
RAF training Canada
And Peter again (centre) with other RAF trainees in Canada

Free healthcare didn’t come to Britain until the creation of the NHS after the war.

And perhaps it was concerns about medical costs that sent poor Arthur looking for a war pension upon his discharge in 1944. 

Fortunately, a letter from the authorities appeared around the same time as what must have been a visit to an employment office.

A form from the ‘Ministry of Labour and National Service Unemployment Insurance Acts’, dated July 22, 1944, made reference to him being submitted for employment.

But his pension letter, when it came through, said that he’d been awarded a war pension because his pulmonary tuberculosis was considered to have been aggravated (though not caused) by his service.

This may have kept him out of a workplace he’d probably have struggled in by that point.

I say this because his health seems to have gone rapidly downhill at that point.

A letter dated August 18, 1944 and written from Hill Hospital in St. Alban’s testifies to the fact that he was soon in need of serious help as it issues instructions to Louise (‘Tease’) on how to come and see him – a long stay in hospital having obviously been required:

“My Dearest Tease,

“I arrived safely as you can see and am back in bed. They certainly work fast here. Before 7:30 they had taken my temperature, given me an injection and tested my pulse every 5 minutes for half an hour.

"This morning already as young doctor has taken a history of the case – he tells me I shall be wanted in a minute for another x ray – then his boss will see me…

"Since writing the above I have had the xray taken and another student chap has been going over me for an hour.

"The specialist will see me today and this afternoon I am having the electric light pushed down my throat which I believe is an unpleasant experience.”

As someone who has had a throat scope myself, I can attest to the fact that it is an unpleasant experience. I very much doubt Arthur enjoyed it any more than I did, especially since the procedure was probably even more uncomfortable then.

Genealogy research
Two postcards sent by Arthur to Louise, possibly from when he was first courting her

“They would be pleased if I could use my own pyjamas as laundry appears difficult to cope with.

"They are also short of ashtrays so if you could manage one I would be pleased.

"They cook eggs for us as they did at Kingston. [Break again – the ward doctor has just had a go at me and then two more students] I shall get this letter finished some time.

“Well darling your journey is easy. Sunday at 2pm. I can’t tell you what train from St. Pancras. When you get here – go out the station, up the stairs, cross the road, take single decker buss marked Hill End which drops you at the hospital gates.

“The specialist has arrived so I put this down once more I expect.

“He is discussing my case with the doctor and students at the moment and examining the Xrays. It is now 12 noon. I shall get this letter done sometime!!! I suppose dinner will be next.

“I’m right and I have ate it. The specialist is still nagging at the class and as I expect to be for it in a moment, I will close up while I have the chance.

“Look after yourself, darling and am looking forward to Sunday. Tons of love to Mrs. D, Pauline (his daughter) and yourself. Your ever-loving Bob.”

The ‘Bob’ thing apparently had nothing to do with my other great-grandfather, who they would have known by that point since my grandfather and grandmother were in a relationship then, though not yet married.

There are two postcards from the pre-World War 1 period, one that has a picture of Arthur standing to attention, the back labelled “Warley Barracks, 1st March 1914”, and another that features the glorious history of ‘The First or Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards’ (namely, a list of their extensive battle honours) that was posted to Louise (or rather, still at that point in the courting process, ‘Miss L. A. Ambler’) and says on the back: 

“With all good wishes… love ‘Bob’.”

He seems to have been trying to impress her with the prestigious nature of the Grenadier Guards.

At any rate, Arthur, ‘the other Bob’, didn’t last much longer, dying early the following year. His funeral card reads:

“In loving memory of My Dear Husband Ernest Arthur Allwood Who Passed Away, 10th March 1945 Aged 50 Years – Interred at Kingston Cemetery Private Grave No. A 394 Gen.”

I made a mental note to pay him a visit, as and when I am in the Kingston area.

Genealogy research
Arthur towards the very end of his time in the Army

For the time being though, although I’d got to the end of Arthur’s life, I hadn’t reached the end of his story.

During the course of my research, I purchased a copy of the war dairies of 1 Grenadier Guards, edited by M Gillott.

In the introduction, it discusses what happened to the original 1,000 men who went to France in 1914.

An incredible 90% of them became casualties over the course of the war, and roughly 33 percent of the entire battalion was killed.

Had Arthur gone back to the Western Front, he obviously could have been one of them (in which case, I wouldn’t be here). 

But before purchasing M Gillott’s edit of 1 Battalion Grenadier Guards war dairies, I’d already looked through a scan of the original version of the unit’s war diaries at the National Archives.

What I found threw me off: 1 Battalion hadn’t arrived in France until October 1914 – that was after the Battle of Mons.

Of course, I’d researched Mons when I prepared an article about it, and I remembered now that it was 2 Grenadier Guards who were there.

I checked again into the ‘Mons Star’ that he’d won – turns out these medals were awarded both to veterans of Mons and those who fought in the following action.

It seems that the rumour of him being wounded at Mons simply came from the fact that he had the Mons Star.

This was certainly a good story – Mons was an exciting battle, seeing the tiny British Army almost walking into 750,000 Germans coming the other way.

An enormous retreat followed, and I seem to recall my grandfather telling me his father had been mixed up in.

But perhaps my grandfather had been mistaken.

1 Grenadier Guards didn’t arrive in France until October 1914, too late for Mons, but right on schedule for the First Battle of Ypres, which started on October 19, 1914.

If Arthur was involved in this action, it certainly explains the nature of the letter he wrote to his soon-to-be in-laws - his exhaustion and relief at still being alive is palpable:

“No 14325 Drummer Allwood, Grenadier Guards, Finsbury Red X (Red Cross) Hospital, Strood, Kent, Wednesday 11th November 1914:

“Dear Mr and Mrs Ambler,

“Thank you so much for your very kind letter received on Monday and am pleased to say I am going on splendidly with my wounds but I am sorely troubled with biliousness.

"So now, besides being dressed night and morning, I am taking medicine as well and constitute a double patient.

“Of course I am hoping for the time when I can move about freely but at the same time I do not wish in some ways to get well too quickly or I shall be out in the ‘inferno’ too soon and I am not dying for another taste.

"The general opinion is that after one is wounded the nerves are shaken up a bit and I believe it too for I have heard something like the big guns going off and have been quite (indecipherable word) ‘nervy’ about and wondered if the enemy had reached Chatham.

“You do not know how I longed for a ‘teafight’ (one assumes this means quick scrap) while I was out there and was awfully wild to think that there was a chance of not seeing so many kind friends again just because of the whims of one ‘cultured’ madman (the German Kaiser, generally blamed for starting the war) but when the fighting came we forgot everything else except to keep the Germans back.

"I wish I could say that after I am better I was going to be stationed in London and settle down once more – I would not mind going on guard for a while.

“Anyway, if they could give me the assurance that I had not to go out again they can keep my medals and the six month’s pay that they owe me - in fact anything.

“With reference to the treatment I received – you must understand that the two miles to the Bn (battalion) hospital from the trenches was all under fire and the stretcher work could only be carried out when fighting stopped after (smudged pencil) I was lying from (smudged pencil, looks like ‘10’ something, presumably a time) the day that this great battle for Calais started so everybody was hard hit and the stretcher bearer came to lie on the extreme left back of another company volunteered to take me over on a door and they were treating cases from 4am the previous day so I had to wait another 6 hours as there were plenty worse than myself.”

My grandfather once told me that his father, after having been shot, had been carried to the nearest medical site on an old barn door – so this at least appears to have been true.

“I suppose I am freely discussed in Tooting but it is fine. Know that you are not forgotten at home.

“Well, I shall have to tell you all the news when I see you which will not be very long. With love + best wishes to you all. I Remain, Yours Sincerely, Arthur.”

Since Mons turned into an ordered retreat on the part of the British, it is hard to see how Arthur could have lain around for so long without having been overrun and captured.

And Calais was an objective of the Germans during the First Battle of Ypres

This revised version of Arthur’s war record had more resonance with me and my father, as we visited Ypres together while on a battlefield tour in 2007.

Though there’s no doubt Arthur’s time there was considerably less enjoyable than ours.

The book ‘A Storm in Flanders’ helps illustrate some of what he and his comrades may have experienced there:

“(On) October 19… it was… the Germans who seized the initiative… and the British, outnumbered two to one, three to one, six to one, ten to one in places, could do little but try to hang on to what they had… (General, later Field Marshal Sir Douglas) Haig… mustered everybody on his own staff that he could find to throw into the gap (that had opened up): clerks, servants, staff officers, runners, orderlies, communications men, horse tenders, drivers, and, according to one report, even a cook, armed only with his ladle.

As a bandsman, Arthur is meant to have been a runner, though, even if he wasn’t in Haig’s I Corps (1 Grenadier Guards was part of 20 Brigade, 7 Division, which was in General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s IV Corps), it seems possible that he too might have been thrown into some of the fighting.

Or that he’d seen the results of it whilst trying to deliver messages:

“The fight that followed was a vicious hand-to-hand affair, with bayonets, gun butts, knives, rifles, pistols, clubs, fists, as thousands of men commenced murdering one another in the tall sun-dappled forest of pines and firs.

At some points the bodies lay so thick on the ground that it was difficult for runners to pick past them to get word of the situation back to headquarters.”

One Captain Hay, who witnessed the beginning of the battle, described the utter chaos as both sides essentially ran into each other:

“Confusion reigned supreme… Friend and foe were inextricably mingled and the direction of the goal was uncertain… There was no front, no rear, so direction counted for nothing.

The country swarmed with troops which had bene left ‘in the air,’ owning to their own too rapid advance. Snipers shot both sides impartially. It was all most upsetting.”

‘Most upsetting’ seems to have been a bit of that famous British understatement, as this description of the beginning of the battle, seen from another point of view, makes plain:

“It quickly turned toward a disaster. British cavalry and infantry… began to see huge columns of smoke and flame where there were towns and villages… then came the swarms of pitiful refugees, weeping women, children, old men carrying what they could, many with horse carts or dog carts, all headed toward Ypres. And behind them were the dark gray-clad masses of the German Army, tens of thousands of them…

“(On) October 20, the German storm was unleashed along the entire northern sector of the Western Front.

“Ironically, Sir John French (Commander of the British Expeditionary Force) had opened his big offensive to drive the Germans from Belgium at precisely the same time as von Falkenhayn (Chief of the German General Staff) launched the German Army in his own offensive to capture Dunkirk and Calais and other French ports on the English Channel.

"This would have made cross-Channel supply and reinforcement of the British forces in northern France and Belgium difficult, if not impossible, and further tightened the noose to strangle France. The clash, with Ypres as the centrepiece, was horrific…

“Under the circumstances—outmanned, outgunned, and outwitted by the captured plans (from an officer having earlier fallen into enemy hands)—it would seem that the British army was doomed to defeat. But there was one thing the Germans had not counted on: the men under Haig were not just ordinary troops; they were British professional soldiers who had been steeled to endure the most severe hardships and tragedy and still persevere. And this they would do in the following days with the utmost audacity, until there were, in fact, very few of them left.”

Of course, much of what was happening to Haig’s men was also happening to Rawlinson’s:

“On a front of nearly twenty miles tens of thousands of men came to grips and did their best to murder each other in the cold, dank, misty hills around Ypres. In many places the fighting was hand-to-hand…

“…Even though (the Germans) outnumbered the British at times six to one… they faced the most professional and elite regiments in the British Army, if not the world: the Black Watch, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Camerons, Grenadier Guards, Irish Guards, Staffords, Gordan Highlanders, Green Howards, Royal Scots Fusiliers, Welsh Fusiliers, and others… When it was all over, the British Official History estimated that… 100,000 (young German soldiers) had been shot down.”

First Ypres
First Ypres – this illustration shows 2 Ox and Bucks LI at Nonneboschen (image from ‘First Ypres’ by David Lomas © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Although the author of several historical works, the writer of A Storm in Flanders is most widely known as the creator of Forest Gump. This is appropriate because, after he was wounded at Ypres, my great grandfather’s own life seems to have become somewhat Forest-Gump-like, with him popping up in several unexpected, historically significant places.

One of these was Buckingham Palace, as this letter to the Lord Chamberlain makes clear. Dated August 25, 1942, it reads:

“My Lord,

“On 17 March 1921 I was promoted Drum Major in the 2nd. Bn. H. M. Grenadier Guards in consequence of which His late Majesty King George V granted me His Royal Warrant of Appointment as Household Drummer to His Majesty. I have suffered the total loss of my household goods and private chattels (property that doesn’t include land or buildings) by enemy action including my Royal Warrant. I respectfully request that the circumstances be considered, in the hope that His Majesty may be graciously pleased to grant me another Royal Warrant.

“E.A. Allwood C.Q.M.S. 2604241, Royal Fusiliers.”

Genealogy research
Arthur amongst several Royal Fusilier and other comrades – he is in the centre of the fourth row up; his cap badge seems hard to identify here

By that point, colour sergeants, my great grandfather’s rank at that point, were appointed as company quartermaster sergeants (which is what the ‘C.Q.M.S.’ means). That much seemed clear enough, but what was unclear was that, at the bottom, across from the signature on the left, was, apparently, the recipient (a strange place to put it, that is). It reads:

Across the bottom of the letter is a hand-written note, the first word of which is faded and unreadable, and the rest reading “…Records, Ashford confirms promotion but not appointment of Household Drummer.”

Being the man who liaises with various people on behalf of the King or Queen, as well as being involved in the awarding of honours, the Lord Chamberlain appears to have passed the letter along to someone else to look into.

I asked the Grenadiers’ regimental archivist, Captain Ogden, about this matter as well. He told me:

“As Drum Major, (your great grandfather) would have had the rank of Warrant Officer Class 2 and hence held a Royal Warrant.

“It would be inaccurate to say he was a ‘drummer’ for the Royal Household/family. He would have carried out ceremonial duties in the course of his service along with his fellow Grenadiers and other Guards regiments.”

Either way, he’d clearly served in very close proximity to, and very possibly met, King George V in the course of his duties, which is very interesting.

But what exactly had he lost in what must have been a bombing raid during the Blitz?

Captain Ogden’s follow up showed what that was likely to have been:

“Following my last, I need to point out that the Drum Major also received a Royal Warrant from the Lord Chamberlain’s office that entitles him to State clothing i.e. the ceremonial uniform worn by Drum Majors on State occasions. This is in addition to the Royal Warrant received by Warrant Officers.”

So it was very likely the ceremonial uniform he was wearing in the picture just below that he was trying to get replaced.

marching band
My great grandfather as Drum Major, by that point apparently in 2, as opposed to 1, Grenadier Guards

The captain also informed me that the position of Drum Major could have been filled, as far as he could ascertain, by either a Sergeant, Colour Sergeant or WO2 (Warrant Officer 2). At the time he became Drum Major, Arthur was either a sergeant or colour sergeant, so clearly fit the bill.

The connection to Buckingham Palace didn’t end there either.

In 1964, almost 20 years after Arthur had passed away, my grandfather Peter Allwood (who wrote the letter to his dad quoted above) happened to be watching the very first broadcasting of the landmark BBC series ‘The Great War’. It had been made to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of the start of the war.

Years after seeing it, Peter (a.k.a. ‘Ollie’) told me that while watching the series he’d seen his father ‘walk right past the camera’. Unfortunately, getting back issue episodes of old BBC series was difficult at that time – it was the pre-YouTube era after all.

army band
Arthur shown doing, and, below, winning, band contests
Band contest winners
The exact timing of his transition into the TA is something I wasn’t able to determine – this shows him in the Middlesex Regiment in 1937, but his second service book shows he re-enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers in 1934 and was discharged in 1944

But in 2002 or 2003, my mother obtained a copy of the series on DVD for me through the Daily Mail and I watched it intently, remembering what my grandfather had told me.

It certainly was an ambitious program, spanning 26 episodes, but I knew what to look for: a man who looked like the man I’d seen in old photographs here and there growing up walking ‘right past the camera’.

It actually wasn’t that hard – there, right at the end of Episode 16, was a figure – a British soldier – marching alongside American troops, Parliament visible in the background. He passed by the camera closely, and he looked a lot like Arthur.

Dad printed out a still from the footage and we showed it to my grandfather, but, unfortunately, he had dementia by that point and wasn’t able to confirm if it was, in fact, his father.

However, in the course of my research, I have become convinced that it almost certainly was Arthur. 

What I found out, whilst trying to track down the source of the footage, is that it shows the first contingent of American troops sent over to Britain – a show of commitment to the cause, as it were, before they arrived in Europe en masse the following year.

They were led by General John Pershing, commander of what was then called the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) and his diary, a small portion of which is quoted in the BBC series, shows that he arrived with his men in Liverpool on June 8, 1917.

By June 9, the Americans had arrived in London by train and marched around various parts of the city, including in front of the King and political leaders at Buckingham Palace

When I contacted the BBC, they told me that tracing the footage was impossible for them because they didn’t have specific records of where each clip had come from. What they did say was that they’d got most of it from the Imperial War Museum, who in turn suggested I check their archive. 

I did, extensively, and although I found other footage from Episode 16 of The Great War - such as that of the Americans arriving and disembarking in Liverpool – and plenty more of American troops marching around London, the section with Arthur wasn’t there.

In the end, after multiple and varied search terms, I finally came across the segment on YouTube, where it was titled ‘Americans Marching Westminster Bridge (1917)’ and attributed not the Imperial War Museum, but to British Pathe. 

Analysing the Arthur in the footage and comparing him to photographs and information I had led to an almost perfect match.

The man in the footage looks to be about 5’8”, as in not short but also not particularly tall. He has the same sloping shoulders at Arthur, and is slim build – easily a good fit for the 140-lb Arthur.

His face is very similar, featuring the same distinctive dimpled chin.

And most importantly, the main in the footage is a corporal, which Arthur was at the time, and he is wearing a Grenadier Guards cap badge.

As a guardsman stationed in and around Buckingham Palace at the time, it would seem odd, in fact, for Arthur to have not been dispatched to any military formation sent to welcome the Americans in London.

westminster bridge
The figure from the footage who is very likely Arthur (image: British Pathe)
first world war genealogy research
Arthur as a corporal (right) and, later, as a sergeant (left)

Finally, Arthur’s cameo role in the BBC’s landmark series was given further weight, and in turn gave weight to, the solving of another mystery: whether he had played a significant role in the funeral of a Zeppelin crew shot down over Britain during the war.

The story I’d heard was that he’d actually been present not just at any Zeppelin crew funeral, but at the funeral of the very first Zeppelin crew shot down in this country – another landmark event.

Furthermore, he’d allegedly been pelted with rotten fruit and veg for playing the Last Post – evidently somebody hadn’t told the crowd he was just doing his job!

From the Pathe footage I knew that, unlike the rest of his poor battalion, he very likely had been reassigned to London after his brief tour on the Western Front.

But even so, with his ‘Mons story’ turning out instead to actually be an ‘Ypres story’, it seemed perfectly possible that important details of the Zeppelin crew story might also be wrong.

Fortunately, for my own research, as well as the German crews, not that many Zeppelins were shot down over Britain during the war, which limited the number of possible candidates.

I started with the most obvious, the first, or that reputed to be first, Zeppelin downed over British soil. This was named SL-11 and the service for the dead crew was carried out by members of the Royal Flying Corps at St. Mary’s Church in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, in September 1916.

I noticed two things about this: 1). That Potters Bar really isn’t very far from London, so it seemed perfectly possible that a Grenadier Guardsman stationed in London might have ended up there at relatively short notice; and 2). That it was the site of not one, but two funerals of downed Zeppelin crews. The second funeral included Kapitanleutnant (‘Captain Lieutenant’) Heinrich Mathy, whose death apparently struck a massive blow to the morale of remaining Zeppelin crews, Mathy having been renowned for his courage and leadership amongst his comrades in the Naval airship service.

The first thing I wondered was whether or not a list of personnel at the service might exist somewhere. Official records from the Army didn’t even indicate that my great grandfather was in London so this level of detail was not going to come from them, the Grenadiers or the National Archives.

Instead, I contacted St. Mary’s and heard back from a man named Richard Osborn, who handles these kinds of enquires for them. He was kind enough to consult a local historian, but no official records of those who took part in the funeral, or funerals, appeared to exist.

But one avenue that did have potential for more details was contemporary newspaper accounts. Richard suggested I try the Potters Bar Museum, who told me that the local newspaper was the Barnet Press, and also suggested a national newspaper widely read at the time, ‘The Daily Sketch’.

“Newspaper accounts were often incredibly detailed, sometimes listing the names of everyone involved,” Richard said over the phone.

This seemed like a terrific idea, though I couldn’t help noticing that, in a link Richard sent over that featured the front page of the Daily Sketch, that Arthur was conspicuously absent. The headline read:

“The Burial Of The Baby-Killers.”

There were two pictures, one of a coffin being carried on the shoulders of British servicemen, and another of two buglers playing the Last Post. Neither one of them looked remotely like Arthur.

But although the funeral was held at Potters Bar, it was that of the second crew that was buried there, in October, 1916. So was it possible that, since Arthur wasn’t at that funeral, that he really might have been at the first one?

I kept digging, and had to seriously consider the possibility that the very first funeral might not have been that of crew of SL-11 in September, 1916. This one was hugely significant because the airship came down right over the British mainland and people rushed out to look at the wreckage.

It was also significant because until that point, there seemed to be no respite from the scourge of the ‘Zep menance’ for those on the ground. One eyewitness, a munitionette, quoted in the documentary series ‘The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century’, described what at Zeppelin attack on London was really like:

“No end of Zep excitements lately. A few weeks ago we heard distant guns in the middle of the night. We looked up, and there was the Zep so low you could see the cars hanging underneath. My word we did scoot. There was tremendous din of firing, and things began to patter on the roof (of the munitions factory). I thought I was dead that time.”

Gabriel West was at Woolwich Arsenal when she witnessed the moment SL-11 was finally downed:

“We were just going back to our hut when we heard wild yells of cheering, saw the whole sky turn red. Then we saw the Zep, in flames to the north… all the workers in the Arsenal roared, and shrieked. All the boys sang Tipperary and all the neighbours scattered about congratulating one another.”

airships world war one
SL-11, downed by Lieutenant Robinson (image from ‘Zeppelins: German Airships 1900-40’ by Charles Stephenson © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

From my research, I soon figured out that the handful of airships it could have been came down to five candidates: L15, which came down over the sea around Britain and in which one crewmember was killed (the rest survived); SL-11; L31, the second funeral held at St. Mary’s in Potter’s Bar already mentioned; L32, the associated funeral of which was covered in the September 28, 1916 edition of the Daily Sketch; and L48, the funeral for the crew being held at St. Peter’s Church in Theberton in Suffolk in late June of 1917.

I ended up checking the Daily Sketch for details of the L32 funeral, and again, there was no sign of Arthur.

L15 was actually the first to be downed (by anti-aircraft fire), and I wondered if Arthur might have played the Last Post at the funeral of the one man who was killed, rather than at the funeral for the entire crew of the latter SL-11.

I searched through two Osprey titles on Zeppelins, ‘The First Blitz’ by Ian Castle and ‘Zeppelin vs British Home Defence 1915-18’ by Jon Guttman, and I’d already read Castle’s ‘London 1914-17’; I also ordered ‘Giants in the Sky: History of the Rigid Airship’ by Douglas Robinson at the British Library.

I found no information at all on what happened to the body of the one crewmember of L15 who died. If there ever was a funeral held for him in Britain, I had very little chance of finding out if Arthur was there.

Though something I did learn from Castle’s ‘The First Blitz’ shed light on an account of the first Zeppelin shot down over Britain proper (i.e. that crashed on land). It was written up in the Barnet Press, the headline reading:

“BURIAL OF CREW OF ZEPPELIN L 21.”

It turns out that SL-11 was dubbed L21 by the press. The reason for this is that the Germans sent two types of airships to bomb Britain, one type flown by the army (denoted by the prefix SL) and another type flown by the navy (these labelled with the prefix L).

Naval airships were Zeppelins proper, whereas army airships were smaller, and therefore slightly less menacing, at least in appearance. When SL-11, one of the smaller army airships, was shot down, word quickly spread that a ‘Zep’ had been got. For propaganda purposes, the government saw no reason to disavow people of this notion, and so SL-11 became L21 in the newspapers.

airship destruction
A propaganda picture showing the destruction of SL-11, or ‘L21’

(The flood of eyewitnesses to the crash site would have seen evidence to the contrary if they’d known what they were looking at. Zeppelin’s had larger, metallic frames that tended to be left behind even after the rest of the airship but burnt up; army airships are said to have had wooden frames that tended not to survive a crash).

I read down to the bottom of the article. The last few lines read:

“The Rev. G R P Preston (Vicar) and the Rev. M. Handcock (Army chaplain) conducted the burial service. Two buglers then sounded the “Last Post,”—Mr E Birt was entrusted with the burial, which was carried out with conspicuous smoothness.”

Richard Osborn was right – plenty of names, but not of the two buglers.

Fortunately, in one of my trips to the British Library, I’d also ordered microfilm of local newspapers based around Theberton, in case Arthur had actually been not at the first Zeppelin crew funeral, but at that of the later L48.

But before I got to that, I looked through microfilm stock of the Daily Sketch from 1916 and 17 that I’d also requested.

On page 2 of the September 7, 1916, edition of the Daily Sketch, I found the following article titled ‘Identity Of Wrecked Airship Made Known At Graveside”. It read:

“’An unknown German officer, killed while commanding Zeppelin L21, 3rd Sept., 1916’.

“So ran the inscription on the brass coffin-plate of one of the 16 Germans who were buried at Potter’s Bar yesterday afternoon. It settles the question which had been raised whether the wrecked airship  was not a Schutte-Lans.”

Except, as we know, it didn’t settle the question. The airship was, of course, a Schutte-Lans, or SL-21.

Further down, a section heading that read ‘Demonstration By A Woman’ also jumped out at me:

“That incident occurred on the road leading directly to the cemetery. The coffin which contained the remains of the dead officer had just passed, and the motor-lorry, in which were the other fifteen coffins containing the bodies of the crew, had been reached, which a woman in the crowd threw some eggs at it.”

One reason it stood out was that the mention of woman’s behaviour reminded me of the account of the downing of the latter L31 (the one captained by Heinrich Mathy). It ws covered in the Barnet Press on October 7 under the headline ‘YET ANOTHER ZEPPELIN BROUGHT DOWN’:

“Half the people of Finchley turned out of doors when the Zepp (spelt ‘Zep’ elsewhere) burst into flames, and the cheering was such as to wake the soundest sleepers. The thing seemed to fall so near that thousands flocked along the main roads in the hope of picking up a relic. It is now a common thing for once-frightened Finchleians to gather at nights at Tally Ho Corner and other places, waiting and hoping for another firework show.”

“A Finchley lady, who saw the Zeppelin fall, gave vent to her womanly feelings in quite a womanly way. Her first instinct was to clap her hands with glee, but, even whilst clapping, she uttered: ‘How terrible! Poor things!’”

(‘Poor things’ being the crew).

The other reason I noticed the egg-throwing incident during the account of the SL-11/L21 funeral was that I wondered if it might be the source of the ‘pelted with rotten fruit/vegetables’ tale, if indeed Arthur was there.

Richard Osborne had told me that people were reputedly held outside the church during the service, so as to keep order. Perhaps they’d thrown fruit and vegetables at the poor buglers afterwards, or perhaps one egg on the way in was the most they managed, and the fruit and vegetables was a later embellishment.

Either way, people lobbing rotten vegetables at my great-grandfather, and ladies expressing their “womanly feelings” in a “womanly way” were all very amusing, but there was still no sign of Arthur. Unlike the latter funeral, this time the Daily Sketch’s account of events didn’t feature pictures of the SL-11 (or ‘L21’) funeral on the front page.

Instead, it was all about the VC awarded to the first pilot – Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson - who’d shot down a Zep, as SL-11 was the first Zeppelin knocked out in this manner.

BE 2c
A BE2c pilot’s eye-view of a Zeppelin, this one is L34 (image from ‘Zeppelin vs British Home Defence’ by Jon Guttman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Page 2 of that’s day’s paper, September 6, 1916, then had a full page with the headline:

“The Man Who Brought Down The Zep, And All About Him.”

It looked like this might have buried coverage of the funeral, along with any proof my great grandfather was there.

But then coverage of the incident did continue into the next day, and at the bottom of the funeral report that I’d read were the following lines:

“Then, stepping to the larger grave, into which the 15 coffins were being lowered, the vicar repeated the Committal sentence, altering the words so as to read ‘these unknown German airmen’.

“After that the ‘Last Post’ was sounded by Grenadier Guards buglers.”

Interesting, but again, no names.

But then, on page eight, I came across a full two-page spread of pictures of the funeral. 

There were throngs of people on the road to the funeral, the crowd that had watched the coffins pass; people watching from trees, perhaps those held back from getting too close by military authorities that Richard Osborn had mentioned; airmen carrying the coffins, as per the reports…

…and there, in the bottom right corner, were two buglers.

And the one in front looked just like Arthur.

Thanks to staff at the Imperial War Museum, the National Archives, the British Library, Richard Osborn at St. Mary’s Church, Captain Ogden at the Grenadier Guards, Paul Silva at the Daily Mail and British Pathe for assistance and permissions to use material in this article.

To learn more about the First World War and how to research your ancestors’ role in it, read ‘The Great War Handbook’ by Geoff Hodger, ‘A Tommy in the Family’ by Keith Gregson, and visit the National Archives for guidance on how to search their records. The MoD also holds records which can be requested as well.

For more illustrated military history related to what was covered in this article, read ‘Zeppelin vs British Home Defence 1915-18’ by Jon Guttman, ‘The First Blitz’ and ‘London 1914-17’ by Ian Castle, ‘Zeppelins’ by Charles Stephenson and ‘First Ypres 1914: The Graveyard of the Old Contemptibles’ by David Lomas. Visit Osprey Publishing for more great titles on military history.

zeppelin funeral potters bar st mary's
The funeral pictures from the September 7, 1916 Daily Sketch (image: The Daily Mail)
zeppelin funeral potters bar st mary's
A closeup of the buglers (image: The Daily Mail)