Digital family history and the centenary of the armistice

It’s because of the advent of digitised records – birth, death, marriage and war service records – and family tree web sites, particularly Ancestry, that I know now what I didn’t know a short time ago. I’d heard about my father’s time in Egypt as a WW2 soldier and I’d heard about his own father’s time in France as a WW1 soldier.

But I’d never heard of the family members who were killed in action.

My grandmother had two cousins, the Burley brothers, James and Frederick, who were killed in Northern France.

Can you imagine losing two sons who voluntarily went to war?

Now imagine losing three sons.

My grandfather had three cousins, the Shaw brothers, George, D’arcey and Frank, who were also killed in Northern France.

D’arcey, Frank and George Shaw (W.R.N. Shaw should be D.R.N. Shaw)

But because their cousin, my grandfather Ernest Bruce, survived gassing and a concrete wall falling on top of him, he returned to Australia to produce my father, who in turn produced me.

I’ve discovered most of this information through online records and family history websites. Many many family historians are using these resources now. This means that the great numbers of people commemorating the centenary of the armistice today, 11th November 2018, have learnt, like me, that they are the descendants of the ones who returned.

I have three sons. I feel absolute anguish for the parents who lost two or three of their children in war.

And I now have a greater appreciation of the struggles of Australians trying to build our nation a hundred years ago when the total population was 5 million, and 62,000 of their young people had been killed, and 156,000 were wounded, and many like my grandfather were unable to work again.

This building in the photo below, the Australian War Memorial, is ten minutes from my home. I’ve visited it countless times, and in the past few weeks as the crocheted and knitted poppies were displayed, and as I’ve read and heard so many stories from descendants of soldiers like me, I realise how fortunate I am that I have a comfortable home, enough food to keep me healthy, and a family that is gainfully employed. And I realise that WW1 was not the war to end all wars, there have been many wars since then, and I must not take my fortune for granted.

This new knowledge is greatly due to the digitisation of historical records, a technology I’m very grateful for.

Special open evening at the Australian War Memorial last night (10th November) for the centenary of the armistice

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10

A hundred years ago in Pozières

In recent years, thousands of us have become avid family historians. The more information that is made electronically and freely available, the more we search, and the more we know. I know things that my parents never knew, and some of my ancestors would no doubt be horrified to know what I know about them. To know that I know, for example, that my grandfather stowed away on a ship so he could join the fight that was the First World War.

Ancestry, Family Search and Findmypast have been (not always reliable) sources for my research, not to mention the very generous provision of (more reliable) digitised newspapers going back to the early 1800s on the National Library’s Trove site, as well as the publishing of war service records by the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial.

Because we now know so much, many of us are commemorating various incidents in our relatives’ lives. This week on the news, I heard of a service in Pozières, France for the centenary of the battle for Pozières ridge on the Western Front which began on 23rd July 1916. It was a costly battle in which 6,700 Australian men died, but which has been ignored until now. It is estimated that 4,000 were never given a burial and are lying beneath the soil of present-day farmland. This week, I, too, am remembering this little village where my grandfather, Ernest Bruce, the stowaway, fought, and survived.

E.W. Bruce one of the soldiers photographed in The Queenslander Pictorial supplement to The Queenslander 1916.
E.W. Bruce, photographed for The Queenslander Pictorial, supplement to The Queenslander 1916.

On 29th July 1916 he was gassed, and later took cover behind a concrete wall with two fellow soldiers; a bomb went off near the wall, which fell on top of them. The other two died. My grandfather was pulled out unconscious, but alive. The gas ruined his eyesight, and his nerves were shot from the bomb blasts. I learned this from his medical records.

Of this day in Pozières, 29th July 1916, Charles Bean, the official Australian war correspondent, wrote in his diary:

Pozières today, no brushwood left – only black trunks – more buildings to be seen than before. Red brown earth. Men quietly dying. … Pozières has been a terrible sight all day … that insatiable factory of ghastly wounds. The men are simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them. (Diary of CEW Bean, 3DRL606/54/1, pp. 19 & 90)

The gardens of the village of Pozières in August 1916

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This year, since 14th July – Bastille Day – the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra has been flying two French flags out the front of the building. They will remain until 4th August as a sign of respect for the slaughter that occurred in defending the Western Front, in places like the Pozières ridge. By a grim coincidence, the flags might have been raised because of the Bastille Day attack in Nice this month, which is what happened after the attack in Paris last year, but it turns out they were to be raised on that day anyway. A note on the AWM website explains the flying of the French flags:

“The decision was made earlier this month to honour Bastille Day and in recognition of the bond forged between the two nations and the sacrifices made on the Western Front 100 years ago. Given the recent horrific events in Nice and the subsequent loss of life, the flying of the French flag has added significance and our utmost respect.”

My grandfather volunteered to help defend his king and country, and even stowed away, which seems to mean his application was initially rejected. He was nevertheless signed up on arrival in Egypt. After more than a year, he returned home in poor health, which continued to deteriorate for the rest of his life. He couldn’t work for long stretches, had little money and even less sympathy from the government when he applied for a pension as a young man. It took many years and many requests before his debility was acknowledged as war related. But he did marry my lovely grandmother and they had nine children.

A hundred years later, France is under attack again. She will survive, she always does, but it must be easier if she has friends to help her fight and recover.

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George (and Mephisto)

Since last year the Australian War Memorial has been projecting names of Australians who died in WWI onto the front of the building. I’ve been to the Memorial on cold dark nights to see the names of two brothers, D’Arcey and Frank. Recently, it was their brother George’s turn.

George Ronald Shaw, my grandfather’s cousin, was killed in France, near Sailly-sur-la-Lys, on 20th April 1916, a hundred years ago this week. He was 24, the first of the three brothers to be killed in action, all of them in France. (My grandfather was wounded on the Somme a few months later but returned home alive.)

George Ronald Shaw, name projection, Australian War Memorial, 1st March 2016
George Ronald Shaw, name projection, Australian War Memorial, 1st March 2016

George had disembarked in Marseille on 3rd April and made it all the way to the Somme in northern France, where he was killed 17 days later when his billet, a farmhouse, was shelled. His record says he was KIA, killed in action, but he actually didn’t get to fight against anyone.

An aside: the last couple of times I’ve been to the War Memorial to photograph my relatives’ names, I’ve read the banners advertising the presence of Mephisto, the Rarest Tank in the World (they were still there when I took the photo above, but in preparation for Anzac Day on Monday, they’ve been removed). Today I decided to see Mephisto for myself. It’s a Sturmpanzerwagen A7V invented by the Germans, and Mephisto is the only one of its kind left in the world. It has a painted red Faustian demon on the right side, carrying a British rhomboid-shaped tank under its arm. Hence the name Mephisto, short for the Faustian character, Mephistopheles. It was a great lumbering vehicle, hot, cramped and noisy inside, but it was one of the first of many tanks that would change land warfare for ever.

The War Memorial was quite crowded this morning, and Canberra generally seems to have more people moving around this weekend than usual. Perhaps they’re here for the Anzac Day long weekend. I’m considering going to the dawn service on Monday. I’ve never done it. Yet.

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D’arcey

Tonight at 7.52 when it was 6 degrees Celsius and blowing an icy gale, I took this photo of D’arcey Richard Nottingham Shaw’s name projected onto the Australian War Memorial.  It was hard to hold my camera still in the wind, but the photo is not too bad.  D’arcey was killed in action on The Somme in France in 1917, yet he has no grave;  his remains were never found.  On his Roll of Honour card, digitally available on the A.W.M. website, it is noted that D’arcey Shaw’s wounds were the result of being buried twice from bombs bursting near him in Pozières.  How ironic that they should write that, when in the end he was buried nowhere.

DRN Shaw AWM
D R N Shaw, projected onto Australian War Memorial, 26th July 2015

Because he died defending Australia, his name was written in light for 30 seconds tonight, perhaps for my benefit alone.  As far as I know, none of his other family members live in Canberra.  Since I’m just ten minutes away, it’s easy to whip down to the Memorial and see the names when they come up between sunset and sunrise.

D’arcey was my grandfather’s cousin.  I want to remember him and his two brothers who also died in France, in the war to end all wars, because my grandfather was there too, but he didn’t die.

Nineteen-year-old D’arcey was the second son in his family to be killed in France. The first one was George, and there would be a third, Frank Percy Shaw, whose name was projected onto the War Memorial on 21st June, a night that was cool but not freezing like tonight.  I wrote about him here.

As I was leaving around the back of the Memorial I saw four kangaroos standing guard in the dark.  They’re delightful at a distance and are happy to be photographed from a car window, but if I’d got out and approached them they would have either hopped away or hopped towards me and treated me as an enemy.

Kangaroos AWM
Kangaroos at the back of the Australian War Memorial

The next date that I will have a relative’s name up for viewing is in early spring.  I’m happy knowing it won’t be another chilling evening.

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Frank

Last night I went to the Australian War Memorial for an 8:58 pm appointment.  At this moment, Frank’s name would be projected onto the exterior wall of the Hall of Memory, an honourable way of remembering the soldiers who died for Australia in World War One.  Every 30 seconds a new name appears.  There are 62,000 names on the Roll of Honour which will all be displayed several times between 2014 and 2018, from sunset to sunrise.

F.A.P. Shaw, projected onto Australian War Memorial, 21st June 2015

Frank was my first cousin twice removed.  Or, if you like, my grandfather’s cousin.  He was the third son in his family to be killed in action in France; the first one died in 1916, the second in 1917, and Frank in 1918.  He was 23, had been promoted to Lance Corporal, was twice recommended for decorations and was congratulated for conspicuous gallantry and daring in reconnoitring enemy positions in February 1918.  Five weeks later he was killed by the enemy on 5th April, 1918 in France.

After receiving news of the death of a third son to die on the Somme, Frank’s father asked the Defence Department to send home his personal effects.  And so, in July 1918, the effects of Frank Albert Percy Shaw were sent with the SS Barunga.  In case no. 1153 were a two-Franc note (damaged), a wallet, a note case, photos, two prayer books, a letter and a YMCA wallet cover.  On 15th July, the Barunga was torpedoed by the enemy and was lost with all cargo.  But, at last some good news, she was carrying invalided troops back to Australia, and all on board were saved.

The Barunga, with the personal effects of a number of soldiers who had died, is still sitting on the ocean floor off the Isles of Scilly, south-west of Lands End, England.

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