Remembering the Barnbow Lasses

Art.IWM PST 0402

Art.IWM PST 0402

On 5 December 1916, an explosion at Barnbow Shell Factory in Leeds killed 35 female workers and injured many more. Today, the site of the factory is protected as a scheduled monument by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but at the time the accident was hushed up. In this guest blog post, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Ann Green shares her research to mark the centenary of this tragic event.

 

  • The Barnbow Munitions Factory

Following the declaration of war in August 1914, there was an urgent need to mass-produce bullets, shells and other types of ammunition. Existing factories around the UK increased their production but could not meet the demand, and so the government commissioned new purpose-built factories to be built from scratch.

One of these was the 200 acre National Filling Station No 1 at Barnbow near Leeds, which was operational by December 1915. It was a huge site, with its massive buildings, its own power lines and water supply. New train tracks and longer platforms were built at the local railway station to bring in workers from Leeds, Harrogate, York, Wakefield and smaller nearby villages. It also had its own farm, producing 300 gallons of milk a day.

 

  • Munitions work

Munitions work was dangerous but essential. To meet its production targets, Barnbow ran 3 shifts a day. It was hard manual work involving the use of heavy machinery. The chemicals used were unstable, and the huge volumes of raw materials on site meant that management enforced strict dress and conduct rules to reduce the risk of explosions.

Most of the workforce were women and girls, attracted by the high wages on offer. Conditions at the factory were hot; the shifts were long; and the raw materials were toxic, turning workers’ skin and hair yellow in a short time, and earning them the name ‘The Barnbow Canaries’.  The uniforms provided were inadequate to protect against the dust, which was particularly deadly if it settled in the lungs. Workers were provided with free milk and protective masks, which helped mitigate some of these risks but the dangers were ever-present.

 

Extract from Ackrill's Harrogate War Souvenir, published in 1918

Extract from Ackrill’s Harrogate War Souvenir, published in 1918

  • Olive Yeates

One of the employees that I have researched is Olive Yeates. Olive was born in Harrogate in 1899. The 1901 census shows Olive’s parents, George and Miriam, living in Skipton Road, Harrogate, while Olive was staying the night with her maternal grandparents, the Walkers, 4 miles away in Nidd Vale Terrace in Harrogate. On the night of the 1911 census, Olive was at home with her parents and baby brother, George (aged 1) in Unity Street, Harrogate.

We know that Olive Yeates applied for a job at Barnbow and that she was one of about 170 workers in Room 42 on the evening shift on Tuesday 5 December 1916. This room was where the fully loaded shells were brought to have a fuse added by hand and the shell cap tightened by machine.

 

  • The explosion

At 10.27pm, shortly after the evening shift began, a violent explosion occurred in Room 42. Thirty five women and girls were killed outright, one of whom was Olive Yeates. Many of those who survived were injured or maimed. Other workers rushed to help, despite the risk of further explosions and the cap-screwing machine was completely destroyed.

Despite the carnage, production was only stopped for a short time. The dead and wounded were removed and other workers volunteered to take on their work in Room 42.

 

  • Censorship

Due to censorship rules at the time, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s report on 7 December 1916 simply noted that 26 workers had been killed and about 30 injured in an explosion in a national shell factory in the North of England.  Damage to the building was reported to be slight. Death notices posted by the workers’ families in local newspapers including one for 17 year old Olive Yeates, gave their cause of death as ‘killed by accident’, without stating when, where or how they died.

Detail image of part of the "Women of the Empire" memorial panels in York Minster. Image courtesy of Michael Newbury.

Detail image of part of the “Women of the Empire” memorial panels in York Minster. Image courtesy of Michael Newbury.

Details of the explosion were not published until 1925, when the press named the women and reported that their relatives were invited to apply for tickets for the unveiling of the Five Sisters Window in York Minster in June as a memorial to all women of the Commonwealth who lost their lives in the Great War.

One hundred years after the tragic accident, I have created a Lives of the First World War Community to remember those women, including Olive, who lost their lives at Barnbow. They all served their country well and will never be forgotten.

 

  • Do you have a story to share on Lives of the First World War? Upload images, share anecdotes and connect records to help us to remember.
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Remembering a local nurse

 

Portrait photograph of Kate Elizabeth Ogg © IWM WWC H2-164

Portrait photograph of Kate Elizabeth Ogg © IWM WWC H2-164

On 21 April  1919, Newcastle’s John Ogg replied to a request from the Imperial War Museum for a photograph of his daughter Kate. It was the day before what would have been her 32nd birthday. She had died just eight weeks earlier.

In this guest blog post, Arthur Andrews and Chris Jackson from the Heaton History Group share the research that they have carried out to piece together Kate’s life story.

 

  •  Before the war

Kate Elizabeth Ogg was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 22 April 1887. By the time she was four, the Ogg family had moved to Bolingbroke Street in the suburb of Heaton. Bolingbroke Street is one of a number of streets in the area named after Shakespearean characters and it was a project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death that led Heaton History Group to look at the lives of some of the streets’ former residents – including Kate.

We discovered that, after leaving school, Kate was employed as a teaching assistant. By 1912, she was teaching needlework at Wingrove Council School.

 

© Art.IWM PST 3268

© Art.IWM PST 3268

  • Nursing

At the outbreak of war, Kate started training with St John Ambulance and, two years later, she made a momentous decision. On 16 April 1916, it was noted in the school log book: ‘Miss Kate E Ogg ceases duty today (pro tem) to take Military (Hospital) Duty on May 1st’.

Red Cross records show that she was engaged as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse, serving firstly in Fulham Military Hospital, London; then Liverpool Military Hospital before returning to Newcastle in March 1917 to serve at the 1st Northern General Military Hospital.

 

  • Pandemic

The war officially ended, of course, on 11 November 1918 but there were still casualties to care for and the need for nurses was greater than ever when troops travelling home from theatres of war brought with them a deadly strain of influenza,  in which 25 to 40 million people are estimated to have died worldwide. The virus spread quickly in cities like Newcastle and young adults such as returning soldiers and nurses like Kate, who looked after them, were worst affected.

On 23 February 1919, Kate died from pneumonia whilst on active service. She is buried in St John’s Cemetery, Newcastle in a simple grave, where her parents were eventually laid to rest with her.

 

  • Remembrance

We found Kate’s name on a number of war memorials. She is recorded on Wingrove School War Memorial as well as in The National Union of Teachers War Record: a short account of duty and work accomplished during the war. Her name appears on the St John Ambulance Brigade Number VI Northern District war memorial, currently stored at Trimdon Station Community Centre, County Durham as well as the St John Ambulance Roll of Honour.

Wingrove School War Memorial, courtesy of Chris Jackson

Wingrove School War Memorial, courtesy of Chris Jackson

Kate’s name can also be seen in York Minster where the Five Sisters window and oak panels commemorate 1,400 women across the British Empire known to have died as a result of service in the First World War.

 

  • Imperial War Museum

It is thanks to the work of the IWM’s Women’s Work Subcommittee, during and immediately after the war, that 100 years later we know what Kate looked like and can read her father’s letters. Over the past two years many thousands of women, including Kate, have been researched further as part of the Lives of the First World War project.

Kate Elizabeth Ogg will never be forgotten.

 

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National Poetry Day – the story behind a poem

 

 

Thursday 6 October is National Poetry Day, which encourages everyone to enjoy, discover and share poetry – this year’s theme is Messages: say it with a poem. Lives of the First World War member Michael Glover recently contacted us to share the moving story that inspired war poet Wilfred Owen to write his piece Miners. In this guest blog post, Michael describes the tragic accident in which two members of his own family lost their lives in 1918.

 

  •  Tracing family history

I have been researching my family history since 2009, starting with my maternal grandfather, Thomas Edward Wright, and then the wider family. I was interested in the lives of these people, many now mostly forgotten but from an area I was born into in Staffordshire. I had little idea of where this interest would lead. Since 2014, I have been a member of Lives of the First World War, and have researched my great grandfather George Burgess and his son, Jabez. George and Jabez were miners who died in an explosion at Podmore Hall Colliery in Halmerend, known as the Minnie Pit – they were aged 42 and 21.

 

George and Jabez Burgess (top row, centre and right). Image courtesy of Michael Glover

George and Jabez Burgess (top row, centre and right). Image courtesy of Michael Glover

  • Minnie Pit

Coal mines were an essential part of the war effort, fuelling factories, transport and homes. On 12 January 1918 there was an explosion underground at the Minnie Pit, in which 155 workers were killed. Teams tried to save those who were trapped, and one of the rescue party died in the process. The bodies of George and Jabez were only retrieved from the pit 18 months later – they were found in an embrace, perhaps waiting for rescue but succumbed to poisonous gas. The tragic deaths added to the losses of people fighting in the war, and had a devastating impact on such a small area.  This event is etched locally into the lives of Halmerend folk and the anniversary is commemorated every year to this very day, alongside Armistice Day in November.

Podmore Hall Colliery in Halmerend, known as the Minnie Pit. Image in the public domain

Podmore Hall Colliery in Halmerend, known as the Minnie Pit. Image in the public domain

 

  • Wilfred Owen’s poem

They will not dream of us poor lads

Lost in the ground

Wilfred Owen, who later became one of the most well-known war poets, wrote a poem called Miners: How the future will forget the dead in war after hearing about the explosion. This extract reflects his sorrow at the events that unfolded:

 

I thought of all that worked dark pits

Of war, and died

Digging the rock where Death reputes

Peace lies indeed

 

The final lines express his fear that in the future, the Minnie Pit miners would be forgotten:

 

They will not dream of us poor lads

Lost in the ground

 

But using Lives of the First World War, we can ensure that we will remember and share the story of the coal miners who made a contribution and sacrifice during the war.

 

  • Lives of the First World War Community

I created a Community page on Lives of the First World War to remember the 156 men and boys who died. I was contacted by Lives Volunteer Yvonne Fenter, who offered help and expertise by creating Life Story pages from the list that I had compiled. You can browse the stories in the Community here.

 

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Stories from The Somme: A Visual History

To mark the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in July 2016, IWM published The Somme: A Visual History, a new book which tells the story of the famous battle.  In this guest blog by author Anthony Richards, IWM Head of Documents and Sound, we find out more about some of the remarkable personal stories that are included.

 

  • Researching the book

As the author, it was a privilege for me to select the most interesting material to be featured in the book, and I was keen for the story to be told primarily through the words of those who were actually there and who experienced what was to be the key battle of the First World War. What distinguishes this book from the many others on a similar theme is that it is based upon IWM’s own collections, with a narrative which concentrates heavily on the original letters, diaries and memoirs written by participants in the battle; photographs taken during the campaign; stills from the famous Battle of the Somme film; and images of exhibits and artwork from the museum’s extensive archives. IWM’s great strength as a national museum is that we base much of our exhibitions and projects around the personal stories of ordinary people, which allow our audiences to engage with individual experiences of war and empathise with those who lived through such earth-shattering events.

 

  • Personal stories

This reliance on personal testimony means that we are able to create a strong link to the Lives of the First World War project, where you will now find a Community of  stories of those who feature prominently in The Somme: A Visual History.

Childhood photograph of William Cyril Jose - IWM Documents.019925

Childhood photograph of William Cyril Jose – IWM Documents.019925

Among these you will find William Cyril Jose who, as a 17-year old under-age volunteer, went into action with the 2nd Devonshires during the initial infantry assault on 1 July 1916.  He received a bullet wound to his shoulder and fell in no man’s land, where he lay in fear of death until the next day, eventually crawling back to the safety of the British lines.

 

You can also discover further information about George Ellenberger, an officer of the 9th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who led his men into action towards Fricourt on 1 July.  While shocked at how intact the German front line defences were, despite the heavy artillery bombardment which had been directed on them for the previous week, he describes in a letter home how his unit took a stream of prisoners in one of the few success stories of that fatal First Day of the battle.

 

All the Allies are advancing and behind the dark clouds there is just a little ray of sunshine which we trust will mean peace…

Perhaps one of the most poignant accounts featured in the book is that of Lieutenant Russell-Jones, commander of the 30th Division Trench Mortar Battery, who recorded the extensive casualties sustained during the battle and reflects on the ‘perfect hell’ that he and his men had experienced.  Yet despite this, his tone remained optimistic for the future: “Let us hope we are in sight of the finish.  All the Allies are advancing and behind the dark clouds there is just a little ray of sunshine which we trust will mean peace…”

 

The Battle of the Somme would last until 18 November 1916, yet the development of new technology and fighting techniques, when combined with the attritional warfare which saw the German Army fall back to the Hindenburg Line at the beginning of the following year, would ensure that the path for victory was set. It would, however, take until November 1918 for the larger battle to be won.

  • Discover more of the featured stories in this Lives of the First World War Community
  • The Somme: A Visual History can be purchased through the IWM Shop
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Volunteering for Lives of the First World War

Lives of the First World War volunteers, sharing their Jutland research with volunteers at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Lives of the First World War volunteers, sharing their Jutland research with volunteers at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

With over 100,000 members and more than 7.6 million Life Stories, Lives of the First World War continues to thrive during the centenary period. To support the IWM team, a group of 16 dedicated Volunteers offer both their time and expertise to help shape the project. In this guest blog post, Michael Newbury writes on behalf of the Lives Remote Volunteer Group to explain more.

 

  • Who we are

Before we get on to what we do let’s talk briefly about who we are. We’re from all over the world, from all walks of life and backgrounds. Most of us have never physically met, as we make contributions from our own homes. But that’s not at all important. What unites us all is a belief in the potential of Lives of the First World War to be the essential first port of call for anyone interested in the conflict, and those whose lives it touched.

The Lives Volunteers provide invaluable assistance in inspiring people of all ages to explore, reveal and share Life Stories. Their help is greatly appreciated.

Charlotte Czyzyk, Project Manager

Within the group we have folks who have years of experience behind them in the fields of family, military and social history. Our interests are reflected in the various Communities that we curate; from every British ship involved in the Battle of Jutland, to those involved in accidents in munitions factories. Alongside our belief in the site is a two-fold commitment: the first is to ensure that information in Lives is accurate and evidence-based;  the second is to help other members to get the very best out of it.

 

 

  • What we do

Alongside our own research, the Volunteer Group picks up and deals with queries that are posted on the Suggestions Forum of the Lives of the First World War site. The Volunteers have dealt with almost 600 requests on the Suggestions Forum so far this year. We have also collaborated with other Lives of the First World War members on particular projects, such as the loss of HMS Bulwark in 1914. Sometimes it’s simply a case of knowing where to look and you’re able to quickly point to the correct Life Story profile. In other cases it can be trickier, particularly if facts provided in good faith prove to be inaccurate.

We love to receive feedback when we have helped someone:

“I’d like to say my thank-you to the IWM volunteers who are working so hard … The Great War – and I use that term deliberately – was the first to involve and affect nearly everyone in the country – and the Empire of the time – and the ability to put a face to a name is incredibly moving”

Lives of the First World War Member

 

  • Can we help you?

On any day – including Christmas Day – a Volunteer is almost always busy doing something on Lives of the First World War.

If you have information about an individual who doesn’t currently have a Life Story page, please post details here with as much evidence as possible. Before submitting a request, please search for the Life Story page on Lives of the First World War.

If you believe that a person has more than one Life Story page that requires merging, please provide details, including the URLs, here.

IWM Staff and Volunteers aim to deal with your request as soon as possible.

 

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‘We’re here because we’re here’ – the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

'we're here because we'e here' conceived and created by Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, photo by Eoin Carey

‘We’re here because we’re here’ conceived and created by Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, photo by Eoin Carey

1 July 2016 saw many ceremonies and events to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. One of the most striking was the unexpected appearance of thousands of actors dressed as British soldiers, in places such as train stations. Every actor handed out cards to members of the public, featuring information about the soldier he represented.  In this blog post, Catherine Long explains how she used Lives of the First World War to conduct the background research into these men.

 

10 weeks ago I was asked to undertake some research for 14-18 NOW. My task was to identify the ages of as many individuals who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme as possible. Lives of the First World War provided the perfect resources and tools to realise this objective.

 

  • Researching the stories

I began by identifying the individual’s life story page, either by their service number or name and regiment, then cross referencing a variety of sources. The 1901 and 1911 Census records were the sources of most use. In order to make a positive connection, I drew the birth or enlistment place from the Soldiers Died in the Great War database. The research consisted of hunting around for a snippet of information, which could then lead to another source. I settled into a chain process of source stepping stones – identify life story, find birth place, trace census record and cross reference against birth record.

 

One of the featured men, John William Bulger. Image uploaded by Anne Hudson

One of the featured men, John William Bulger. Image uploaded by Anne Hudson

  • Remembering every individual

As I learnt about these men who died on 1 July 1916, I built up a picture of them in my mind. Were they from a large family? What was their pre-war occupation? Did they have children? My research provided me with a window into what each dead soldier left behind. ‘We’re here’ illuminated the lives of those who served Britain during the First World War, and acts as a tribute to the men they were, the men they became and the men they could have been. On Friday 1st the media and public shared their experience of ‘We Are Here’ across the UK. I am very proud that Lives of the First World War was able to support this commemorative activity, and honour those who died on the first day of the Somme.

Lest we forget.

 

Lives of the First World War is building a legacy of those men remembered by ‘We Are Here’.  Our community titled ‘We Are Here’ is bringing together the names of those represented by actors across the nation on 1st July 2016. Please take a moment to look at the community, and remember their toil and sacrifice.

‘We Are Here’ was a UK-wide event commissioned by 14-18 NOW, conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre. For full details please visit: https://becausewearehere.co.uk/

 

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The stories behind the stamps

IWM Collections WWC M15

IWM Collections WWC M15

The Royal Mail has released the third set in a five part landmark series, with six stamps designed to mark the events of 1916. In this blog post, we explore the Lives of the First World War stories behind some of these images.

 

Munitions worker Lottie Meade’s portrait, pictured above, is featured on one of the stamps. This portrait is from IWM Collections, of Lottie in her work uniform. She died of TNT poisoning, on 11 October 1916. She was mourned by her husband, Frederick, and their four young children.

 

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart

Vera Brittain’s emotive poem ‘To my brother’ lends a quote to one of the commemorative stamps: ‘your battle wounds are scars upon my heart.’ Vera’s brother Edward was hit by a bullet through his thigh on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Soon after, a shell burst close to him and a splinter from it went through his left arm. He survived the engagement, but died whilst serving in Italy on 15 June 1918.

 

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. Art.IWM ART 2268

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. Art.IWM ART 2268

One of Stanley Spencer’s artworks is depicted on a stamp. The piece features wounded soldiers and medical orderlies based in Macedonia, in September 1916. Stanley was a commissioned artist in both world wars, and Imperial War Museum holds this painting and many other examples of his work.

 

The final stamp is of Arthur Green’s Battle of Jutland commemorative medal. The inscription reads ‘31 May 1916 To the glorious memory of those who fell that day’. Arthur was the Director of the Royal Naval School of Music. He died in 1974.

 

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“To my Daughter Betty, The Gift of God” – Father’s Day Remembrance

Statue commemorating Thomas Kettle, St. Stephens Green, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Adrienne Downes.

Statue commemorating Thomas Kettle, St. Stephens Green, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Adrienne Downes.

This Father’s Day we pay tribute to the millions of men whose lives were changed forever by the First World War, and especially those who never returned home to their families. In this blog post by Lives of the First World War Public Engagement Officer Catherine Long, we remember the tragic story of Thomas Michael Kettle.

 

Thomas was born in Dublin in 1880. He was the eldest of six children of Andrew and Margaret Kettle. He married Mary Sheehy in 1910 – they were both graduates of the National University of Ireland, both writers and Thomas was also a Barrister and Professor of National Economics. Four years after marriage, their daughter Elizabeth was born.

Thomas joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In September of that year he wrote a poem to his daughter:

You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,

And the dear heart that was your baby throne,

To dice with death.

 

To my Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown

To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,

In that desired, delayed, incredible time,

You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,

And the dear heart that was your baby throne,

To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme

And reason: some will call the thing sublime,

And some decry it in a knowing tone.

So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,

And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,

But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,

And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

Thomas' name on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Charlotte Czyzyk

Thomas’ name on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Photograph uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Charlotte Czyzyk.

Thomas never did return home. He was killed in action at Guinchy in France on 9 September 1916. He does not have a known grave and is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

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Our Research: the Men in Kent who said No to War

 

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster. IWM Art.IWM PST 5161

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster. IWM Art.IWM PST 5161

To mark International Conscientious Objector Day on 15 May, we are highlighting the wonderful research carried out at the Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone. Archive documents held at the Centre include a collection of case files for 153 Conscientious Objectors who appealed to the West Kent Appeal Tribunal for exemption from military service, after the introduction of the first Military Service Act in 1916.

 

In this guest blog post, Rob Illingworth and Julia Booth from The Kent History and Library Centre tell us about some of the fascinating stories that they have uncovered so far.

 

We have discovered many remarkable accounts of resistance, perseverance and courage.

By examining the Tribunal case files, together with the resources available on Lives of the First World War (especially The Pearce Register of British WW1 Conscientious Objectors), we are piecing together stories of Kent men who said no to war.  These individuals came from a range of backgrounds and were guided by a variety of different motives, ranging from political views to religious beliefs.

Here are just three of those stories, and we hope that Lives of the First World War will further strengthen our understanding of their experiences.

 

 

George was a grocer’s assistant employed by the Tunbridge Wells Co-operative Society. As a Christian and an International Socialist, he felt he could take no part in the war.

Following the decision by the Local and Appeal Tribunals to reject his application for Absolute Exemption from military service, George maintained his resistance to all military service throughout the war years. As a result he was sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour, where he contracted tuberculosis. After convalescing at Fairby Grange, Hartley, Kent, George spent two years in France and Poland working for the Friends’ War Victims’ Relief Committee.

A conscientious objector in prison. IWM Q 103094

A conscientious objector in prison. IWM Q 103094

Ernest was a warehouseman from Gravesend, and submitted an appeal for exemption  based on Christian principles. He declared,

“I conscientiously believe War to be contrary to the life and teachings of My Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, & therefore cannot under any circumstances take part in any military duties.”

Ernest’s application for Absolute Exemption was turned down by the Tribunal and he joined the Non-Combatant Corps. He was posted for Garrison Service abroad in April 1916, and was sent out to Mesopotamia as a Driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. Eventually, in May 1920, he was discharged from the Army, suffering from malaria.

 

Harold’s story is particularly tragic. He was a stonemason, living with his wife and young daughter in the village of Chart Sutton, near Maidstone. Harold held deeply engrained views that war was wrong and was resolute that there was no way that he could take part in it, either as a serviceman or as a non-combatant.

His total refusal to comply with military orders resulted in the imposition of four consecutive prison sentences, to be served with hard labour. During the time spent in prison his health deteriorated severely and a military doctor directed that he should be sent to Fort Pitt Military Hospital, Rochester. He remained there, suffering from tuberculosis, until it was clear that he was dangerously ill. After finally being discharged from the Army in May 1918, Harold died at home on 7 September 1918, aged 32.

 

 

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My research: The Mystery Medals

One of the recently-discovered medals. Image courtesy of Swallowfield Parish Council.

One of the recently-discovered medals. Image courtesy of Swallowfield Parish Council.

At the heart of Lives of the First World War are the Life Stories of more than 7.6 million individuals. They were part of the global conflict that shaped the world we live in today. But how can we find out more about their wartime experiences?

In this blog post, we share the remarkable story of how one Lives of the First World War member helped to discover the personal story behind some mysterious First World War medals.

 

  • An unexpected find

On 19 March 2016, Swallowfield Parish Council in Reading, Berkshire organized a clean up of the local area. Amongst the rubbish collected was a locked tin containing several medals. The Parish Council had no idea who they belonged to or how they got there, and appealed for people to get in touch via Facebook if they had any information.

Debbie Cameron, a long-time member of Lives of the First World War, saw the appeal on social media, and decided to see what she could find out. Debbie correctly identified three of the medals as First World War, and using the name and service number engraved on them, was able to research the mystery recipient.

Being a very keen amateur historian and member of Lives of the First World War,  I was able find out the full name and some information the person immediately, including his date of birth

Using the search box on Lives of the First World War, Debbie found the Life Story page for Oliver James Read, J.17997. Oliver’s British Royal Navy Seamen record revealed that he joined the Royal Navy in October 1914, and served throughout the war on many different ships. Notably, this included HMS Noble which took part in the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916.

Using details from this seed record, Debbie also discovered more about Oliver’s pre-war life from the 1911 census and found a record of his death in 1965.

 

  • Going a step further
Oliver James Read. Image uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Oliver Dunn.

Oliver James Read. Image uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Oliver Dunn.

Debbie then tried to find out if Oliver had any living relatives. She managed to track down his great-nephew and namesake, Oliver, who was thrilled with all the information that Debbie had found out.

A combination of wonderful online resources such as Lives of the First World War, social media and my experience and knowledge enabled this fantastic result

Oliver has now added a wonderful photograph to Lives of the First World War. In the image, Oliver James Read is wearing the three First World War medals that were found in the river.

 

We hope that this wonderful story will inspire other members of Lives of the First World War to continue adding facts, images and stories to the project.

  • Do you have an amazing story to share? Tell us about it every Friday from 12pm on Facebook and Twitter
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