Who I’m remembering: Melanie Donnelly

A photo of George Marsh in uniform.

A photo of George Marsh in uniform.

Who will you be remembering on Lives of the First World War? Our very own Melanie Donnelly shares the story of what sparked her interest in her First World War family history, and who she’ll be remembering.

Fragments from the past.

I think the seed was planted when I was eleven – ‘your homework this week is to draw up your family tree’. Then there was my Great Auntie Martha and ‘The Black Plastic Bag’. And now there is Lives of the First World War.

Back when I was eleven there were no computers, no digitised resources, not even that many books in the library on what family history records there were. My homework (which I still have!) was a hand drawn chart with names and dates, going back 4 generations. Fascinating but frustrating. They were just names – not people. But then The Black Plastic Bag arrived. My Great Auntie Martha moved to a nursing home and when her flat was being cleared out letters, photos and postcards were all thrown in the bin. My mum, who in truth has always been a bit of a hoarder, retrieved them, put them all in a black plastic bag and brought them home on the bus. And dumped them in our hallway where they sat for a few months.

Finally, fed up with tripping over this mystery bag, I decided to investigate. And that is when the names began to become people. There were lots of shrugged shoulders and puzzled looks when I asked who the people in the photos were. My Nanna’s line was ‘They’re all dead. What do you want to know about dead people for?’. But I did want to know – there they were, young but all looking so serious in their uniforms. Had they had a premonition of their untimely deaths? Who did the ostrich feather belong too? What were all the medals for? I was a teenager with a Black Adder view of the First World War – conscripts doomed to die in mud filled trenches.

Uncovering the stories behind the objects in the bag

One of the photos was of a two little girls and a man in a suit. Maybe that was the turning point. Because not all of the people in the photos were dead. One of the little girls was my Nanna. Suddenly the stories started. That photo had been taken when she’d met her eldest brother for the first time. He’d been away in India when she was born and she remembered when he returned home after many years.

I still have the notes I made on Sunday afternoons when Nanna came to visit. Each week we would pick a few of the photos and she would tell me about them. The man with the medals was her eldest brother Tom, a professional soldier who had fought in South Africa, been stationed in India and been wounded in the First World War. The ostrich feather came from the slouch hat of her brother Will, a bit of a rogue who had gone to Australia before the war, served with the Light Horse but come home to London afterwards. The pencil written letter was from youngest brother Ted, who’d bumped into his brother Will in Cairo. The postcards addressed to ‘Midge’ were from the lovely boy who had been engaged to Nanna’s sister – my Great Auntie Martha. It took me some time to realise the ‘lovely boy’ was actually Horace Lovely! And the Canadian solider was a boy Ted had gone to school with, another one who’d looked for a better life overseas but come home again after the war. Eventually he’d married Martha, but not until 1939.

  • Melanie Donnelly was Project Manager for Lives of the First World War.


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