Sydney’s Secret

How I managed to piece together my great great grandfather’s army service.

Since almost the very beginning of my search for my family’s history there has been one detail that has been wrapped in more red tape than most – the name of the Company that my great great grandfather Sydney Wallace Dillon Snr. was assigned to when he served with the Royal Engineers in the First World War.

My first clue was revealed in 2001 in a video taken by Steven Gill.  This video is of Sydney’s daughter ‘Nan’ talking in general about the family history  “… so he [Sydney] joined and being an electrician he joined the Royal Engineers and was with an Irish Regiment, he said they were the bravest chaps you ever met … going over the top singing like anything”.

Back in 2001 the family history on-line community was not as it is now, 1937online or Findmypast as it is know called, didn’t exist; Ancestry was more focused on census and GRO index information and the release of the 1901 census information was still months away.  On-line access to military service information and records was just a dream.

This meant negotiating the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) catalogues at Kew – a great experience but with only one or two trips to London a year progress was slow!!

Steven had also sent me a photo of Sydney in his military uniform and I noticed that someone had pencilled stripes onto his sleeves which indicated that he had been promoted from Sapper to 2nd Corporal.

In 2003 I found Sydney’s Medal Card Index and I finally had his service number – 96739. That’s a good clue I hear you say and you’d be right only after the initial jubilation had died down and I started to email people in the know, I soon discovered that it would not be that easy.  The information on the card also revealed that Sydney had been promoted to 2nd Corporal – this tied in with the pencilled marking on his photos – at last I was getting somewhere.

The family history community had progressed somewhat since 2001 and I found Ed De Santis author of the reubique.com website dedicated to men of the Royal Engineers. Ed told me  that Service Number 96739 was in a block of numbers issued to the Royal Engineer Tunnelling Companies and unfortunately, the service numbers had been split between the 171st and the 175th Tunnelling Companies.

So no real lead there as I had nothing further to go on.

Progress was so slow, every which way I turned it all came down to which Company Sydney had served in.  Without that I was getting nowhere!

Fast forward to Christmas 2012 – I was asked what did I want from Santa?  I thought for sometime and asked for something that I had resisted – professional research.  I chose the best person for the job, Chris Baker of fourteeneighteen research.  Chris’ report was very comprehensive and although it was not conclusive, he was able to put context and order to my thoughts and he offered alternative lines of further enquiry.

Chris was able to say however that ‘Sydney definitely served with one of three RE units under command of the 16th (Irish) Division: they were the 155th, 156th and 157th Field Companies.’ and that the Date of Entry recorded on Sydney’s medal card index – 19 December 1915 narrowed it down to either the 155th and 156th Field Companies and that these Companies had been attached to the 16th (Irish) Division.

Unfortunately this still left my question unanswered – which one was it?  The 155th or the 156th?

My search continued – I had a lot of circumstantial and hearsay evidence to suggest what Sydney’s Company might have been but no contemporary, first hand evidence – frustrating was not the word – I needed cold, hard facts!

DSC_9445It wasn’t until 2014 when a piece of trench art made by Sydney was given to me.  He had fashioned a piece of artillery shell into a matchbox case and hand stamped it with the names of several World Ward One battles – Loos; Guilemont [sic]; Ginchy; Somme; St Eloi; Maroc; Hulluck [sic].

This was it, the first hand evidence I had been looking for!

I could hardly contain myself.  Surely now I could make progress.  But no it was not yet time for any kind of big reveal – Sydney had a specific time in mind.

In 2014 I started a new job and for the next 18 months work was slow to none existent.

On the 30 June 2016 we returned from a week away and during the inevitable task of sorting and washing loads of holiday washing  I had a good talk to Sydney, I laid out the facts and told him that it was time for him to stop messing around.  It was the 30 June 2016 and surely now the time was right for him to give it up after all it was 100 years ago.

I devise a simple plan – research the battles inscribed on the matchbox case, see which ones involved the 16th (Irish) Division and start to narrow down the field.

I spent a good day making notes using both the internet and an excellent book entitled ‘Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers’ by Terence Denman – I already knew that the 16th (Irish) Division took part in all of the above battles but I had to start somewhere.

The day went quickly and day had turned to night and although I was making progress it didn’t look good.  I then found a link to a website entitled Forces War Records a sister site of Forces Reunited.  I completed the search criteria and pressed enter – I did not expect to find a match.

He was there!  I checked the Service Number – it was correct, but was in just another copy of his medal card index?  Could I take the chance?  Maybe it might show me something new?  You do have to subscribe to the Forces War Records site but at £8.95 its not a huge amount and you can cancel your monthly subscription at any time, so I duly paid and pressed the button.

I didn’t believe what I was reading, I had found it!!

I knew that Sydney had suffered with rheumatism as a older man, but luckily for me (not for Sydney) he had suffered during the war too!  Yes, on the 5 August 1917 he had been taken by the 31st Ambulance Train to Remy!

Sydney’s Company name was recorded at the very end of the document, the 156th Field Company, at last there it was, the information that had remained hidden for so long.

As I researched the set of records that had provided me with my ‘golden nugget’ I was amazed to find that the chances of Sydney’s name being found in National Archives class MH106 was remote.

According to the excellent website by Sue Light, scarletfinders ‘… All men and women who were patients at any time … had a range of military medical records completed ..   After the war most of these medical and hospital records were destroyed, and just a representative selection remain at The National Archives in class MH106 – no more than 2%‘ .

So there we have it, Sydney’s gift to me was to reveal his Company and to let me know that he was not present on that bloodiest of days, 100 years after it had happened.

But where Sydney if not at the Somme?  He and his fellow Royal Engineers were 84 miles away in and around the Loos area, not entirely safe but not at least waiting to go ‘over the top’ like so many others.

Sydney Wallace Dillon

Sydney Wallace Dillon

If you want to research your family’s military history here are a few websites that I used to trace and research Sydney’s wartime experiences.

Findmypast – this is my preferred family history research site and it is adding to its collections every week.  They do have a good collection of records but by no means not everything.

Ancestry.co.uk – it is also worth searching Ancestry because no one is perfect and you may find records here that are not included elsewhere.

Forces War Records is the sister site of Forces Reunited.  The site was created in 2008 upon the request of some Forces Reunited members who were looking for information on their ancestors but had come up against dead ends with the usual genealogy sites.   They employ over 70 people in their UK offices who ensure their data is as accurate as possible.

The National Archives – this site covers centuries of history and it can be tricky to find what you’re looking for.  Many records including wills and war diaries are on-line and for a small fee can be downloaded.  It is well worth a personal visit to the archive at Kew.

The long long trail – this is Chris Baker’s site and excellent site and a must for all military research.

The BBC news website – here I found a piece written about the gassing of the Irish troops by the Germans.  Hulloch is one of the battle names stamped on the matchbox case.

The Shoreham Fort website – which gives a good background in trench warfare.

The Great War 1914-1918 site which gives a good map showing the front line with information on the battles and their location.

World War 1 technology – this site is good background into new weaponry, such as tanks, the zeppelin, poison gas, the airplane, the submarine, and the machine gun.

Scarletfinders – this excellent site dedicates itself to the Army Nursing Service and explores all administrative and organisational aspects of the nursing services during the World War 1.

 

10 July, 2016. Family History. Leave a comment.

%d bloggers like this: