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!
It 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.
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.
National newspapers are, by and large, full of rubbish, half truths and well, good old fantasy these days.
But, for family historians, local newspapers are one of the most valuable sources of information around. Most family historians today can easily go back in time to the 1870s and find all manner of information they simply couldn’t find elsewhere.
The article below was found, quite by chance, one evening, as I was browsing the British Newspaper Archives. The find was so unexpected that I almost discounted it. There is absolutely no other way that I would ever have discovered the most unusual events surrounding the death of my great 4x grandfather if it had not been reported by the Morning Post on Saturday 25 January 1890 in Woolwich.
Just so that you know who exactly the article is referring to :
‘young man named Dillon‘ is my 3x great grandfather, James Wallace Dillon, and;
‘Dillon’s father‘ is my great 4x grandfather, Peter Dillon formerly of Kendal and Dublin
ALLEGED DETENTION OF A CORPSE AND COFFIN
‘At Woolwich Police-court, yesterday, Mr. Farman, solicitor, accompanied by a young man named Dillon, applied to Mr. Marsham for his assistance in obtaining the dead body of Dillon’s father, who died on Monday last. He stated that the deceased had lodged for some years with a Mr. and Mrs. Bailey, at 68, Raglan road, Plumstead, and when he died they did not trouble themselves to acquaint his son, who lived at No. 51 in the same road ; but when the son went to the office of Mr. Vincent, the registrar, in order to register the death, he found the Bailey’s there about the same business.
The registrar preferred to take the information from the son, and, notwithstanding Mr. Bailey’s objections, gave the son the order for the burial. The son, thereupon, went to Mr. Messent, undertaker, and made arrangements for the funeral. A coffin was sent to the house, and the undertaker’s men were about to remove the body to the son’s house when Mr. and Mrs. Bailey refused to part with it, claiming a right to bury it themselves, although they knew that the son had the burial order.
The young man then applied to the police, and a sergeant and constable called upon Mr. Bailey, who stated that he and his wife had befriended the dead man, who had left them a small insurance, and that they meant to see him buried. He offered, however to give upon the corpse and coffin if young Dillon would sign an I O U for some claim which he set upon, but ultimately used violent and defiant language and slammed the door in the face of the police and the undertakers.
It seemed that before the son heard of the death Bailey had reported it to the parish relieving officer, who communicated with the young man, but there was just a possibility, unless the Court interposed, that he would be buried as a pauper after all.
Mr. Marsham said the law imposed the duty of burial upon the nearest relative, and the registrar had acted rightly in giving the order to the son, whatever claims others might have. He would send one of the officers of the Court to Mr. Bailey warning him that if he persisted in his illegal course he would be served with a summons.
Subsequently the officer informed the magistrate that Bailey had consented to give upon the corpse and coffin, and Mr. Marsham directed him to be present and see the removal peacefully conducted.’
… or more precisely Bristol and the wonderful archive of work created by ‘Uncle’ Russell.
Russell is not, as far as I can see, my uncle in the blood sense of the word but nevertheless we have a great deal in common when it comes to the quest for all things Densham.
I cannot put into words the truly wonderful legacy that Uncle Russell left, suffice it to say that I was in my seventh heaven when, one wonderful June day, I was privileged to set eyes on the wealth of genealogical research he had done over a 30 year period. Russell’s meticulous research, his attention to details and his thorough referencing are a lesson to even the most seasoned of researchers.
How on earth did I discover ‘Uncle’ Russell and how the devil was I so lucky to actually set my genealogical eyes on his unique legacy?
Well I, like many of my persuasion, have been given the annoying gifts of an inquisitive and tenacious nature, in others words ‘I’m like a dog with a bone’. I suddenly had a eureka moment whilst contemplating, for what seemed like the thousandth time, a couple of my obscure Densham documents acquired over my 14 years of Densham research.
I took a leap of faith and was put in touch with the current custodian of ‘Uncle’ Russell’s papers and the rest, as they say, is history.
I am now currently awaiting my second viewing of the research and will keep you appraised of mine and ‘Uncle’ Russell’s progress.
It only takes a minute, one little comment made by a relative to set you on a path you would not otherwise have taken – ‘Yes,’ Aunt Agnes said ‘he [Father John] organised the Pope’s visit back in 1982’ and away you go.
It was the above comment that set me to find Fr. Allen or Monsignor as he is now. I found him because I googled the Pope’s visit and after a few emails in which I started to feel like his personal stalker I eventually found a link which he was able to relate to and we started upon a quest to find the Williams with Allen family connection. Not an easy task, well these things never are.
Firstly, I revisited my link with my 4 x great grandmother Jane Williams, who I had traced back to the 1871 census living with her father and mother at 14 Cable Street, Salford. Unfortunately for me, she and her parents were born in Ireland. What? The whole of Ireland!? The link to whereabouts in Ireland comes in the 1881 – Kildare, Ireland.
Jumping forward in time, in the 1901 census Jane has living with her three nieces – Mary J; Nellie and Agnis [sic] Williams. I know that at this point Ellen (her daughter has married Frank Sutcliffe) and her second daughter, Bridget has died. I can confidently say that this Jane is mine mainly because of her surname. Conley was not a common name (at least it wasn’t in Hebden Bridge). The Irish link (although this time it says she was born in Dublin, however as it turns out Celbridge is only a few miles from Dublin) and the Williams surname of her nieces.
This is as far as I had got until a little earlier this year, when Irene said the above immortal words. It seems that she had inadvertently found the key to the mystery – hopefully the right key.
Through the marriage of Monsignor Allen’s grandparents, Mary Williams and Edward Allen, I found that, as well as Mary’s father also being James Williams the address she lived at at the time of her marriage was Cable Street, Salford. OK perhaps a coincidence after all Williams is very common name. Well it was surprisingly, not that common a name in Salford around that time.
Yes, if I was researching Williams in Wales then the family would be almost impossible to trace, but as it was I wasn’t and with the Irish connection I was fairly sure that I was on to a winner.
The next piece of the jigsaw I felt was to trace Mary and her family through the census returns – obvious next step.
Oh what luck, in the 1881 census there are three brothers-in-law living with the Allen family – Thomas, James and Henry. Two of these brothers (James and Henry) were living with my Jane in the 1871 census with their parents – hurray another connection.
This then set me thinking. Was one of these brothers the father of the three girls living with my Jane in the 1901 census and if so, why weren’t his daughters living with him?
Off I go again looking for the census returns of the three brothers – I started with Thomas and found him in the 1891 census married to Mary and with three daughters Mary Jane, Ellen and Agnes – oh my heavens we have the link. It turns out that Mary died early in her life and at the time of the 1901 census he was living and working Rochdale.
I then looked at James in the 1911 census. I cannot believe my luck! Living with James and his family is his sister, Mary Allen!
The links couldn’t really be better but of course to be on the safe side I have purchased certificates for verification purposes.
But there is just a little bit of me that still needs to verify that Mary, Thomas, Jane, James and Henry were all born in the Kildare area of Ireland and that they all had the same parents so that I can definately link them all together at one point in time in one place.
It is well known that most of the 19th century Irish records were destroyed and that many of the church records have not yet been transcribed, so it can be virtually impossible to do anything on-line – but, I’m not an intrepid detective for nothing you know.
Through the use of various chat rooms and the following of links I found a way to search the records that are on-line and I’m eventually led to the town of Celbridge and there is an email address. So off I went again hounding the Irish clergy this time.
To be honest, I did not know what kind a response I would get, after all priests are very busy people and I imagine that they have very little time for genealogy. But just imagine my surprise when, this morning, I’m greeted with a lovely email from Jim Tancred who had been passed my request and done some research for me.
Not only did he send the details of my Jane’s baptism he has arranged for one of his colleagues to send me further baptismal details – I’m waiting with baited breath for these to arrive…
I’m so hoping that these records finally give me the evidence I need to be fully confident that I’ve traced the right family and I can finally let Mgr Allen know of my finds.
The question I have is this – Irene thought they were visiting Fr. Allen in Shaw, but it seems not, so who the heck were they visiting?
You know how it is, a vital football game is taking place between the Netherlands and Germany and although you’ve no problem with it being on you just need to find something else to watch.
Whilst this particular event happened a couple of weeks ago (I’m a little slow you know) I just happened to stumbled upon Wellington Bomber on BBC 4 and remembering that my Granddad Jack had been an electrician working on these very same planes during WW2, I decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to find out a little more, so I began to watch with interest.
The programme was centred around the achievement of a group of British workers, men and women who set out to smash the world record of building a bomber from scratch. The workers all based in Broughton, South Wales broke the record beating the previous American one in 23 hours and 50 minutes.
This world record-breaking attempt was filmed as a piece of British propaganda but it has become, I think, an excellent record of the dedication and commitment shown by the workers at Broughton to their ‘boys’ at Bomber Command.
The BBC programme traced six of the workers who were invited to view the programme for the first time. Their stories and reminiscences were interwoven with the film and the emotion of watching the film was palpable.
The Wellington bomber was described as a ‘special aircraft’, by historian Sir Max Hastings and was held in great affection by those who flew it and this comes across so clearly in this programme.
But for me, amongst all the stories of bravery the star of the show was Flt Lt Rupert ‘Tiny’ Cooling – I cannot really put this into words – his kindness; his sadness; his bravery; his love for his country and countrymen were there in his very being.
‘Tiny’ Cooling flew 67 missions which to put it another way is two official tours of duty plus 2. When you consider that a Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer this achievement seems even more extraordinary.
But ‘Tiny’ Cooling’s interview goes further than just giving us ‘the facts’ – he gives us a touching and personal tribute to his friends and fellow comrades. This poem brings home the stark reality of their lives during this ‘dark time’ and the immense sadness he feels seeing his friends’ names etched in stone.
This muster of names,
This directory of faceless, formless beings
Suffocates the mind.
Is it solely a tabulation as on
pages of Smith’s in volume S to Z?
Or a company of friends
Amidst a legion of Strangers?
In the quest, shadows emerge,
Forgotten faces relive
Brief moments of shared experience
And call upon yet others to be identified …
Now what became of him? And him?
And their names too are
carved in the roster.
I dare not look for my own,
it should be there.
Our Flight Commander, Hinks,
Quiet Ronnie Frost (he joined with me),
Young Naylor who was lost in the North Sea …
Was he twenty when he came into my room
and cried like a baby the night Bob Hewitt died,
leaving a pregnant wife?
Three weeks later
I helped to clear his room,
And found his Bible by his bed.
I was excited, I’d taken a step into the unknown, I had said yes and taken a leap of faith.
I had responded to an email asking for volunteers to write a book review for the Who Do You Think You Are? magazine entitled Hebden Bridge – A Sense of Belonging by Paul Barker.
When I received the email saying that my kind offer had been accepted I immediately regretted sticking my head above the parapet but there was no going back, the step had been taken.
I sat down to read the book and the pressure built – I could not think; I found that I could not absorb any of the detail – I was constantly trying to analyse.
The hardest part was starting my 250 word review but after a while the words came easily – you’d be surprised how quickly the words mount up.
Barker’s description of Lumb Falls, I found particularly interesting, as it features in Ted’s photo collection and through Barker’s description, colour and atmosphere was brought to life.
“… the cool stream, Crimsworth Dean beck, tippling over rock in a graceful cascade. This is Lumb Falls. The water creates a pool deep enough to swim in, but only wide enough for a few strokes. Green ferns and dark moss line the cascade. A thin stone bridge crosses the stream at the head of the waterfull …”
“… a place for picnics … a place of memories…”
Lumb Falls also provides the back drop to ‘Six Young Men’ by Ted Hughes; his poem a poignant reminder of the futility of war and the fragility of life.
I am glad I took the leap and I would definitely review again. Go on …. jump …
There has been one very elusive branch of my family tree – the Sutcliffes.
Yes, I know that my great grandmother Sarah Ellen ‘Cissie’ was a Sutcliffe, and of course I’ve been able to trace her parents and so on using the basic certificate and census routes, but contacting and getting a feel for their lives and their stories has been so much harder.
If you consider the close proximity of the Sutcliffe branch to my own twig and then take into account that I’ve been researching for 13 years and have only now got in touch with some of my ‘Sutcliffes’ that tells you just how difficult it has been to get close to them.
Yes, my Dillon great uncles were able to tell me about their cousin Keith and back in 2001 I found an address for him but unfortunately Keith could only give me the names of his cousins; they had not stayed in touch with each other.
My good friend Janet found me through the Todmorden and Walsden site in 2005 and what a fantastic person she is to know. Her husband is my 2nd cousin, twice removed on the Sutcliffe side and they still live in the Todmorden area; they have shared their knowledge of the family and Hebden Bridge.
It is again Edward’s photos that have unlocked the Sutcliffe’s hidden locations in this never ending quest for answers. I found Irene through a chance discovery on the genesrunited site. My contact turned out to be Irene’s brother-in-law and he put us in touch.
David has also been ‘rediscovered’ by Janet he was hiding in the Hebden Bridge area, but, I understand, he is very keen to be in touch and share in our new found family connections.
Although there is still a long way to go, many of the unknown faces now have names – Edward’s photo album is becoming alive with the family’s shared memories.
Hebden Bridge and its rich history has already given me enough to keep me busy for a long time and I hope to visit there soon and stay in the Old Town where once my family enjoyed this beautiful and rugged land; but Hebden Bridge has now taken me into new and uncharted territory – I have volunteered to write a book review for the Who Do You Think You Are? magazine.
I’m excited and a little nervous, yes I’ve written articles before and they have been read, I think, by readers of our local family history society but this, this magazine is read by millions (probably)!
How lucky we are to live in the digital age … music, communication, photography…
What an absolute joy it would be to stumble upon an archive of images showing the wedding of our parents, our grandparents and so on backwards in time.
Our obsession with the colour scheme, the venue and the ‘how can I out do the last wedding I went to’ philosophy is a recent, not altogether attractive trend. In the ‘good old days’ the colour scheme wasn’t the most important thing in the world and only 20 years ago favours were what people did for each other rather than what guests received at their place setting.
The coffee table book of the wedding that Darren and myself recently photographed arrived yesterday and it tells the story of the day – the tenderness between the bride and her grandmother at the hairdressers; the emotional reaction of the guests to the speeches; the family heirlooms passed down from mother to daughter, father to son. These deeply important aspects of their day are now captured forever, digitally and physically.
What a privilege it was to photograph their special day, what an absolute treasure this book will be for their children and grandchildren … family history in the making.
I’ve been struggling with writer’s block over the past couple of weeks – it could be, I suppose, the fact that we’ve had a rather frantic few weekends with our fledgling wedding photography business; a 13 birthday party outing; sorting old photos or could it be skidding in the snow and nearly crashing the car!
I feel that the most likely reason, is that we recently took our eldest son Thomas – he of photographic fame – up to Catterick Barracks to begin his six week basic Army training with The Rifles.
Thomas has always wanted to be a soldier – his granddad Tom taught him how to shine his boots; the safe way to hold and shoot a gun; Granddad Tom taught and encouraged Thomas in so many ways and passed on his knowledge of all things ‘army’.
Granddad Tom played such an important part, perhaps part of my sadness is that he is no longer with us to share in Thomas’ dream.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Letters to me are like diaries, an extension of the author’s very being, a way to connect on a very personal and intimate level.
So imagine my pleasure when my great-uncle, very kindly leant to me some photos and a scrap book. In amongst the photos and electricity board magazines was a letter written on a series of postcards dated the 18 January 1942 by a 20 year old Jack; the letter was written fifteen days after his marriage to Mary Ellen Densham, my gran from his RAF posting in Edinburgh.
You might say well what’s all the fuss about, its only a letter, surely there are many more letters and cards in the family archives. He must have returned home and spent many happy years with his wife and family. Unfortunately, the answer is that he did not.
Jack spent the war years as an electrician in the RAF and was fortunate enough to be posted close enough to his family to visit most weekends. He survived the war and came out of the RAF in 1946, but just 5 years later he was dead, Jack was 30.
I’ve wanted to know this man, my grandad for so many years – what was he like; how did he speak; was he funny and enjoy a joke? Was he thoughtful and kind, would he have loved me as much as I loved him?
Although Jack’s youngest siblings are still with us, the age gap is quite large – Jack was 12 when his brother Tom was born, 18 when Bob arrived and 20 when Edward appeared, they remember very little of him. My father remembers even less, he was nine when his father passed away and because of Jack’s illness, my Dad only really remembers him sitting in a chair in the corner with a patch over his eye and them both listening to Dick Barton.
There are only three photos of Jack with his family – my Gran showed me them just months before she died and for the first time in my life, I saw how much she still loved and missed him.
My Gran had an inner strength, a lady who was not an ‘over the top’ sort of person. But she was fun – she let me sleep in her lovely big bed when I’d insisted on staying the night; she made me cheese sandwiches and let me stay up later than I should; and her Saturday dinners were the best I’ve ever tasted in my life and I knew, without a doubt she loved me.
I imagine that the man she married must have had complementary qualities. I know he was a sporting man, regularly winning table tennis trophies; he played cricket and in his younger days was good at athletics.
Jack’s letter tells me more – it tells me that he was thoughtful and interested in his family. He is confident and comfortable in his own skin. He talks of a film he watched that was “an unusual sort of a film but very interesting”. He talks of intending to watch “Hibernians and Motherwell play”. He looks forward to “having a little chat” with his mother next time he’s over, because it was “such a rush last time”.
Through reading Jack’s letter I have a more rounded picture of the man he was, a family man just starting his life, albeit during the second world war, he had a new wife and his life stretched out before him. A man who loved his mother, father and his siblings – the apple of his mother’s eye.
Jack was buried alongside his grandfather Sydney Wallace Dillon in October 1951, my Gran did not remarry.
I look forward, one day, to meeting him.