Our Wartime Heroes
PUBLISHED: 11:52 13 August 2014 | UPDATED: 11:52 13 August 2014
Writer and historian Keith Gregson reveals the Essex interest in his recent work, A Tommy in the family, published on the centenary of the outbreak of World War I
History has been a passion of mine and tracing the history of my family has been a pastime I have enjoyed with relish. For more than 30 years I was head of the history department at a large urban comprehensive school and I was also fortunate enough to have an Essex-based mother-in-law with an equally active involvement in my subject. As a Christmas present in the 1980s, she bought me a magnificent book based on the diaries of a vicar of Great Leighs.
The diaries covered the years from 1914 to 1919 and reading them made me realise why Essex holds such a special place in the history of the 1914-18 war.
Because the county became a focus for training and troop movements, its inhabitants were left to mourn not only their own sons, but also the thousands of other young men who passed through, were befriended and never returned. You could even hear the sound of battle in some parts of the county.
It was thus fitting that in my most recent publication, A Tommy in the Family, dedicated to researching World War I family history, I was able to include a number of case studies based on my wife’s Essex family line.
Our Essex Boys
My wife’s wartime Essex ancestors were from the Bridge family which ran the village shop in Roxwell near Chelmsford and the Monk family from nearby Good Easter. In the latter family, the father was groom to a well-known local landowner. My own family, living around the fringes of the English Lake District, sent a number of men to the war. All survived, but this was not the case with my wife’s family. The Roxwell village grocer and draper had four daughters and two sons. I met all four daughters in the 1970s. The sons died in the war. Three of the Monk boys saw action. One survived intact, one became a prisoner of war and the youngest, the apple of his mother’s eye, went to the front and was never seen again.
The spadework for the Essex wartime research was carried out a few years ago by one of my wife’s brothers — another history enthusiast. I merely added new material that had sprung up recently and fitted it into a format suitable for my book. The stories of ‘our Essex boys’ have been retold in detail. The three casualties all died on the Western Front while the prisoner of war, my wife’s paternal grandfather, was captured during the German Spring Offensive of 1918.
Prior to that he had filled sandbags on a French beach and marched up and down the Italian Alps to show the locals that the British were still around. His time as a prisoner was not pleasant, although it was improved somewhat through his ability to work with
Other Essex Boys
The aim of A Tommy in the Family is to help interested readers with their own research and to suggest ways in which the finished work can be presented for the benefit of family and friends. The best place to start is with the family itself. When I was a relative youngster in the 1960s and 1970s, I was lucky enough to be able to talk to a number of elderly people about their wartime experiences. One lady had worked in a munitions factory where there had been a massive explosion. Another, a great uncle, had served in the Marines and my wife’s Essex grandfather, as noted above, had seen action in France and Italy and had been taken prisoner. Sadly they are now gone but there are people from my generation who can still tell their tales. Although second-hand, they are better than nothing and a good starting point for research.
Staying with the family, there is a strong possibility that there will be wartime mementoes somewhere. These were much valued and usually stored rather than ditched, although it may take a few discreet enquiries before they turn up. In my case, it was at the third time of asking that a family member recalled an old biscuit tin in the loft. It was packed with goodies — and such goodies may consist of medals, badges, diaries and pocket books to mention but a few objects of value to the researcher. In Essex we came across the Dead Man’s Penny sent to the Monk family. Such large plaquettes were distributed to the families of those who died as a result of the war and my wife even recalls playing with the family one as a child without realising its significance. We also accessed her maternal grandmother’s diaries, postcards and pocket books which helped us to catch the brothers on leave and to follow the tragedy of their deaths in combat. The Monk family had letters from their lost son. These showed what a talented and intelligent young man he was — a country boy making his way in a town office. ‘If only he had survived,’ is a thought that has echoed down the years.
Even if the family has little to offer, all is not lost. With the centenary of the war in the offing and considerable advances in modern technology, it is now possible to do a great deal of positive and effective research online. This is because the records of those who served (or at least the records that have survived) have been digitised. In other words what is being consulted is a completely faithful copy of the original. In years gone by, researchers had to seek out the original documents in situ or rely on transcribed copies and indexes which could be littered with errors. Today you may have to pay to access some of these documents online, but compared to the time and money expended on the old form of research, this is relatively little. The most desirable document to look for is the service record (although few have actually survived).
More common is the medal roll which lists medals awarded and sometimes other details. Even with the benefit of digitisation, a family member may take some time to find as the index for the medal roll can merely give a surname and single initial. Family members who died in the war are easiest to find
through the War Graves’ Commission which provides useful information.
Even a general online search engine can come up trumps as it can lead you to the work of other researchers, regimental records and details appearing on war memorials.
If you want to discover your own wartime Essex ancestors, give it a go and I wish you the best of luck.