Friday 23 October 2015

A word from another one of our volunteers: Name, rank and number...

Canadian flag 1828-1921
Canadian Red Ensign 1868-1921 Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
This week, Durham at War volunteer, Jean Longstaff, writes about the research she has been doing.

Name, rank and number...

...and date of birth, that’s what you get when you agree to take on some research about Durham born men who served in the Commonwealth forces, in my case the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).  Jo did offer me Australia, but for some reason Canada seemed more appealing.

On retirement I had been wanting to volunteer for something that wasn’t going to tie me down to doing so many hours a week  on set days, but something to occupy me  when I wanted to do it and for how long I wanted to spend on it.  What I wasn’t expecting was something so addictive, that this was all I did for three weeks!  You sit down to fill in an odd half an hour before lunch and suddenly it's tea time.  Luckily my husband was away so it didn’t matter that meals were at odd times and housework wasn’t getting done.

Censuses (my Latin always makes me think that should be censii) can tell you so much, but in some cases 10 years is a long gap in the history of a family.  One of the first soldiers I researched was living in four rooms with his parents, grandmother and nine siblings all under 12.  Ten years later at the same address there were only his parents and five children, had they left home or died?  Two brothers were listed as aged 15 on the census, were they twins or was poor mother struggling with two pregnancies in the same year?  On checking which quarter of the year they were born in, on birth Marriages and Deaths, it would appear to be the latter.  The United States censuses give you even more information, just about everything but their shoe size.
Map of Canada in 1914 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage)
Map of Canada in 1914 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Aug-2014
Most of the first batch of men I researched were called John, Robert or Henry and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be easier if they had more unusual first names’.  How wrong was I?  Marmaduke presented even more difficulty in tracing records.  Thinking about it, there are only so many ways you can transcribe John and Robert, you can always try Bob, but if the transcriber can’t make head nor tail of Marmaduke, it could be listed as anything.   Then there are those who were christened William, moved to Canada as William C. and moved on to the US as Charles.  The “ability to think outside the box” to use a modern phrase is a must if you want to fill in the blanks.  I’ve only been stuck once and that really annoys me.

Then there’s the service records.  You have to learn a whole new language to understand them as they are all written in abbreviations; to me CCS was the name of the group who recorded the theme to Top of the Pops but now it’s a Casualty Clearing Station.

Perhaps the most interesting bits are the reports of the medicals carried out after the men have enlisted, some are most thorough in their descriptions, others not so.  “Fair, freckle faced, red hair”, (you know this soldier is sure to be nicknamed Ginger), then there is the much more abrupt “flat-footed”.   One medical officer passed as fit a man who had polio as a boy and had a withered leg with the comment “right leg shorter than the left”, whilst another medical man obviously went over soldiers with a fine toothcomb to be able to pass the comment “tiny scar on inside of left heel”.

I’ve now bored all my friends with stories of the local men who served in the CEF, but hopefully made them aware of the Durham at War website, and I could still spend all day every day pouring over relevant records, but reality strikes, husband returns home, other things must get done and we must stop fighting over whose turn it is to use the computer! 

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