This is the first in a series of stories by guest bloggers that illustrate how information can be used and shared, how it can help us gain insight and how it becomes an artefact of cultural and historical importance. These stories give us reasons to share, understand and appreciate the value of information.
This first blog from Gary Blakely addresses a topic on all of our minds – the history of the First World War. This year is the centenary of the outbreak of WW1.
Introducing our guest blogger Gary Blakeley.
Gary was born in London to a Burnley family. He has always been interested in both military and family history. Working as a designer and photographer for more than thirty years has given him a deep appreciation of the tangible aspects of story telling: the objects and images that express our history.
Gary’s story in his own words
In July 1964, when I was six, I spent a week with my grandparents in Burnley, Lancashire. As there were no other children in the house, entertainment was meagre. I decided to explore the huge chest of drawers next to the fireplace in the front room. Buried at the bottom of them I found two very dirty medals; one even had dried paint on it.
My grandmother, Annie, told me they had been awarded to her father, James McCarthy. As I was fascinated with the medals and their history, she gave them to me, along with a third one that my young aunt had been wearing on a chain as necklace.
The research begins
In the mid-1980s, I began to do some research into my family tree. James McCarthy was born around 1882, the son of Irish immigrants who had come to England to escape the potato famine. James probably spent most of his childhood in Burnley.
At around sixteen years of age, James joined the East Lancashire Regiment (ELR) and was sent to South Africa with the 1st Battalion to fight in the Boer War. An entry on the medal roll for the Boer War states that he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion and served in India. This seems to indicate that in 1903 he still had a fair amount of time left to serve, as it was uncommon to transfer men for less than two years.
I don’t know when he returned to England, but in 1910 he married Catherine Cummins at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Yorkshire Street, Burnley. His occupation was given as mechanic and Catherine is listed as a cotton ring spinner. On July 22, 1910, she gave birth to their first child, Annie. By this time, James was working as window cleaner and was an active reservist in the ELR.
On August 22, 1914, James left England for the last time aboard the troopship Braemar Castle, landing in France at Le Havre. Less than 12 months later on Tuesday, July 6, 1915, he was killed when German shells landed on or near a trench the East Lancs were holding just east of the Yser Canal in Belgium.
He was awarded the 1914 Star, with clasp (colloquially known as the Mons Star), the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. These three, the ones that Annie gave me, are in my collection along with a replacement for his Queen’s South Africa medal.
Discovering the detail
Those are the bare bones of his story, but because the McCarthy family was a modest one, very few official details or personal keepsakes are left to fill out James’ life. We know that working men of his time and place had few options. They could work as labourers or miners or in the cotton mills, or they could join the army. But I’ve always wondered what life must have been like for him and others like him, and anything that gives immediacy to the few bits of information I already know is invaluable to me – and, I believe, to later generations.
A relative mentioned to me that she’d seen an article in a magazine about war wills being available online at Iron Mountain (the archive of World War One wills can be searched at: https://www.gov.uk/probate-search. It amazed me that the families of the men who wrote these wills would never have seen them, and I immediately ordered James’ will. Many of the wills are more or less pro forma, but others are quite detailed. Would I find out something more about James?
At around the same time, another relative drew my attention to a set of medals being sold online. They belonged to Private Joseph Rawstron, who had also served with the ELR. In fact, he’d fought everywhere that James had, including South Africa, and he’d been killed on the same day, July 6, 1915.
That set off bells for me, and through further research I discovered that James had been killed not by a random sniper bullet or shell but in a now almost forgotten encounter called the Battle of Boesinghe (now Boezinge), which lasted from July 6 to July 10. Several other East Lancs men were killed in the trench along with James, and many more over the following three days. I even met an amateur Belgian historian online who confirmed for me the exact location of the trench. You can read letters describing the battle at http://burnleyinthegreatwar.info/boesinghe/introduction.htm.
I went back to Iron Mountain and ordered eleven more wills, all those I could find of the East Lancs men killed on the same day as James. In fact, I’ve begun looking for other keepsakes related to that day, such as postcards and newspapers.
The fallen and the living
I want to get a sense of what July 6, 1915, was like for men such as my great-grandfather. What did they wake up to that day? What was the texture of daily life for fighting men and their families? Documents such as their wills give us a glimpse not only of their personal lives but of the cultural life of their time.
This summer, I’ll be in Belgium for the 100th anniversary of the British declaration of war on Germany, and I plan to stand on the exact piece of ground where James McCarthy and his fellow East Lancs men died. I suspect I’ll find it very small – a few metres of land crossed back and forth by both sides – and very large, illuminating great struggle and great loss.
James McCarthy was set to come home on leave about two weeks after the day he was killed. That would have been the first time he’d been back in England since the war started in August 1914. He never did see his youngest son. He is remembered with honour at Talana Farm Cemetery, close to Ieper on the Diksmuidseweg (N369) in the direction of Boezinge.