Sunday, 5 March 2017

Blighty ............. a unique record from the Great War part 1 with a bit more from Canada

I am looking at a picture of the staff and patients of the St John’s Red Cross Hospital in Cheltenham on July 1915.

And somewhere on the photograph maybe Rachel Wattis who in the following year later bought a sketch pad from J.J.Banks & Son which became an autograph book used by the men convalescing from their wounds.

They contributed poems, comments and sketches and reading them on this warm sunny day in June is to be taken back in an instant to that hospital and to the men recovering from wounds received the year before at Gallipoli and many more from the Battle of the Somme which was still in full swing.

In the fullness of time I will go looking for Rachel Wattis.  As yet the Red Cross have not completed their mammoth task of putting all their personnel from the Great War on line and so far a search for Ms Wattis has revealed only a possible candidate leaving in Birmingham in 1911.

Likewise I will also look for the identities of the men who left a contribution partly to satisfy my own curiosity but also because I think it is important.

After all by sheer luck the autograph book has survived a century and it is important that the men and women who made the book should be recorded and something of their lives before and after 1916 brought out of the shadows.

So this is just the first of a series of posts which tries to explore the stories of these people caught up in one of the great events of the last century.

And from those pages I have selected two entries, neither of which I have researched yet.

I could have chosen others including that of Private A E Dunn of the Border Regiment whose poem on Gallipoli was written in November 1916 and recorded the exploits of the 11th Division “who landed at Sulva Bay

They were part of Kitcheners Army
Some left children and wives
To fight for England’s freedom
And they fought for their very lives”

But for today it is the sketches of J Wilson who like one of my uncles was in the Argyle and Sutherland Regiment and a Sergeant from the 47th Canadian Infantry wounded at Vimy Ridge on January 3rd 1917.

He too has a personal connection because my great uncle was also serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

And there I think is one of those simple and obvious observations that most of us will have a relative who served either in the armed forces, the Red Cross or another of the voluntary organisations during that conflict.

It is luck that this book has survived but also a tribute to David Harrop who acquired it and has kindly lent it to me so that some of the stories of those who filled its pages can be researched and told.

And soon after this was posted I recieved a message from a fellow Canadian researcher who had gone looking for the young soldier from the 47th Canadian Infantry.

Barb Torres discovered that he had enlisted in 1915, was 30 years old, from Vancouver and because the records of men from Canada who fought in the Great War are intact it will be possible to uncover his full military record.*

Now apart from the excitement of taking the story one step further it points yet again to that degree of co-operation between researchers and historians which advances our common knowledge.

I rather think Ms Wattis would be pleased and endorses her comments on the opening page of the autograph book, "When the leaves of this Book are yellow with age and the fingers  are still that have wrote on this page, those sweet to remember the dear ones of old whose friendship you prize more than silver or gold." 

Picture; St John’s Red Cross Hospital in Cheltenham Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic July 31 1915, courtesy of Cheltenham Local & Family History Library, cheltlocalstudies@gloucestershire.gov.uk and pages from Blighty, the autograph book of the men recovering in the hospital, from the collection of David Harrop and the Attestation Paper, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada,

With additional research from Barb Torres

*Library and Archives Canada,
http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/first-world-war-1914-1918-cef/Pages/image.aspx?Image=286018a&URLjpg=http%3A%2F%2Fdata2.archives.ca%2Fcef%2Fgpc002%2F286018a.gif&Ecopy=286018a

And a thank you to Cheltenham Local & Family History Librarycheltlocalstudies@gloucestershire.gov.uk

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