My Tommy’s War: An Eastender in the Lancers (part two)

It has been almost two years since we launched our My Tommy’s War blog series with My Tommy’s War: An Eastender in the Lancers, a blog about my great-great uncle Charles Hunt. I had no idea then of the personal journey I was about to embark on and how much I would discover about a man who had died in the opening days of the First World War.

Charles Alfred Hunt

Charles Alfred Hunt (used with permission from a private collection)

The premise of My Tommy’s War is simple; to follow staff of The National Archives as they research their First World War ancestors during the centenary period, sharing hints and tips along the way. Like most people I began with sparse information about Charles, gleaned mainly from two medal cards and a handful of photographs. I shared the same frustrations as many of you at having no surviving service record as it was destroyed in the Second World War, leaving me to piece together Charles’s history from disparate and scattered information. As a result, my first blog was mainly a list of questions and ‘what if’s’ based on the history of his regiment – 12th (Prince of Wales’s) Lancers and the knowledge that Charles was from the East End of London.

What I have found out in the intervening 18 months has astounded me. In this follow-up blog I’ve tried to capture as much as I can of my journey to discover Charles, highlighting records and resources that might be most useful to anyone undertaking their own research. I’ve also given advice based on my experience of how to go beyond archives to find and piece together the history of a ‘Tommy’.

I cannot stress how important it is to explore all archives, records and resources in researching your ancestor and to share their story as widely as you can. There are many ways to do this, including IWM’s Lives of the First World War, The Royal British Legion’s Every Man Remembered and requesting that your ancestor’s name be read out in the Roll of Honour, part of The Tower of London Remembers series. I did this for Charles and his name was read out on 7 August 2014. You could also approach the regimental museum of your ancestor or get involved with your local Family History society to see what records they have and what activity they are planning to mark the First World War centenary.

As you read on, you’ll see that I’ve learned so much about Charles that I keep thinking it’s impossible to find out anything else. But each time I think that, something new comes along to surprise me. I can’t wait to find the next piece of the puzzle of the life of my great, great uncle Charles, a man who was so determined to join the army that he enlisted twice; a man who died trying to save his comrades; a man with childhood friends who kept his memory alive to their children; a man who was missed and mourned by his pals from his regiment and by his family back home. Importantly for me, Charles is the man whose story has put a human face to the First World War. For that I will be forever thankful to him.

I hope you find what follows useful and that it helps you find your own Tommy. Don’t leave them to languish in the anonymity of records. Find them, claim them and remember them.

They deserve it.

The fateful day for Charles – 25 August 1914

One of the main questions in my first blog was what date did Charles die? Thanks to the help of people who contacted me, I now know that Charles was mortally wounded in an action on 25 August 1914 while trying to extract men of his troop from a German attack. Regimental experts and descendants of other 12th Lancers pointed me to two records in the collection of The National Archives that record this action; WO 95/1140/1 the unit war diary of the 12th Lancers and WO 161/95/25, a statement from our Prisoner of war interview records 1914-1918 made by Lieutenant RS Moore, who led the 12th Lancers in this action and was wounded and taken prisoner.

Extract from record series WO 161/95/25, a statement from Prisoner of war interview records 1914-1918 made by Lieutenant RS Moore, 12th Lancers

Extract from record series WO 161/95/25, a statement from Prisoner of war interview records 1914-1918 made by Lieutenant RS Moore, 12th Lancers

His statement includes an amazing level of detail of a fight in the woods where a troop of Lancers found themselves overwhelmed by a battalion of Germans. Lieutenant Moore makes reference to two men of his regiment who died overnight on 26 and 27 August 1914 from their wounds after being taken to the Red Cross Hospital in Bavay (Bavai). Although Charles is recorded as dying on 29 August, it is generally accepted that he died earlier and, as he is buried beside his comrade WW Totman in Bavay, it’s also possible that he is one of the men referred to by Lieutenant Moore. If so, then he is likely to be the man who died of a ‘severe bullet wound to the stomach’.

Without advice from experts, it would never have occurred to me to look in prisoner of war statements. But this is proof that it is not only obvious records that yield crucial information. Knowing that a member of my family died in such an awful manner makes for hard reading but I believe it’s important to have all of the facts to appreciate what they went through.

Regimental experts also kindly provided me with excerpts from personal diaries that mentioned Charles. It’s clear from these diaries that he had very close friends amongst his comrades. His nickname was Mick Hunt (why, I’m unsure) and I know that in the lead up to embarkation for France, he ‘mucked in’ with three of his pals who looked after each other in the grub line as well as all getting their hair cut with horse clippers! And before embarkation he went for a bite to eat at a coffee shop with a pal. The most touching entry from these diaries was made when Charles died. One of his pals recorded that ‘Poor Mick Hunt was shot and died from his wounds’.

With all of this information confirming Charles’s death, I was able to locate his grave in Bavay using the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). CWGC have recently added scanned images of original documents to the record of each man, including any inscriptions that family asked to be added and, in some cases, detail of how and where the man’s body was found. They provide a fascinating insight into the burial process and for me they also revealed that for a time it was thought that Charles was buried in a different graveyard.

Charles’s military career

I received some great advice that a man’s service number indicates when he joined his regiment. Charles’s number – 127 – showed that he enlisted in around 1907 which meant he would have served with his regiment in the UK as well as in India and South Africa. I received another clue to his South African experience – more of that later…

Excitingly for me, I was able to confirm that Charles’s military experience actually began before 1907. Although I was disappointed that I could not find a service record, I kept being drawn to a military pension record for another Charles Hunt on Findmypast, who was born in Mile End but in 1886 not 1888. I discounted it on a number of occasions but it niggled at me and I finally gave in and downloaded it. I was glad I did. It was my Charles after all! In 1904 and at barely 16 years of age, Charles had lied about his age to join the Border Regiment in Carlisle. He somehow managed to keep up the pretence until he was discharged 9 months later for lying about his age. In my previous blog, I stressed the need to have known facts to check against. When I saw that he was sent home to his father at 36 Squirries Street, Bethnal Green, I knew it was my man. The pension record revealed lots of wonderful information including a physical description of a slight, brown eyed, brown haired youth of 5ft 5 3/4.

I find it fascinating that a 16 year old boy managed to fool the regiment for so long. I have no idea whether on joining the 12th Lancers three years later he ‘accidentally’ forgot to tell the recruiters about his previous discharge. Perhaps record keeping in those days was such that his pension record didn’t follow him…

A group photograph of Charles’s regiment – the 12th (Prince of Wales’s) Lancers – in my first blog proved so popular that we made a large version available on The National Archive’s Flickr channel.

Charles’s best friends!

Charles Hunt with his friends the Stradling brothers

Charles Hunt with his friends the Stradling brothers (used with permission from a private collection)

After a version of my original blog was published in ‘The Cockney Ancestor’ the newsletter of the East of London Family History Society, I was contacted by a lady from Australia. She told me that she thought Charles had been good friends with her grandfather and his brother. I hardly dared believe that it was true but a few emails later I had photos of Charles with his friends George Stradling (b.1887) and Charles Stradling (b.1889). The Stradlings lived a few roads away from the Hunts in Bethnal Green and the closeness of their relationship is clear in the photos. I also received a scan of a postcard that Charles sent to George from South Africa wishing him a happy birthday and telling him to ‘Be Good!’

George and Charles Stradling both served in the First World War and unfortunately, Charles Stradling died in France in 1916 at the Somme. He is commemorated on the same war memorial as my Charles, in St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green.

It is lovely to have this photographic record of the three lads together, all so proud and all, thankfully, oblivious to what lay ahead. I’m also intrigued by the pretty girl in the photo with both Charles. If anyone knows who she is, I would love to know – please do get in touch.

What other information is out there about a person?

If you’re looking for your own First World War ancestor then our portal is a great place to begin your research. You shouldn’t however limit yourself to military records. There is a wealth of other information available online to search. Much of this is available through organisations such as Ancestry and Findmypast. Aside from the military pension record already mentioned, I have been able to find many other records relating to Charles, including census records, a record of his baptism and even his school enrolment. This all adds to the picture that you build of your ancestor. I still have the local East End archives and newspaper archives to explore and can’t wait to see what they reveal.

My pilgrimage

Charles Hunt's Grave in Bavay

Charles Hunt’s Grave in Bavay Communal Cemetery, France (used with permission from a private collection)

Inevitably Charles’s story would only end one way. I kept the promise made in my first blog and on Friday 29th August 2014, one hundred years to the day after it’s recorded that Charles died of his wounds, I stood at his grave in the French village of Bavay. Charles is one of twelve First World War servicemen buried in this small and very peaceful rural cemetery. Three died in 1914 and nine in 1918 – a reminder that that part of France was behind German lines for the majority of the war.

I was nervous and excited in equal measures to visit the final resting place of Charles. I was delighted to see that a bouquet of flowers had been placed on each First World War grave – presumably by the locals at the beginning of the centenary period – and was glad to lay my wreath of poppies to honour the man I have come to know as much more than a soldier in a black and white photo. I left a brief history of him and some photos so that anyone passing that grave would know who is buried there.

With the intense activity surrounding the First World War, it would be easy to become immune to it but on that morning in a graveyard in France, I connected on a very human and very personal level with the meaning and sacrifice of the conflict. I experienced just an inkling of the emotional impact that Charles’s death would have had on my family on the day one hundred years earlier that they lost their eldest son and big brother. To be at Charles’s grave on the centenary of the day he gave his life was a very proud moment for me.

 

12 comments

  1. David Underdown says:

    On 4 August 2014 the International Red Cross Committee released online the first part of their First World War POW and missing persons enquiry records, these can be found at http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/

    There is a record card for C A Hunt, 12th Lancers http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/en/File/Details/3450991/3/2/. The reference number on this refers on to a burial report http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/en/List/3450991/1873/50517/. In this case it doesn’t add anything particularly new, as it just shows his burial at Bavay, as expected, but it’s a further example of the varied paper trail that exists.

    Chris Baker has written a brief guide to searchign the records http://www.1914-1918.net/soldiers/icrc.html and there are various help links and so on within the website itself which explain the layout of the cards and what the references mean.

    David

    1. Caroline James says:

      Thanks so much. I didn’t know about the POW records. It’s amazing that Charles has one as he only survived a matter of days following capture. It’s another wonderful part of Charles’s story and actually confirms some of my theories around his burial.

  2. Virginia Batty says:

    A poignant tale but I think it is wonderful that you have been able to piece so much together and was able to find out more about Charle’s war and his sacrifice. To be able to identify and tell the stories of those who gave so much, is so important and of such great value!

    1. Caroline James says:

      Hi. Thanks so much for your comment. It has been a great journey to find out about Charles. It’s taught me that there is so much to find and that we should all unearth everything we can about our First World War ancestors.

  3. David Matthew says:

    I would add that Treasury files can be useful where individuals have asked for financial assistance where injuries were attributed to war service. I came across the case of Bertie Harsent (T 268/32) who had been gassed during his service in France and Belgium from 13 November 1916 until 1 June 1917 (see ancestry and TNA) and suffered from bad eye-sight as a result. In 1920 he had been appointed initially as an unestablished Messenger in the Treasury and served for 38 years until he found he could not carry out his duties to his satisfaction . Not only did he receive a letter of thanks from the Chancellor of the Exchequer upon his leaving the Treasury but the Chancellor asked whether his case was being taken up with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (MPNI) (he was receiving an 80% disability pension) and Treasury took up his case and despite MPNI rejecting his case St Dunstan’s gave him accommodation, a bungalow, when he requested it, with the help of the Treasury Welfare Officer, St Dunstan’s made up the difference in his disability pension from their own funds so that it became 100%. Harsent was awarded the Imperial Service Medal in 1959, but due to moving he was unable to attend at the Treasury to pick it up himself.

    1. Caroline James says:

      Thanks for the comment David. I’m now a great believer in exploring all types of records – you never know where someone may turn up!

  4. Alison Booth says:

    Dear Caroline,
    Thank you so much for sharing your research story and Charles’s story. It was both very moving and also fascinating to read, and has inspired me not to give up in my search regarding my Grandad and his cousin. I did not realise there were so many alternative records to search. My Grandad – Loyal North Lancashire Regiment – survived and came back and met my Granny, and didn’t speak about the war, but his cousin died over in France in September 1918 and is buried at Lapugnoy. I plan to visit there sometime.

    I have planned to come to TNA very soon to read war diaries and to see if Grandad’s service records are there on microfilm, hence why I was on the website today, but was feeling a bit disheartened so far by the apparent lack of information to find and was feeling I am just not going to find anything. Then I came across your blog which has re-inspired me and made me feel maybe I will find something somewhere!

    Thank you again.
    Alison.

  5. Nick Broome says:

    Hi Caroline, my late grandfather, James Hodson (Hudson) served in 12L from 1912 to mid 1916 when he was posted to the RE. He took part in the Moy charge. I am desperately trying to confirm he served with C Sqdn but have hit a wall. Any ideas please? I was fortunate to meet a then serving Major in 9/12L a few years ago who was very helpful to me (he had written an account of The Charge and gave me a copy). my grandfather originally hailed from Durham and had been a miner as a boy, then joined 5th Royal Irish Lancers in early 1912 before moving to the 12th later that year. @jimmy’ won the MM and Pip, Squeak and Wilfred but pawned the lot after the War as he found the ‘land fit for heroes’ wasn’t so great (at least, financially). great reading of your research. Any help would be really gratefully received.
    Kind Regards
    Nick

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hi Nick,

      Unfortunately we’re unable to help with family history requests on the blog, but if you go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      I hope that helps.

      Nell

  6. Sarah says:

    Hi Caroline,
    I too am trying to trace an ancestor on my husband’s side. I know he was in the 12th Lancers and he was at Moy too and was awarded the 1914 Star. The following year he transferred to the Army Veterinary Corps. I know you cannot answer specific questions, but can I ask – the photograph of the group that you published, is this just of Corporals and Lance Corporals as I have seen commented? Only he was a Private, so I didn’t know if it was possible he was in that photo! His name was Thomas Jones, but we have records from his time in the Anglo-Boer War that he was often listed as J Jones for some, as yet, unknown reason!
    Thank you for creating this blog – it has certainly helped me on numerous occasions…

    1. Caroline James says:

      Hello Sarah,
      I’m glad my blog has helped you and it’s always good to hear from the relatives of another 12th Lancer!

      The photograph – as I understand it – is just of corporals and lance corporals, along with some officers. That being said, Charles Hunt was sometimes a private and sometimes a lance corporal. It was quite a fluid rank, so there’s a chance Thomas Jones may have been in it. We think it was taken in Africa but it could have been India as it’s undated. I’ve posted the photo on Flickr. If you download a large version, the faces are very distinct. You could see if you can spot him https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/9603776457/

      You could also look at the Regimental museum’s website. The ‘Images’ ‘Journal’ and ‘Personnel’ sections are particularly good for tracking Lancers https://9th12thlancersmuseum.org/

      I really hope this has helped you further.

      Thanks
      Caroline

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