My Tommy’s War: A Sawbridgeworth lad at the Somme

Tracing my great-grandfather in the Hertfordshire Regiment

I’m slightly ashamed to admit in this very public forum that I’ve barely done any family history research of my own since I started working at The National Archives over seven years ago. For the last year or so I’ve been involved in the preparations and planning around how The National Archives will mark the First World War centenary, which we hope to announce later this year. Seeing so many of my colleagues share fascinating stories about their First World War ancestors in this blog has been the prompt I needed to start digging.

I was fortunate enough to grow up knowing both of my maternal grandfather’s parents; they both died when I was in my teens. I remember asking my great-grandfather about his experiences in the First World War for a school project, and that he told me he’d been a stretcher bearer in Ypres. Sadly I haven’t got a clue what happened to the recording I made of our conversation, but next time I have the opportunity to rummage around in my parents’ loft I’m going to try to find it…

stretcher bearers of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) lifting a wounded man out of a trench. Painting by Gilbert Rogers. Credit: The Wellcome Library, London

Stretcher bearers of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) lifting a wounded man out of a trench. Painting by Gilbert Rogers. Credit: The Wellcome Library, London

So anyway, on with the research. Armed with a small amount of basic knowledge – his name (Frederick George Saban) and the county (Hertfordshire) – I quickly managed to track him down in the 1911 census. At the time of the census he was 16 years old, living in a small town called Sawbridgeworth with his parents and younger brother and sister and listed as a nursery labourer. As an aside, I was very surprised to see that his father was listed as church clerk and sexton – something to investigate at a later date!

I then turned to military records, using his first/last name, town and approximate year of birth to search for any matching records. I was very pleased to find quite a few results for him and delightedly started downloading pension and service records for Frederick Saban from Sawbridgeworth. I quickly ascertained that he’d served in the 12th Battalion London Regiment (known as the Rangers), and that he’d served in France between 1915 and 1916, before being discharged as unfit for service.

Then I realised that I was looking at the wrong man’s records.

I couldn’t believe I’d made the most basic of errors, and that I’d overlooked the fact that the Frederick Saban whose records I’d just downloaded had a completely different middle name to my own Frederick Saban. How very embarrassing! But what are the odds of there being two Frederick Sabans (quite an unusual surname), born in the same year in the same small town? And were they related? Something else to investigate at a later date. I quickly backtracked and made sure I entered the correct middle name, this time using Discovery to search our medal index cards for him. Fortunately I struck lucky, and found that he’d been a private in the Hertfordshire Regiment (and later the Bedfordshire Regiment) from July 1915. A quick web search unearthed a website for the Bedfordshire Regiment, which told me that the Hertfordshire Regiment was a Territorial Force unit which joined forces with the Bedfordshire Regiment on the Western Front.

Medal index card for Frederick George Saban, catalogue reference WO 372/17/139468

Medal index card for Frederick George Saban, my great-grandfather

I returned to Ancestry to see if I could find his service and pension records, but drew a complete blank. Unfortunately these must have been destroyed in the bombing raid during the Second World War that wiped out the majority of personnel records from the earlier war, and are lost forever. I did still have the medal index card details to follow up on though. Equipped with the roll and page numbers listed on the medal index card, and using the search boxes in our research guide to records of British Army soldiers after 1913, I managed to find the catalogue references for the medal rolls listed and ordered them up. One of them in particular gave me a little more information than I’d had before, which was that he’d been disembodied (the slightly alarming term used for being discharged from the Territorial Force, rather than the regular Army) in February 1919.

And so the search ends. I know that I’m unlikely to find any more records that provide me with any personal information about my great-grandfather and his time in this war, but I’ve managed to find out some details that my family hadn’t really known before, such as the dates of his service (and particularly that he stayed on beyond the Armistice of 1918). I also learned that his regiment was involved in many of the key battles on this front; I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors that they (and my great-grandfather) would have experienced, but my next step will be to read through the regiment’s war diary in detail. I’m particularly excited about this, as I’ve been involved in the project to digitise the unit war diaries for the centenary. I know that I’m unlikely to find Frederick’s name listed in there, but I hope that the diary will give me a glimpse of the regiment’s activities for the time that he served with them, and go some way to helping me understand his experiences and those of the millions who served alongside him.


  1. David Underdown says:

    It may help others who are researching to note that the six figure service number he ended the war with is a pretty good indication that he served with a Territorial Force unit. Those numbers were issued from 1917. This only holds absolutely true for infantry units, things get a bit more complicated with Royal Engineers, artillery, the Labour Corps and so on where you might be issued with a six figure number even in a non-territorial unit.

    Each territorial battalion was issued with numbers from within a certain block so you can use that to work out which battalion a man was serving with at the time of the renumbering (he could subsequently be transferred within the regiment without changing number though, so you do need to check the medal rolls), though you can’t necessarily tell if they were serving with the 1st or 2nd line unit.

    More specifically I can tell you that your great-grandfather seems to have been a bellringer in Broxbourne, not too far from Sawbridgeworth (possibly he moved there between 1911 and his enlistment?). Certainly a Private F G Saban, Hertfordshire Regiment was reported in the issue of The Ringing World published on 16 April 1915 to be a ringer at Broxbourne (and that would be reasonably consistent with the date of entry into France on his MIC) and subsequently it was reported on 7 July 1916 that a Pte W Saban of Broxbourne was serving with 35th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in France. The fact Frederick’s father is recorded as sexton and parish clerk suggests he may well have been a ringer too – the sexton was usually responsible for at least tolling a bell for services.

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