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'Finding My Grandfather' - by Tony Ede
I knew almost nothing about my maternal grandfather until very recently. With the aid of BBC South, the internet and a visit to northern France in mid-September it has been possible to change all that.
The background is as follows: my grandfather, Robert Thompson Stephenson, was killed whilst serving in the Army during the First World War; my mother never knew him as she was only five months old when he died; my grandmother married again, produced a second family and moved south from Northumberland to London and later to Bournemouth. There was very little contact with relatives up north (not many people had telephones in those days) so nobody talked to us grandchildren about him; I do remember being taken up north at about eight years of age and meeting my great grandparents and a great aunt.
Some years ago, a cousin in Australia set about tracing her family history. However, whilst sharing a grandmother with me, she had a different grandfather, so she naturally concentrated on him. I donít think she got very far.
What set me off on the search for information about my grandfather was a programme on BBC South in October 2003 about deserters shot at dawn. Since I had no idea what had happened to him, this was a possible place to start. I e-mailed BBC South. Three consecutive researchers working on different aspects of World War I archives were very helpful, telling me that he was not one of those shot at dawn, he might have died on the Somme, and that I should try the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website
Fortunately, I have a copy of my motherís birth certificate which listed her father as a mine railwayman (Northumberland Fusiliers) and his age as 26 years. Armed with this information, I quickly found his name on the website. He died on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme Offensive, has no known grave, but is commemorated on the Memorial at Thiepval. It was even possible to print out a certificate (complete with mis-spelling of his motherís name, but you canít have everything!). The website also gave general information about the Somme.
In an attempt to find out more, I tried to find a website for the Northumberland Fusiliers, but without success. I also tried the Public Records Office website (it is now called the National Archives). However, this seemed to require a lot of work on my part, for which I had little time whilst still in employment.
Coincidentally, Margaret and I had been to Thiepval about 20 years earlier, when we took our children on a tour of the battlefield cemeteries to teach them something about the two world wars. Of course I had no idea then that my grandfather was commemorated there. Even had I known that, it would have been very difficult to find his name without the information gathered eighteen months ago. The Memorial itself is huge, with 16 piers joined by arches. On each pier the four sides are divided into numerous columns absolutely crammed with more than 72,000 names of officers and soldiers who died on the Somme but have no known grave.
In mid-September, Margaret and I went on a cheap short break to Northern France, taking our car and staying at a hotel northwest of St Omer. We decided to revisit the Thiepval Memorial and other sites. Before going to France, I bought from the CWGC a Michelin guide to the sites maintained by them. Armed with this we headed for Thiepval and the Memorial. On arrival we discovered a brand new Visitor Centre (which was officially opened a few days after our visit). This Centre had an interesting display, including a computer which eventually will cross reference all the names, regiments etc. and location of individual names on the memorial itself. There is also a host of books about the Somme. I bought one which dealt solely with the events of 1 July 1916. It lists all the corps, regiments and battalions, where they saw action on that day and gives a brief description of the events which took place in respect of each of the 14 objectives of the Somme Offensive launched by the British Army on 1 July 1916. Over 55,000 men were killed or wounded that day Ė quite horrifying.
Stupidly, I had omitted to take with me the details of where my grandfatherís name was to be found. However, by dint of searching for the Northumberland Fusiliers, we eventually found his name, and took a few photographs of it and of the memorial itself.
From Thiepval, we drove the short distance to Albert for lunch. There we spotted an underground museum about the Somme in the First World War. This is based in a series of tunnels which were used, amongst other things, as an air raid shelter in the Second World War. Very interesting - I recommend a visit. Like most of these places, one could spend hours inside. Far better to make a series of visits, but that was not possible. Oddly enough, I spotted a small sign in one of the tunnels which listed the Western Front Association with an address on Findon Road. As an aside, also in Albert is an enormous basilica Ė well worth a visit.
During our short break, we also went over the border into Belgium to visit Ypres (Wipers to the soldiery), one of the infamous names of the First World War. They too have a museum, in the old Cloth Hall. As well as being informative it was atmospheric in attempting to replicate the dreadful conditions suffered by the soldiery and civilians alike. There is a branch of the CWGC in the town, whose staff helpfully printed off a fact sheet about the Lijssenthoek Cemetery, located a few miles outside the town. Like all CWGC maintained cemeteries (including those we have seen in Great Britain), it is in very good condition. This one has over 10,000 graves of soldiers, including a small number of Germans. However, it is not the largest war grave cemetery! I donít know where the largest one is to be found.
Where to now? I plan to explore other avenues, such as the British Legion to try and find out in which of the 15 battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers on the Somme on 1 July 1916 my grandfather served and then with the aid of the book I have bought try to establish what happened to him. With a fair wind, I might also find out more about my family history from the National Archives.
I hope you find this article of interest. Who knows, it may prompt you to find out more about your ancestors. There is no doubt that the relevant information is much more accessible now in these days of the internet and computerised records.