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Berkshire Family Historian
March 2001

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2001 Contents

First World War soldiers' records - the 'Burnt Documents'

Until a few years ago anybody applying to the Ministry of Defence for papers relating to soldiers who fought in the First World War received a standard reply: "unfortunately because of enemy action during the blitz the non-commissioned soldiers' records which survived were so damaged by fire and water that they cannot be produced as originals". For most of us that meant that records of our fathers and grandfathers were lost forever.

Bat a pilot project to film 1,000 of the 33,000 boxes of documents that did survive was carried out in 1997. It was so successful that the Public Record Office applied for a lottery grant to film the whole collection. It has been estimated that the surviving documents contain the records of two million men. They represent about 40% of the servicemen who joined the army, but the information they contain opens up an unparalleled history of the ordinary soldier. Not all the records have been filmed yet, the target date for completion is June 2002. Surnames beginning with I, J, K, L and M will be available in 2001, and G and H next yeas.

This is the story of two researchers who have gone through the records attempting to discover the part their ancestors played in the Great War.

Joyce Stamp writes:

About four years ago I tried to obtain the army records of my father, William Sydney Burchell, who was born in December 1896. Unfortunately I knew very little about his time as a soldier in the First World War. He had joined the Rifle Brigade at the age of about 17, giving his age as 18. I have his cap badge, but not his regimental number. He was sent to France and was gassed twice, the second time he was brought back to England unconscious. It is possible he spent some time at the Sutherland War Hospital, Christchurch Road, Reading. By 1919 he appeared to have recovered sufficiently to be fit enough to continue his army career in India. While there it soon became apparent that his health had suffered as a result of the gas. He was then brought back to the United Kingdom and spent some time in hospital, before he was medically discharged with a pension. When he died in 1946 my mother was unable to claim a war widow's pension as his discharge was arranged whilst he was still in hospital, so it would have been impossible for them to get married while he was still in uniform.

When I arrived at the Public Record Office I went to the help desk and was shown the film and fiche room. I found this quite intimidating, probably because of the different records held there. I had been told to look for a large guide to the 'burnt records' W0363, which was full of names in alphabetical order. I knew already that B's were available; I searched for the name Burchell with a number of spelling variants. I noted the numbers of the films I needed to search. The quality was poor, but not impossible. At one point I thought I had found the right one, but it was for a William Samuel, not Sydney. As he spent some time in India he may not have been included in these records so I was shown W0364 which covered those discharged after the war and given pensions. I looked through these records, but drew another blank.

It occurred to me that there might be medical records which would throw light on his military career. I was told to look in a file PIN 26, MH106. I certainly had no idea what to expect. I flicked through the pages and happened to see 'Gas Poisoning'. I was given the reference number and after ordering the records at the computer terminal and using my swipe card I had to wait 20 to 30 minutes for the pager to bleep indicating that my records were ready to view. I had thought the film room was big, but the area I was now entering was much larger. I was asked if I wanted the boxed records first or the folders. Inside the box I found A4 flimsy single sheet records. Each piece of paper represents a British soldier who had been gassed. This mass of papers compacted would measure about three inches in thickness and they accounted for just a few. The sheets were not in alphabetical order and it was difficult to look at the names without looking at the records themselves. It was a deeply upsetting experience but I now know what to expect if and when I find my father's record.

My brothers are helpful in filling in part of the history of my father, but I was greatly surprised when one of them found a photograph of him taken with his comrades: No. 1 Platoon Army Corps, 4th Battalion, Rifle Brigade. It was taken at Ramillies Barracks, Aldershot, in August 1919. This was probably before he went to India as he looked so well.

No. 1 Platoon 4th Bn The Rifle Brigade taken at Ramillies Barracks, August, 1919

No. 1 Platoon 4th Bn The Rifle Brigade taken at Ramillies Barracks, August, 1919

 

Julia Varey writes:

I went to the PRO looking for Percy Athol Barrett, my grandfather. To my amazement I found his Short Service (For the Duration of the War) Attestation Papers. He had joined at Oxford and gave his age as 36 years 4 months. He lied - his birth certificate gives his date of birth as 24 November, 1876. There was a separate page for his medical history that revealed he had a very slight hammer-toe in his right foot. He gave his wife's name, Emily Barrett, and the names and ages of his ten children.

He was in the 132nd Oxfordshire (Heavy) Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to Woolwich in 1916. As he was about to attend the 9am parade on March 8 he suddenly fell forward on the verandah overlooking the parade ground and 'immediately expired'. The Medical Officer of Troops was called and after examination of the body pronounced life extinct. The Coroner of the Borough of Woolwich held an inquest and it was discovered that Percy died after suffering from a heart attack and that he also had chronic pneumonia. The officer in charge of records asked to see a newspaper account of the death but nothing further is known if there was a report of the inquest.

His widow and ten children received a pension Of 37 shillings a week. My next project is to find the newspaper account of his death, either in the local newspapers in Woolwich or in Oxford where his widow lived at that time. I would also like to find the war diaries of his battalion to find out where he was stationed and what action he saw in the 'war to end all wars'.


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Berkshire Family History Society 2001

updated 20th August 2001