The problems with researching World War Two (1)

During my researches of the High School’s war casualties, I soon encountered one, huge, huge, problem. This was the fact that somebody at the High School, a pupil or a member of staff, might have exactly the same name as a casualty listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website, but beyond that, there was nothing else to link them together, or to keep them firmly apart. No date of birth. No date of death. No parents’ names. No place where they had lived. Nothing.

The reason for this strange state of affairs is that in the huge number of names listed on the CWGC website there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of casualties which provide no extra details at all which would allow any definite links to be made. In particular, no date of birth is ever listed.

I have always presumed that this has happened because, when the new recruit filled in the paperwork early in his military career, there was some kind of option which allowed him to preserve his privacy in this way.

To take a completely random example, Sergeant Leonard Thompson in the RAF was killed on Wednesday, September 16, 1942 and his sacrifice is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial near London. And there are no more details than that provided about Leonard, no date of birth, no age, no parents’ names, no town of origin, and no town of residence, absolutely nothing. So if there is a Leonard Thompson in the School Register, of an age to be in the Royal Air Force, there is no definite way of linking the two together, unless you find it mentioned in another book or on another website elsewhere (something which I have not yet done in five years of research).

This is all there is to link Leonard to anybody else:

Certainly, photographic evidence is of little value. Are these the same person? The little bugler boy at the High School:

And the rear gunner on an Avro Lancaster bomber (front row, right) ?

Let’s take another completely random example. In the School Register, Boy No 4959, John Taylor, is an orphan and has no parents listed. Only Mrs AM Cooke is recorded as a “Father or next Friend”. She is most probably a relative of one of John’s parents and is now the adult legally responsible for John Taylor’s welfare. Clearly, the original Mr Taylor has passed away and so too, probably, has Mrs Taylor.

But was young High School boy, John Taylor, Boy No 4959 in the School Register, the same person as Private Taylor, 4748560, of the York and Lancaster Regiment? Or was he Able Seaman Taylor, D/JX 303159, in the Royal Navy? Or perhaps he was Engine Room Artificer 4th Class,  John Taylor, D/MX 75819. Or maybe Stoker 1st Class JohnTaylor,  P/KX 601918 ?

Or perhaps the High School’s John Taylor was Flight Sergeant Taylor, Service Number  1079856? Or was he Gunner John Taylor, 4385260 ? or Private John Taylor, 3909612 of the South Wales Borderers? Or Sapper John Taylor 1888052 of the Royal Engineers? Maybe  he was Gunner John Taylor, 941298, of the Royal Artillery ?

Back to Leonard Thompson. Another war casualty to bear the same name was Gunner Leonard Thompson. He was killed on Thursday, May 18, 1944 and he is buried in the Beach Head War Cemetery at Anzio in Italy. He was a member of the 92 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. There are no more details about him either. There is no age, no parents’ names, no town of origin, no town of residence, nothing. He might well be the Leonard Thompson in the School Register but then again, he might not. There is nothing definite to link him to the High School. Here is the beach at Anzio, as usual, full of Americans in their flashy, cheap tanks:

Still, at least it kept the Germans’ towels off the sunloungers:








Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Nottingham, The High School, Writing

24 responses to “The problems with researching World War Two (1)

  1. a gray

    There was someone who cared about these young men, and likely, there is still someone out there that remembers their names.

    • My researches in fact revealed that we probably underestimate the impact of many war casualties.
      Parents’ lives are devastated and the deceased’s children are frequently left bewildered by events. I spoke to the daughter of one of our Old Boy casualties and it was clear that her feelings for her father were no less real at her advanced age than they had been when she was seven or eight and had “always felt safe when I was with him”. She had not forgotten a single detail of her father.
      There was an economic impact too, as father and son businesses came to an abrupt and unexpected end, in one case affecting the lives of literally thousands of their employees.

      • In recent years, much has been made of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I don’t know in what year use of the term began, but the symptoms are not new. Were these symptoms formerly called collectively “shell shock”? I don’t know, but I do know they are not new.

        You wrote, John, “. . .we probably underestimate the impact of many war casualties. Parents’ lives are devastated and the deceased’s children are frequently left bewildered by events.” I don’t know what term is used in the United Kingdom, but in the U.S., we have “War orphans”, at least 183,000 American children who were left fatherless as the result of WWII: Their fathers went to war and never came back. I believe that these children suffered and perhaps still suffer from some type of PTSD. Certainly, their surviving parents did. I doubt that this has ever been recognized adequately. But then, who wants to hear about the survivors when everyone else wants to put it all in the past and move on?

      • Thank you so much for that. I remember watching a TV programme where an old lady recalled her father going off to World War Two. Seven or eight years old, she walked with him some of the way to the station. When she got tired, they stopped. Her father kissed her goodbye and walked off up the hill to the crossroads next to the station. When he got there, he stopped, turned round and waved goodbye to her. Then he walked off to the right and disappeared into the station. She never saw him again and even well into her eighties, the event was clearly just as traumatic as when she was a small child.
        The problem, though, is how to deal with an aggressive country or individual, who does not play by the rules. The Prussians of WW1, Hitler, North Korea and above all Isis, who have slaughtered people on the streets of England as well as the Middle East. I must confess, I have no easy answer, and I’m still working on the problem!

      • There is no easy answer, John, to any of this.

    • It’s probably the most complicated thing I’ve done, Derrick. In actual fact, I will be forced to add a reasonably long appendix of casualties who might possibly be Old Nottinghamians as they are called. It’s the only way that I can help some researcher in the next century when many of those records which are now still closed are, hopefully, available to everybody

  2. I agree, John. Research can get to be a sticky situation when the records are not specific enough. You still do a great job of it though!!

    • Thank you for those kind words. As I mentioned above, there will have to be an appendix with questions such as: “Albert Edward Hammond was Boy Number 5054, born on July 5th 1914 and living at Ivy Villas in Breck Hill Road. Was he Flight Sergeant Albert Edward Hammond of 35 Squadron, killed on July 9th 1941? The Flight Sergeant had already survived a crash in a Whitley bomber in September 1940 and then again in December 1940. ”
      There are nearly nine pages of such puzzles!

  3. Chris Waller

    I can sympathise. I encountered the same problem when researching my family tree. Donning my systems analyst’s hat, I recognise the problem of creating a unique identifier. There is also the frustration of the broken chain, when just one missing link renders further discovery all but impossible. I did discover that public records back in the nineteenth century were not always reliable.

  4. Hi Chris.
    What got me was the unbelievable yet totally unnecessary secretiveness of it all. One of Bomber Command’s earliest casualties was on September 4th 1939. He was Ian Edward Maitland Borley from Weston-super-Mare in Somerset. How would it affect national security to know when he joined up? What school he went to? Where he was trained, and so on.
    Thousands of Canadian records have been open now for quite a long while and the country still stands, safe and secure.
    Could it possibly be because the fee for the next-of-kin finding out their relatives’ details was, even years ago, £35? Surely the casualty has paid a high enough price already for his details to be available to anybody who wants them.

    • Pierre Lagacé

      i agree with you John. They paid high enough price. Also there are several Websites that make money with people researching lost ones…

      • Yes, there are. I subscribed to “forces-war-records” which was £50 for a year. It was OK, but a high percentage of the information was on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, and the absence of any date of birth had a huge effect, especially as superior officers seemed happy with any combination of initials for their men. My Dad was “JFH” and I only ever found him as “FH” and if his surname had been less unusual, I would probably never have found him. Pity my poor work colleague who was CJA Curtis, or C or J or A or JA or Curtiss.

  5. Interesting quandary, I follow a gentleman whose hobby is returning found war medals that people send to him, he sometimes has the same problem as you pointed out, however his research incorporates going into, many times, through diligent research, he has found the solution to his problems there, must say by all accounts, it a time consuming exercise.

    • Wow! He is a very dedicated man.
      I subscribed for a year to “Forces-war-records” and they were advertising themselves as offering the biggest number of (British) military records available on the internet. Perhaps the biggest problem was the forces’ failure to respect initials, so if you were ADH Taylor, you might appear as A, AD, ADH, DH and so on.
      In actual fact, I found the problem virtually insoluble. The only time I solved even the simplest of puzzles was when the casualty’s parents’ names were given on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website, or the town where they all lived. This could be tied in with the School Register where the father’s name was given as well as the family’s address.

      • Definitely a big task mate, do you have something like our government has which is a Government war records section, they have correlated all records of all wars our personnel have been in,either way it’s definitely a Sherlock Holmes world, cheers.

  6. I have found exactly this same problem John. A lot of records are now being held on fee based sites which can cost a lot when you sign up to several of them. A trip to the National Archives would be better but even that’s expensive on our national rail network. Newspapers are good, you might strike lucky, but that’s the challenge we face!

    • Absolutely. The “Forces-war-records” website, as I mentioned in a reply above, was quite hit-and-miss, and it had its own problems of the failure of the original records themselves to respect initials. The website itself is also a “work-in-progress” and my Dad only turned up in the last couple of months of the twelve I had.
      Overall, the best tool I found was the Kelly’s Directories of Nottingham which at least established the father’s name and job…..sometimes!

  7. How exasperating, exhausting, and so discouraging, John. Here you are attempting to recognize those that lost their lives in WWI and you have no information to help you out. I give you SO much credit for what you are doing. I don’t know if I have what it takes to come to dead ends, unable to find facts on those who so deserve to be recognized. Bless you for the work you do!!

    • Thank you Amy, you are very kind. Overall, I have 125 casualties and I failed to find out any significant details of their deaths for just fourteen of them, which is not too bad. Even for those fourteen, I always found out when they died, generally where, but usually not why and hardly ever how.
      The forces themselves are often keen to keep things quiet, especially in the case of accidents or acts of carelessness. One poor young man was killed when an RAF bus reversed into him, but it was quite clear that his family never found that out. I suppose most families can come to terms with their son being sacrificed to the national cause, but nobody is keen to see the life of a dear one just wasted.

  8. What I really like about your posts is that so many people who have been forgotten come alive and more important they are common people. Thank you

  9. Thank you very much. I could not have a finer compliment than what you have written. Bringing the forgotten back to life and recognising the value of every single human being is exactly what I am trying to do.
    Thank you for your kind words..

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