Next Monday, 11th November, will be the ninety-fifth anniversary of Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War. Already the preliminary bombardment of books timed to coincide with 2014’s centenary of its commencement has begun – by my estimate there will have been at least fifty published this year alone. We can therefore no doubt confidently expect a further snowstorm of histories, memoirs and analyses over the next four, not to mention countless television events, dramas and documentaries.
Nobody could argue that the 1914-1918 conflict was not one of the seminal events of the 20th Century. The scale of the slaughter on all sides – together with its effect upon families, institutions, social conventions, politics, economies, medicine and military thinking – was lasting and incalculable. There have been terrible conflicts since, and indeed nuclear bombs, but somehow the First World War continues to resonate with the British public like no other. This is probably because of its extraordinary cultural impact and the sense of awe and poignancy prompted in later generations by the tales of fortitude, hardship and suffering in the trenches, together with the impact upon visitors of the hundreds of Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries littering the Western Front.
I am neither a historian nor a diligent, methodical researcher but, over the past fifteen years, I have spent many hobby hours in the Public Records Office at Kew and elsewhere, trawling through dusty files and documents in pursuit of information on tens of WW1 soldiers and regimental units.
When asked, I always meekly classify myself as an enthusiastic amateur.
These feature people posting with four decades’ of research in their locker, some who can identify a soldier’s regiment, wound history and rank in an instant, simply by looking at his cap badge, stripes, belt or puttees as displayed in a decaying photograph. Or explain an obscure military acronym to an enquiring descendant. Or find a missing battle feature on a faded aerial photograph taken on an unremarkable given day. In comparison to these tigers, I tend to find empathy with 1945 Labour premier Clem Attlee, whom Churchill allegedly once described as ‘a modest little man, with plenty to be modest about’.
In my occasional future columns for the National Rust, I shall record my opinions and perhaps the odd item of potential interest that I come across.
Today I thought I would present an example of the kind of thing that can happen to someone researching First World War matters.
About a year ago, I had a lead – the name of an officer, one ‘G. Moore’.
At the Public Records Office, Kew, there are two databases of officers’ files – their reference numbers are WO 339 (for regular officers) and WO 374 (for territorial officers). My first attempt to find my man therefore involved looking through the indexes of both, to identify every ‘G. Moore’. If lucky there might be four or five. But there could be tens, or even hundreds. The only way to go further is to call up the file for each man. At Kew you can only order three files at a time and, on average, they each take 45 minutes to arrive at the reading room collection point.
Once you have your first three files, you might immediately discover that none of them are ‘your’ man. All you can do is return the files and then find a free computer to on which to order three more files to be brought up – which, of course, takes another 45 minutes. And so on. Even that is not the end of it. If, by any luck, you come across the ‘money’ file, it may contain page after page of fascinating information on him … or it may simply consist of a couple of forms and a letter from him requesting leave.
Added to which, because of a fire caused by German bombing in the Second World War, a significant section of the Public Records Office personal files from WW1 were destroyed. So you may never find you man at all. ‘Needle in a haystack’ would just about cover the scale of the task in searching for a specific officer, which it why – when you do strike ‘gold’ – the feeling of triumph is hard to contain.
Today’s story, however, concerns ‘G. Moore’. Not ‘my’ man, sadly – but another one.
This ‘G.Moore’ [reference WO 374/48559] was a captain in the City of London Regiment. I began flicking through his file for no apparent reason, other than boredom perhaps, and came across an interesting tale.
At his initial WW1 medical board on 2nd October 1915, he was aged 38, 5 feet 4 inches tall, had nineteen years pre-war service, and was suffering from varicose veins which prevented him walking more than a couple of miles. He was pronounced unfit for general service.
The next file item was a letter (24th February 1916) sent by Captain Moore from Alexandria, complaining about not being listed on the roll of the 9th, instead of the 2/4th, London Regiment.
Next (5th February 1918) he writes to the War Office, asking for his refused promotion to be reconsidered. He referred to his twenty-two years’ service (twelve as an officer) and claimed to be the senior officer in his regiment.
The War Office response was a stern letter from a Lieutenant-General Englehart (9th March 1918) ticking him off for writing direct to the War Office, instead of through the normal channels.
In May 1918, the Staff Paymaster reported to the War Office that he had formally requested Captain Moore to furnish the required documents relating to the expenses he had drawn, which he had so far failed to produce. In response (10th June 1918), The Deputy-Assistant-General of the British Armies in France writes ‘No officer of this description can be traced in this country’, albeit that a Captain G.H. Moore of 4th London Regiment is listed under ‘Commanding Depot’.
Subsequently, Captain Moore turned up in Poona – where he was formally asked (presumably again) to account for the advances of 772.80 and 75 rupees that her had drawn from the Treasure Chest Officer in Aden on 22nd January 1917, under threat that he might have these amounts taken from him.
Next in the file appears a typed message (8th July 1918) from West Camp, Shoreham in Sussex, advising the War Office that there was no officer of his name at their depot.
It appears that Moore returned to England on leave for a month in July 1919.
A War Office telegram (12th June 1920) confirms that Captain G.H. Moore of the London Regiment had been found guilty on 6th April, by general court martial, of conduct to the prejudice of military discipline, but not guilty of conduct to the prejudice of good order. Lieutenant-General Huston of the British Expeditionary Force had confirmed the sentence of dismissal on board the ship H.T. ‘KURSK’ on 5th June 1920.
On 13th January 1921, a move to make Moore forfeit his territorial medal was not proceeded with.
On 6th January 1927, the Civil Service writes to the War Office, seeking a reference for Moore, who was applying to work as a clerical officer.
In reply (14th January 1927) the War Office replied as follows:
‘ … [The charge of] conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline was that, at Cairo on 19th February 1920, he consorted with two private soldiers in his bedroom, being at the time in a partially nude condition’.
The above is an example of the strange and wonderful things that one can come across when engaged in a search for something quite different – a different man, indeed.
Apart from recounting the story of Captain G.H. Moore of the London Regiment here, my researching of his file that day has been no use to me whatsoever. Indeed, I have often wondered since whether his file has been brought up from the Public Records Office vaults more than a handful of times in the past eighty years. Or even once.