The Kilted Ancestors prompt for March 2023 in line with the Annual Genealogy Challenges & Triumphs topic was in relation to World War One.
Researching your Ancestors lives during World War One can be interesting but also at time harrowing. This time period can throw up a wide range of documents such as Service Records, Medal cards or Newspaper Articles.
It can however come with its challenges as often records might not exist! In these cases, the researcher often has to think outside of the box by looking at war diaries, memorials, regimental museums as well as historical documents or accounts.
One of my own challenges related to my grandfather’s cousin Alexander Mitchell, born in 1898 in Carriden, Linlithgow, he was the son of Robert & Catherine Mitchell.
From his Commonwealth War Graves entry Alexander is detailed as serving as a Private with the 8th Battalion Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), his Service number was 132185. He is listed as being killed in action on the 24th April 1918 aged 20 years.
His name is listed on panel 92 of Pozieres Memorial which would indicate that either his body was not found or that his body could not be identified.
I was unable to locate a Service Record for Alexander, probably due to the fact that a large portion of World War One Army Service Records were destroyed in 1940 when an incendiary bomb caused a fire at the war office in London. This did present me with a bit of a problem as Service Records can be so rich with information.
I did find an indexed entry detailing that he enlisted at Glencorse in Edinburgh and served in France and Flanders.
I located Alexanders Medal Card which details that he was awarded the Victory and British War Medals. His pension record card details that his father received his sons war pension between 1919 and 1932.
The West Lothian Courier of 30th August 1918 reports on ‘Bo’ness Casualties’ detailing that Alexander a Private with the Machine Gun Corps was listed as missing.
The Army Registers of Soldiers Effects details money owned to soldiers and on their death records who this money would be passed to (normally the next of kin). Alexanders record details that his Death was Accepted on 24th April 1919 (Perhaps a typo for the year) this would indicate that he was either seen to be killed or was with a group who were known to be killed. Alexanders father Robert Mitchell was given a sum of £2 17s 6d and 3 of his siblings were given 19s 3d. The Medal Roll for his victory medal also details that death was accepted however this records the date as 24th April 1918.
Other than the information found in these documents not much was known about Alexander Service, the only way forward was to look at Historical documents & War diaries to try & attempt to piece things together, here is how I got on:-
Due to his age, it would not be until August 1916 that Alexander would have been permitted to enlist. As his Service Record does not exist, I discussed his service with an acquaintance who works as a Military Expert to ascertain if his Service number might yield any clues. I was advised that Alexanders Service Number dates to January 1918 and that he would more than likely have transferred into the Machine Gun Corps from a Training Reserve Battalion and that he may have served with one or more Training Reserve Battalions before his transfer. I was also advised that other men with Service Numbers in this range were serving overseas within a couple of months of joining the Machine Gun Corps so it is possible that Alexander did too. If this was the case then he may only have served in France for a month or two before his death.
The war diary for the 8th Battalion Machine Gun Corps details that the unit were at Villers-Bretonneux on the 24th April.
The battle of Villers-Bretonneux was part of the Spring Offensive of 1918 which took place between 21st March and the 17th July 1918, it was the Germans last attempt at beating the British and French on the Western Front. At the start of the Spring Offensive the Regiment were in towns around the area of Arques and during the first 10 days of the offensive they gradually moved south before taking part in battles in and around Amiens.
Seeking to seize Amiens on the 24th April the Germans launched an attack on Villers-Bretonneux a barrage of mustard gas, explosives, fog and smoke reduced visibility allowing the German infantry and tanks to advance. This caused much confusion among the British ranks. The battle of Villers-Bretonneux would be historic as it was the first time where tank would come up against tank.
The Unit War Diary of the 24th states that following a heavy bombardment with large quantities of gas the enemy attacked at about 6am. The enemy were favoured by the mist and overcame the front line. Flame projectors and tanks were used and after severe fighting the enemy gained possession of Villers-Bretonneux and pushed forward to the eastern edge of Bois D’Aquenne. This forced their own line north of Bois de Hangard onto the Cachy defences. Nothing was known about D Companies front line guns or of the four guns of A Company which were in position east of Villers-Bretonneux, it seems probable that they were overwhelmed in the mist and smoke. The Officer in Charge of A Company tried to reach these guns about 7am and met the enemy advancing with flame projectors at the eastern edge of the town. A later note in the diary states that the bodies of Johnson and his A Company gun team were found on the following day.
The enemy were advancing without respirators which made them think that they had either taken an antidote or that the gas may actually be harmless. Two guns of A Company at the south west edge of the village opened fire as soon as the intense bombardment gave them warning of an impending attack. They subsequently got direct targets and maintained their position for 45 minutes, after the infantry posts in their vicinity withdrew. They fired 9000 rounds during the first 2 or 3 hours of the bombardment with their respirators on. During this time an enemy tank came to within 200 yards of their position. The Machines guns in the Cachy line got good targets and certainly inflicted considerable loss.
The war diary estimated the casualties on that day to be 7 Officers and 110 other ranks. At 10pm the 3rd Corps launched a counter attack and by 10am on the 25th April Villers-Bretonneux was in the hands of the allies and a line had been established east of the town. The war diary also makes note that 60 enemy soldiers surrendered to them.
A search for a soldier named Johnson was carried out and revealed that Lieutenant George William Johnson of the 8th Battalion Machine Gun Corps was killed on the same day as Alexander, he is also remembered on the Pozieres Memorial It is possible that Alexander may have been within the same vicinity as Johnson when he was killed.
Having obtained this much information in relation to the events of that day it is hard not to imagine the disturbing and horrific sights that took place at Villers-Bretonneux on that day. In fact, I was actually able to follow his unit in the weeks/months that led up to his death. This research was carried out whilst I was taking a WW1 History course with Oxford University and as I sure you will agree provides a lot more information than an entry on his service record would.
A further search revealed that Alexander is remembered on the War Memorial within Carriden Church as well as on the War Memorial in Bo’ness
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