Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Extraordinary Find

I have long known that my maternal grandmother had lost a brother in the Great War. She told me when I was young that she could not bear to hear "The Last Post" played on Remembrance Day. I knew his name was George and that their family name was was Ingham. As I never had much of an interest in either family history or World War One, I never asked any questions of my Gran or of other family members when I had the chance. I just figured George was one of the millions pointlessly slaughtered in a pointless war. 

On November 11, 2011, while I was standing paying my respects at the Toronto Cenotaph, for some reason I thought of George and of my other maternal great uncle who died in that war. When I got back to my desk at the office, I did a quick internet search for "George Ingham" on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's online database; just on the off chance that something interesting would come up.

CWGC entires for G. Inghams

Four G. Inghams. Which was the correct one? That didn't take long to determine. GL Ingham was from Rochdale, a town known for its textiles located North West of Greater Manchester in England's industrial midlands. I had heard my Mom and Aunt talk about Rochdale again and again as I grew up so I initially focused there. Right first time! 

Shown below is George's detailed citation from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's excellent site.

G.L. Ingham's CWGC entry

My first impression on reading this was of George's very young age; I had a son about the same age in 2011. I also noted his high battalion number - "19" - which I knew indicated a "Kitchener's New Army" volunteer infantry formation. Regular army battalions were usually numbered 1, 2, or 3 and territorial (standing reserve) battalions between 4 and 7. I also knew that the date and place of his death indicated that he was likely a casualty of the Battle of the Somme

I decided to see what I could find on his parents. So I copied the names of his parents and their address into Google in the hopes of finding some family tree stuff. My first "George and Emma" hit on Google took me to the following internet page:

Screen Shot - Burnley Gallery Site

The page showed George's gravestone and a letter written by him exactly a week before his death. It was hard to read the poor quality scan on line and I mistakenly thought that I had found the inventory of a militaria dealer. So I quickly banged off an email to the contact shown - Jackie Waters of Memory Catchers - to see if the letter was available to purchase. Despite my clumsy first contact, Jackie turned out to be a very willing and generous correspondent, a professional historian, and an extraordinarily generous person. Her company, Memory Catchers, specialized in delivering themed intergenerational memory and creative writing workshops to schools, communities and seniors' facilities, providing them with informal learning through fun activities such as period dress up, old fashioned games and other activities.

Jackie told me that the letter was not for sale and that she was actually the great niece of the letter's addressee, George's friend Alf Plater. Alf was George's work mate at a Lancashire Mill called Thorntons. I asked Jackie if she would consider emailing me a better scan of the letter so I could read it, and she quickly agreed. 

George's letter to Alf Plater, dated July 8, 1916
Once I got a good scan, I could tell that the letter said:
                                                                                         July 8, 1916

Dear Alf

Excuse me being so long in writing to you. I am in the pink and best of
spirits. Charlie told me you had been inquiring about me so I thought I
should write when I had the chance. Things have been pretty hot here
lately. We went over the top last week and I shall never forget it. I lost a good
many of my chums and it was heartbreaking to see some of the wounded men.
There were many German helmets to be got but they would be in the way. We
have quite sufficient to carry. The German bayonets are awful things one
edge is like a razor and the other like a double saw. The sight of them
makes you ratty. Well Alf I hope you don't have to come up. How many more
have listed at Thorntons. I have nothing more to write about so I will
close wishing you the best of luck.

George L. Ingham

What a heart-rending letter to take in when one knows that a week later, the young writer would be dead. Another thing that struck me was the clarity of the handwriting as well as the maturity, positiveness, literacy and lack of drama in the words of this young man. My correspondence with Jackie went back and forth with a couple of exchanges before she knocked me over by writing:

"The letter is not something I would ask money for. Personally, I just don't believe in selling medals or anything like that that rightly belong to the family, or in this case the author, George. Naturally, I just wanted to be assured it was going to a bona fide descendant which I see you are. How to get it safely to Canada though? Do we trust the post? What do you recommend? It's precious to you so I will be advised by you on this one." 

So Jackie sent me the letter. I was, and still am completely astonished by her generous gesture. I told her that the letter would certainly be cherished here in Canada in my hands. Upon the letter's arrival, I found more information on its back - specifically George's return military address and a handwritten date July 12, 1916 (likely the date of receipt and the same day George was mortally wounded) in a different hand, presumably Alf's. 

George's return address with detailed unit info
George had added his name, personal service (regimental) number and his detailed unit designation. For readers with no military history background, BEF is the acronym for "British Expeditionary Force." I knew that having the details of his specific unit designation would be very useful in carrying out further detailed research on his military experiences. British infantry field battalions were split into four companies lettered A to D and each company had four platoons numbered 1 to 4. Casualties and attrition could sometimes lead to ad hoc changes to this organization but the organization noted above was standard.

Jackie also suggested that I contact a local history group she was aware of in the town of Wardle outside Rochdale, which is very near to the old site of the now defunct Thorntons textile mill. I provided them with copies of George's letter and a representative of that amateur group, Ann Butterworth, generously provided a bit more information on George and on the area. In addition the group made a special trip to the Lancashire Fusiliers' regimental museum at Bury and scanned some very useful information on my behalf. I thank them for their generosity.