Friday, 29 June 2018

A project to help commemorate the missing soldiers of World War One
Part of the World War 1 commemorative poppy display "pouring" into the dry moat out of Legge's Mount
of the Tower of London (from 
http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4104298)



Monday, 25 June 2018

Welcome

Welcome to Commemorating the Missing. This project was conceived as part of the general commemorative activities associated with the centenary of the Great War 1914-1918.  The focus of the project is commemorating the 338,000 Allied Soldiers who are still missing from World War I and whose bodies have never been found.



Commemoration takes the form of a genealogical memorial and a genetic memorial, and thus the project has two parts:
  1. The first part ("Pick a Soldier, Plant a Tree") aims to commemorate the missing soldiers by building a family tree for each and every one of them, and then "planting" it on the EveryOneRemembered website. This will serve as a genealogical memorial.
  2. The second part ("One in a Million") aims to help create a database of informative DNA donors to act as a genetic memorial (and potentially to aid identification of missing soldiers in the future).

Background

There are over 338,000 soldiers who died on the Western Front in WWI who were never recovered. Their bodies still lie beneath the soil of northern France and Belgium. They were never formally buried. They do not have a grave or a headstone. Most of them will never be found. Therefore it is fitting that we remember these men in particular. And that is what "Commemorating the Missing" aims to do.

Each year 30 to 60 sets of remains are uncovered during routine farm work, road widening schemes, building works, etc. The chances of identifying these men are remote and the vast majority are buried without being identified. Their headstones read: "A soldier of the Great War, known unto God".

However, through a combination of artifactual evidence coupled with intensive genealogical work and the tracing of living relatives for DNA testing, identification of some soldiers has been possible. Fromelles was a relatively recent example of this and (by March 2018) 159 out of the 250 soldiers had been identified, largely as a result of DNA testing of “informative DNA donors”. 

Such identifications tend to make big headlines in the press and on TV, and as a result public expectation of identification is over-optimistic and many people think anything is possible with DNA. This creates problems for the JCCC[1] and LGC.[2] The JCCC co-ordinates all aspects of the retrieval of remains, their identification, and ultimately their burial. LGC performs the DNA testing on the remains and on possible living relatives. People have been known to send their DNA directly to LGC “in case you find my great uncle Charlie”. 

Therefore, whilst there is a strong public desire to commemorate these missing men and a need to facilitate the work required to achieve accurate identification, there is also a need to manage public expectations of what can and cannot be achieved. This project, Commemorating the Missing, aims to achieve all of these goals.

Objectives

Goal 1. To commemorate the missing soldiers from WWI by building a family tree for each and every one of them

Goal 2. To identify informative DNA donors for each of the 338,000+ missing men

Goal 3. To facilitate DNA donation from informative DNA donors

Goal 4. To manage public expectations about what DNA testing can and cannot achieve


Goal 1 will be achieved by the first part of the project - Pick a Soldier, Plant a Tree
Goals 2-4 will be achieved by the second part - One in a Million.

You can find out more about each part of the project, and how to get started yourself, by clicking on the links in the menu to the right.






[1] JCCC, Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre
[2] LGC, Laboratory of the Government Chemist

Friday, 8 December 2017

How to Build a Tree for an Irish Soldier from WWI

Here is a worked example of how to use genealogical records to build a family tree for an Irish soldier who fought in World War One.

First we choose a soldier from the Missing Soldiers Database. This could be a relative you know, or someone with the same surname as you, or someone from a particular regiment or village. In this case, I chose a GLEESON from the 32 entries for that surname currently in the database - the second one down: James J Gleeson, Service Number 7321, a soldier with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, who died in France on 9th May 1915. He is not a known relative to me, but he bears the same surname as me.

Results from the Missing Soldiers Database

The first step in finding out more about him is the website of the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission). This is completely free and anyone can access it. Just entering his surname and service number brings up his record immediately. It provides us with the additional information that he was in the 2nd Battalion.

Results from CWGC website
Clicking the dark green box on the right takes us to the CWGC archives and the specific records they hold for James J Gleeson. This includes a Grave Registration Report and a Panel List or Headstone of the names beside his on the memorial or wall on which he is commemorated (in this case, the Le Touret Memorial). Sometimes these records can provide very useful additional information (see example below) but in this case they have not.



Sometimes key information is included in the CWGC records. Here we see
the soldier's age, his parents, their address, and his birth place.

As James was with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, this suggests he was born in the province of Munster in Ireland. So the next step is to check Ireland's Memorial Records website which contains records of the 49,000 Irish soldiers who died in WWI. And James is there, and we learn that he was born in St. Ann's, Cork.





I also check the Soldiers' Wills database provided for free by the National Archives of Ireland. James' last will is not there (if he ever made one) but interestingly there is a will for another Irish soldier (Thomas Murtagh) with the same service number (7321). It was not uncommon for several soldiers to have the same service number and a search for James' number on the CWGC website returns 216 records!

The next step is a simple Google search for: "James Gleeson" "7321". Putting the phrases in inverted commas helps focus the search. You could also try putting "genealogy: " in front of it. And immediately we find several entries. The first one is a book called "Blackpool to The Front" and includes this transcription for him:

Google search results

So now we know his parents and where they lived. We also know his age (24) giving us a crude birth year of 1891. And as the title of the book suggests, he had connections with Blackpool - maybe the family moved there after the war?

So the next step is the 1911 census, again freely available online. The UK 1911 census has 4 results for a James Gleeson but none of them have the parents James & Margaret. The Irish 1911 census has 19 returns for a James Gleeson (aged 14-24) and several of them look promising:

  • James Joseph Gleeson ... from Dublin, but the parents are down as James & Mary Anne (not Margaret ... but maybe the book is wrong)
  • James Gleeson ... parents are James & Margaret from Kilnap Town, Cork

So we do another Google search, this time incorporating the address from the book, so it looks like this: "Gleeson" "Millfield Cottages" ... and that's when we realise we have been misled! Everybody knows Blackpool in England, but now I discover that there is also a Blackpool in Cork, Ireland (clearly my father wasted a fortune on my education). It would have helped if I had read the About This Book link!

And this second Google search returns several entries including the jackpot entry - a pre-existing family tree for this soldier, that also ties in with the second 1911 Irish census entry above (which reveals he had 10 siblings, 7 of whom were alive in 1911). He is also mentioned on a Facebook page for the Blackpool Historical Society and a 1907 Postal Directory for Cork. And the family is easily found in the 1901 Irish census.

James Gleeson's family in the 1901 census
(click to enlarge)

All the facts in the pre-existing family tree can be checked against the IrishGenealogy website for births, marriages & deaths:

James' civil birth record from www.IrishGenealogy.ie
(click to enlarge)

Note that, up to now, all the information we have gathered has been freely available online and we have not had to pay subscriptions to any genealogy websites.


I turn to my Ancestry account (subscription-based) and create a new tree for James. After entering his name, date of birth, place of birth, and the names of his parents, I immediately get 8 "hints" for records that might be relevant. These include records I am already aware of including the 1901 census, Ireland and the 1911 census, Ireland. But it also includes some military records that I have not previously accessed. I know they are relevant because they have the correct date of death for him.

Military records for James Gleeson on Ancestry

These additional records all prove relevant, provide additional information, and corroborate the information we have already gleaned from the other sources.

Ireland, Casualties of World War I: this confirms his place of birth as Cork


UK, Army Registers of Soldiers' Effects: reveals he had a widow Mary Buckley
(click to enlarge)

However, these new records reveal that James left behind a widow, a Mary Buckley. And indeed there is a marriage record for him to a Mary Cummins on IrishGenealogy (same father, same address). It appears she subsequently got married to a William Buckley in 1918.

James' marriage record on IrishGenealogy.ie

A search for Gleeson births in Cork between 1912 (his marriage) and 1915 (his death) reveals that James left two children behind - his sons James born in January 1913 and Patrick born in March 1914.

And adding these records to his tree on Ancestry creates more and more hints to additional records that are possibly relevant.  His record in the WWI Service Medal and Award Rolls reveals his date of disembarkation was the 2nd Dec 1914. This was the date he went to a theatre of war (thanks to Mark Gleeson for clarifying this).

A variety of Family Trees already exist for James on Ancestry and most of the information therein concurs with what I have found. One can never take someone else's work for granted and fact-checking is an essential part of genealogy. Nevertheless, I have linked all of these trees to his record on my tree, as some of these trees are owned by people who are clearly direct relatives of James and therefore will share a percentage of his DNA with him. Thus if his remains are ever found, they could serve as informative DNA donors.

Interestingly, my tree is the only one among them to include his marriage to Mary Cummins and the birth of their two sons (James & Patrick).

James Gleeson's family tree - ready for posting on EveryOneRemembered
(click to enlarge)

So James' family tree is now online. And it did not take long to build. I could take it back further if I wished (for example by exploring church records on the subscription-based RootsIreland website), but this is the start of the process and it is enough for now. And it will serve as a memorial to him and the sacrifice he made.

I next went to the EveryOneRemembered website and created this story for James as a genealogical memorial:

The genealogical memorial for James J Gleeson, Service no. 7321

Lastly, I went back to our Missing Soldiers database, clicked on his Soldier Database ID number (106504), and added the link to the EveryOneRemembered memorial to the soldier's details. This allows us to keep track of how many soldiers have been remembered with a genealogical memorial.




James died on 9th May 1918. This was during the Battle of Auburs Ridge. He would have received general absolution the day before the battle ... from his namesake, Fr Francis Gleeson.

The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois by Fortunino Matania

Maurice Gleeson
Nov 2018