Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Researching Soldiers Of The First World War- Part 1

When looking for an ancestor who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force the very first place you can go are the Attestation Papers at Library and Archives Canada data base “Soldiers of the First World War“. Service numbers are the primary identifier in the Canadian Corps.

When the Battalions were been organized service numbers were allotted in number blocks. This did not last so do not assume that because your veteran has a service number in the 6000 block he served in the 1st.Battalion. Probably because of the tremendous growth in numbers in the Canadian Corps there was a certain amount of confusion in assigning numbers. There are some duplications in the early years. By 1915 this system was re-organized (of course with some exceptions), and each unit as it was organized was given a block of numbers and each soldier served throughout the remainder of the war with an unique service number. Even so, you do need that soldier’s service file if want to identify exactly which Battalion he served in in the trenches. The Battalion that he joined in Canada was not necessarily the Battalion he was sent to as a reinforcement once he reached France.

Following British army traditions, officers were not assigned service numbers. However, with the high casualty rate for officers in the trenches NCO’s were promoted. After promotion they were identified by name not service number from the date of their promotion. For these veterans when requesting service files from Library and Archives Canada  the researcher should use both the service number and name.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rally At Victoria Park For Veterans

Retired colonel Pat Stogran a staunch advocate for veterans as an ombudsman spoke to veterans in Victoria Park today decrying the lack of support for Veteran Affairs from our present Conservative Government. Among the issues that are at the forefront are pension benefits, lack of mental health care, impending cutbacks at Parkwood Hospital that will reduce the number of patients by 72, and a major budget cut planned in the Veteran Affairs Ministry.

Irene Mathyssen MP will take a petition signed by those present at the rally to the Minister of Veteran Affairs Jean-Pierre Blackburn.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tracing Father 1944-1945

I noticed  while looking at recent key word activity for this blog that there has been considerable interest in the prisoner of war maps. For me they have been useful in tracing my father's route through Poland and Germany as a P.O.W.
Some of Dad's Lancaster crew members 426th. Squadron, 1943. From my personal collection.
My father John Arnold Hillman was a P.O.W. from March 1944 to May 1945 at Stalag Luft 6,  Stalag Luft 4, and Stalag Luft 3. Tracing his route from Stalag to Stalag up to his liberation by British troops has been a challenge. Much of the online information is been written by American authors who do not seem to distinguish between Canadians and English. Perhaps to them we are all the same.

Dad’s Lancaster went down during a raid on Stuttgart on the evening of the 15th. March, 1945. He was captured not far from the Swiss border near Tiengen.  From Tiengen  he was taken to a P.O.W. camp in Frankfurt. In an interview for an article in the “London Free Press”(1) Dad remembered Frankfurt:

“Frankfurt was being bombed, While the prisoners were in air raid shelters, a 3,000 pound bomb dropped on the compound Hillman was in, and blew it to smithereens. Gone were most of their clothing and possessions. They were soon outfitted with American clothing and boots through the Red Cross.”(2) From Frankfurt Dad was shipped to Stalag Luft 6.(3)
Library and Archives Canada.

With the approach of the Russian army the P.O.W.’s  were transferred to Stalag Luft 4. One group was sent to the Baltic Port of Memel (now Klaipeda in Lithuania), and boarded steamers to Sinecure (now Swinouiscie in Poland). From there they boarded trains to Stalag Luft 4. Dad remembers what he calls a coal ship so I suspect that there were Canadians included in with the American P.O.W’s that traveled in this manner.(4)
Telegram from the International Red Cross lists John A. Hillman in Stalag Luft 4 in October, 1944. Library and Archives Canada.

From there Dad was in Stalag Luft 3 which was the site of the “Great Escape” portrayed in the 1963 film. To trace Dad’s route from Stalag Luft 3 to the Rhine is iffy. All I can say at this point is that he walked all of it. Apparently the American P.O.W.’s went to Stalag Luft 7A at Moosburg where they were liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Dad’s group: however, seems to have been marched North and West as he was liberated by the British Army near the Rhine.
P.O.W. telegram Dad sent from Stalag Luft 3 to his mother. Unfortunately there is no date or anything written on the inside. They were used to let relatives know that you were alive and well. Library and Archives Canada.

(1) “The London Free Press”, June 6, 1986
(2) Ibid.
(3)There is an interesting web page “G.P.S.- practice-and-fun” on Stalag Luft 6. Stalag Luft 6 was a P.O.W. camp for NCO”s (non-commissioned officers); however Dad clearly remembered that when he arrived his whole crew were there. Since his pilot was an officer I suspect that the Germans did not necessarily follow any NCO only rule.Also a month after his capture Dad was promoted.
(4) In the “Free Press” article Dad remembers being boated to Heldelberg to a new Stalag Luft 6 before he was sent to Stalag Luft 4.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Harry Wellington Swanson #6406

There are two dates given for Harry Swanson’s birth - in his attestation papers he gives his date of birth as April 12, 1873. In the Ontario Canada Births, 1869-1911 there is a declaration signed by his brother on  16th. Of March 1931 that he was born April 12,1870. He was born to David Swanson and Mary Whyte. In his 1914 attestation papers he says St.Mary's, Ontario, and in the 1917 attestation papers Scotland. By 1914 he was living in Windsor. The second attestation paper suggests that he returned to Canada (probably wounded), and re-enlisted. To trace him further means finding his record of service file at Library and Archives Canada.
Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada

In a letter published in “The Windsor Evening Record” (1) Harry Swanson wrote:

“It makes a fellow feel pretty good when he gets a letter from someone at home, especially when the bullets are flying around. They are coming pretty thick just now. We take shifts of five hours on and eight hours off. The heavy batteries have started on our left; I suppose they are going to take another place over there. We captured three miles of trenches  the day before yesterday, Feb. 9, and one mile and a half yesterday, Feb. 10. I am not allowed to say in my letter where I am, but I am here and on the job.(2)

This isn’t war, Harvey, this is hell, and then some. The Germans are using all kinds of bullets on us, from dum-dums to split noses. (3)They are using a lot of flat-nosed bullets that expand about four inches, and when one hit’s a man in the forehead it takes very nearly all his head with it.

This has been a beautiful country, but you ought to see it now. The Germans have destroyed everything in sight, the church spires and convents being a special target for their big guns. One of the men who left Windsor with me - he lives in the east end- got struck with a piece of shrapnel, which took a pound or two of ‘steak’ with it. He is getting along fine. I am not allowed to tell what his name is.

We are going out of the trenches tomorrow for a few day’s rest, then we have to come back and face the music again. I have been very lucky so far: I haven’t had a scratch, but some close shaves. The Germans have the greatest spy system in the world and we are picking some of their spys (4) up every day. Some of the French, too, are selling their own country, but you know what we do with them.

If any of the boys would care to send us a few cigars or cigarettes I would feel like a millionaire. We have plenty of money, but we cannot buy anything. By the time we get a place the Germans have taken everything and there is nothing left to buy.”

(1) The Windsor Evening Record, April 7, 1915.

(2) The 1st. Battalion at this time were just outside of Ypres undergoing training. Unfortunately, the unit war diary starts after this date. We do know that the war diary of the 1st. Field Company (engineers) places the engineers at Neuf-Berquin in Northern France near the Belgium border. The infantry would be near. At this time the Canadians were occupying trenches under the supervision of British Battalions as was outlined in an earlier posting of a veteran’s interview.

(3) The terms dum dum and split nose are almost interchangeable. Both refer to hollow point bullets designed to expand on contact.

(4) I know - it’s spelled “spies” but I try not to correct their spelling. It’s hard not to. Perhaps I should put a red sp. next to the word?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

German P.O.W. Camps

Its amazing what you can find in a shoebox. When my father John Arnold Hillman was admitted to the Veterans Hospital in London, Ontario, my brother and I started to look through the things that my father had saved in shoe-boxes. One contained his and my mother’s medals, and the silver star which had been given to my grandmother after uncle Bruce’s death in 1945. Another contained what I think is a bayonet, and a well worn burnt in places map of German prisoner of war camps.

I could not get the whole map digitalized as a single unit so I took several pictures. Dad was in Stalag Luft 6, and Stalag Luft 4. It has been a bit of a challenge to trace his route from East Prussia to the Rhine where he was liberated by the British Army.
The map was given to the Elgin County Military Museum in St.Thomas, Ontario.

Port Burwell Lands Sub

An article in “The London Free Press” today states that the Elgin Military Museum has decided to exhibit their cold war era submarine, the H.M.C.S. Ojibwa, in the village of Pt. Burwell. 
H.M.C.S. Ojibwa
The H.M.C.S. Ojibwa is an Oberon class submarine that the Canadian Navy commissioned in 1963. She was based in Halifax until she was decommissioned in 2001.

The Newfoundland Regiment and The Great War

We are getting away from Southwestern Ontario but anyone with a Newfoundlander in their family tree should be aware of this excellent data base. The data base contains the names of over 6000 men who served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during the Great War. If existing the data base contains each soldier’s attestation sheet, troop conduct sheet (yes, the bad boys are there), casualty forms, Medical forms, allotment forms (these forms were used to deduct part of their pay that would go to family back in Newfoundland), and application for pensions. These are a few of the forms as there are more included depending on the soldier involved.

This is the type of data base I would like to see from Library and Archives Canada.  The numbers of men and women involved are of course quite a bit different; however, it could and should be done.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

James Fiddes Murray #6256

James Fiddes Murray was born March 31, 1884 in London, Ontario to Scott Murray and Judy (Ancestry.ca has her as July which seems to me to be a transcription error) Fiddes. He died on September 7, 1948 in London, Ontario. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Valcartier on September 18, 1914. He was with the 1st. Battalion until January, 1917 . He then returned to Canada on January 23, 1917. He reenlisted and left for England August 10, 1917 where he served with the Canadian Railway Troops and Canadian Postal Corps until he was discharged at London, Ontario, April 8, 1919.(1)
Attestation Papers, Library and Archives Canada

He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal March 11, 1916:
“For consciencious gallantry; during a bombardment, he continually carried messages under heavy shrapnel fire. With a comrade’s assistance he rescued three men who had been buried in a “feather” trench after the remaining five in the same place had been killed. He also did fine work on three other occasions.”(2)
Distinguished Conduct Medal, Veteran Affairs Canada   

He was interviewed by the “London Advertiser” when he returned home in 1917.

“He is the second last of the original 1st. Battalion, who remain. The other, Sergt. Chas. Owens, D.C.M, Woodstock, is now the last man of the battalion that left London in August, 1914, to go to the front.
Sergt. Murray went into the trenches in February, 1915, and came out on November 29th, 1916, 22 months continuous service. During that time he had two holidays, one of eight days after ten months fighting, and one other of ten days.
“I am one of the lucky fellows,” said Murray, when questioned abut his record. “I only did what I could not help doing. I do not deserve any more credit than lots of other boys, who only had a short stay in the trenches. They did what they could, and that’s all I did.”
“I lost nearly all my pals. The majority of them are killed. One loses a lot of friends when a battalion is shot to pieces. I miss them very much, That’s war, and, this is an awful war, believe me.”
Sergt. Murray was named for the D.C.M. at Givenchy, where Lieut.-Col. Becher was killed. He carried the colonel back, and later dug three companions out of the trenches where they were buried. He volunteered as an ambulance man, and spent the night on the battlefield, looking after the wounded.” (3)

(1) Particulars of Service, Canadian Expeditionary Force, Library and Archives Canada.
(2) Library and Archives Canada.
(3) “The London Advertiser”, February 1, 1917.