I have just added Joseph Wilson Ridley to the A-Z Roll of Honour. He enlisted as Private 22535 and rose to the rank of Acting Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, surviving the war to return to his work as a warehouseman with the Co-operative Society in West Stanley, County Durham
Despite a strong local campaign since the autumn of 2015, the DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will close in April of this year as a result of the decision of Durham County Council under the leadership of the Labour Party. Once upon a time that was the Party which would fight on behalf of working people and local communities against just the sort of austerities and cutbacks from which we have been suffering this past few years. Nowadays the Labour Party could not fight its way out of a paper bag, except perhaps a few individuals trying to preserve their sense of self-importance.
What can we do? The campaign ‘Save the DLI’ [http://savethedli.org.uk/] will no doubt still go on. But meanwhile it is planned to mothball the collection, to be stored in a former tobacco factory, on a short lease, in conditions that I doubt will meet official standards for conservation practice. Some time or never, depending on funds one presumes, there will be ‘travelling exhibitions’. More likely the collection will eventually be scattered and may even be sold off into private hands – where are the guarantees?
I would suggest that all of you out there whose families have donated personal items relating to your DLI ancestors, such as medals, certificates and bronze plaques – ask for them back. Point out that the Durham County Council by its decision had abrogated its responsibility for care, preservation and display of these precious family heirlooms entrusted to them. Demand your heirlooms back!
Whatever you do – don’t just sit back and do nothing. We are in the centenary years of the First World War when many of our families lost relatives: fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, as well as sisters and aunts. Stand up and be counted.
When my wife and I visited Bouchoir Cemetery back in 1999 searching for the last resting place of my grandfather, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, B Company, 11th DLI, we adopted the headstone of an unknown DLI soldier in a group of unknowns alongside Private John Kennedy (page 237 of the book). The body of Thomas Bashforth was never identified, but if he is buried in a cemetery anywhere it is most likely at Bouchoir, a mile or so from where he fell at Arvillers.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website now has much more information available for casualties, including report forms made by those involved after the War in creating the concentration cemeteries such as that at Bouchoir. I discovered this while checking some information for a descendant of a 7 DCLI man, Harold Masters (who is buried there). I have now been able to relate the map reference given in the concentration report for ‘my grave’ to the appropriate grid references on the trench map 66E NE, only to find that the location is near Mézieres, some distance away from Arvillers.
The battalion was involved with others from 20th Division in an attempt to retake the village on Good Friday, 29 March 1918. Whoever this man was must have been buried where he fell, somewhere in ‘Wheelbarrow Wood’ just to the north west of the village. It is possibly one of four men: Lt Frederick Arnott, or Privates Joseph Barnard, John O’Brien and Clifford Pollard. The two ‘unknown soldiers’ from my group were found in the same general vicinity but may have been from another regiment. Pte Kennedy was moved from what had probably been a field hospital burial ground near the village (he died on 25 March 1918, before the battles reached this spot).
So the search for the last resting place of Thomas Bashforth continues, though some judicious searching of the CWGC website might just come up with a grid reference for the ground in front of Arvillers. Meanwhile I will continue to hold the same headstone as a temporary marker – I am sure he is not far away!
 This is available on line from the National Library of Scotland, along with a good selection of other maps.
When I finished ‘11th Durham Light Infantry: In Their Own Names’ back in 2011, I swore I would never buy another book on the First World War. Indeed I sold two thirds of my collection. I broke that vow a few weeks ago when I spotted a bargain book: ‘The Quick and the Dead’ by Richard van Emden. It was the sub-title that caught my attention: ‘Fallen Soldiers and their Families in the Great War’. When I looked inside I found he had published it almost at the same time as my own book, which did almost the same thing but concentrated on one battalion.
As with anything by Richard van Emden, it is a thoroughly good read – well researched, well written and humane. He takes the reader through each stage of the War, using family stories and memories to illustrate how the various key events impacted on how people thought and, more importantly, how people felt and reacted. In principle he has done precisely what I did, but not restricted so tightly to the resources at my disposal for one battalion out of hundreds. Able to call on a wider selection of sources, especially interviews with surviving family members, he has been able to cover more ground and provide greater depth than I could possibly have done. But everything he describes confirms and provides context to what I wrote and to what I have found out since from new family stories that have come my way.
If you enjoyed what I tried to do in my book (or even if you didn’t), I unreservedly recommend ‘The Quick and the Dead’. It underlines in so many ways what I was trying to convey about the importance of understanding the impact on families across the generations and how that was the case. Especially during the long series of centenary commemorations, when much of the focus will once again turn to the events and the battles, this is the reminder you need as to why it is important to understand the Great War in its totality. It still haunts families today. It still haunts global events. It is still in the consciousness of the fourth and fifth generations.
Thanks to information from his great grandson, I have now added Private 15352 Joseph Henry Mawson to the Roll of Honour. A miner from Spennymoor, Joseph enlisted in August 1914 aged 30 and survived the war, although he was gassed in 1918 and finished his war service with the Northern Command Labour Corps, demobilised in 1919. See the page Ma-Mc.
Probably the greatest pleasure I get from this blog is the periodic contact I get from descendants of 11 DLI men researching their ancestors. During the WW1 centenary period I guess this is likely to increase. I am particularly keen to hear from anyone who can add or correct information that I have posted in the Roll of Honour, and to get photos of the men or their families. When I get time I hope to put up a gallery of images.
As an example, last year I had the surprise contact from someone in my grandfather’s adoptive family line, the McGlassons. Over the years contact between them and the Bashforths had been lost, so it was great to be back in touch. What was even more astonishing was that they had kept many more photographs than my immediate family, including ones of my grandfather and grandmother I had never seen before – not least two that contained pictures of my father as a baby. A little indication of how my Gran must have had to put memories of my Grandad into the back of a drawer as she got on with a new marriage, a new husband and a new and larger family.
As frequent readers will have noticed from my rare ‘political’ comments, I am not much interested in arguments about the rights and wrongs of the war, even less about the machinery of it. A friend of mine often sends messages on a postcard which reads “If war was the answer it must have been a stupid question.” I do care passionately about the impact of war on human beings and on families, and it is the family history contacts that I value most. It shows that, generations on, WW1 still hurts. If anything, that hurt is resurfacing after having been suppressed for too long by the ‘British’ stiff upper lip and the demands of patriotism.
So do keep the contacts coming in!
There are some unseemly debates raging about how we should be commemorating the First World War at the time of its centenary and what should be the content. This is not the place for joining in that particular contest.
This website and blog have the simple purpose of recalling the men who served in one particular battalion, those who died or were traumatised physically and psychologically, and their families and the communities from which they came. It fits into the perspective that there were very few families in Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia and the other main combatant nations who were not marked by that experience. Some families carried the scars for generations and still do. Grief is still present.
As I have commented in my book, something this personal should not be the subject of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to remembrance. It is not for politicians, academics, ‘experts’, or commercial enterprises to dictate how each of us might choose, or not, to remember the war that was ‘great’ only in size and catastrophic consequence. It was not ‘over by Christmas’, it did not ‘end all wars’: far from it in both instances. For those who lost someone, as remains the case for those with serving soldiers in their families today, it will never be ended.
So, I will say this to those who want to impose some standard set of rules on remembrance. You were wrong in 1919 to bury personal losses under a panoply of centrally controlled, militaristic ceremonial. You have been wrong ever since. Get off our backs. Pack up you flags and bunting. Put your toys away.
We might hope that the centenary provides an opportunity to reflect on all that went wrong and that means might be devised to end all wars, now and forever. I have heard and seen nothing yet to provide any hope of that, least of all from the British Government.
There is perhaps one way to commemorate those who were sacrificed in 1914-1919 that we might all be able to sign up to. STOP THE KILLING – NOW!