A few weeks ago I ordered some certificates online from the General Register Office. One of these was for John Brown, my great-great-great uncle. I met John quite early in my research and had seen his family’s memorial to him on the family gravestone. By chance, I had also found his short obituary in a local newspaper archive during my last visit to Dumfries and Galloway.
John was born around 1883 to John and Jessie Brown, and was the 4th in what would eventually be 10 children (it would seem that a small family is a rare find in my family tree!) John worked as a butcher with the Ballard brothers in Castle Douglas. Remarkably, Ballard’s butchers is still open for business today, although it only carries the name of one brother, Fred. John’s obituary describes him as ‘well thought of by his employers, was of a cheery and obliging disposition, and a favourite with all’. Well, who wouldn’t want to remembered as fondly as that? Sometime before his army service, John and his wife had three children together.
According to the obituary, John began his military service in June 1916, joining the front line that September. John was one of the thousands of soldiers who did not return home. John died as a result of war in Peronne, France on 1st April 1917, less than a year after his service first began.
What I find curious about John is the description regarding his death. Both the newspaper obituary and the family gravestone say he was ‘accidentally killed’. For all I know that was simply their way of avoiding it reading ‘killed in action’ on their memorial as it does on his GRO certificate. John is listed on at least one local war memorial plaque, which I am pleased about. Surprised I hadn’t discovered it myself sooner, but pleased to have found it to ensure he is remembered. According to the family gravestone, John was interred in Tencourt British Cemetery. Except the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has him listed as part of Thiepval Memorial, around 30km from Peronne. Thiepval Memorial stands to remember over 72,000 unidentified soldiers who lost their lives in the Somme area in World War 1, explaining its full name of Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. I want to do some more research into John’s death to clarify the contradicting information I have to find out exactly where he in buried. Seventy-two thousand people in the Somme area alone who were not identified and returned home. Everything about that sentence astounds and saddens me. I think I will be quite heartbroken if I discover John is one of those lost souls.
This year commemorates 100 years since the start of WW1 and I am discovering that I am more connected to that period of time that I previously thought. I feel I am doing a small justice by ensuring the fallen men I am connected to are to the best of my ability properly researched, included and, most importantly, remembered.
Update: thanks to The Commonwealth War Graves Commision, I finally found the burial return with John’s details. His form carries the rather ominous notation of ‘Exhumation and Reburials’. I feel truly sorry for the poor souls who carried out this grim yet important job. I am, however, extremely grateful that they returned to claim their dead comrades so they could receive proper burials and recognition for their sacrifices. The form confirmed Tincourt New British Cemetery as John’s initial place of burial. Unfortunately, it also confirmed my fears. “Around both the above crosses [another soldier was buried beside John], the ground was excavated to a depth of 8 square feet but no bodies were found.” He is indeed one of the lost souls, which may explain why he is listed at the Thiepval Memorial. As expected, I was devastated upon discovering this but at least I can that I know now.