Bee's search for her father's military past

Tuesday 19 June 2012, 15:44

Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway

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Back at the end of last summer I received a plea for help from Bee Richards. It was accompanied by two such lovely old black and white photographs that it was impossible not to want to help.

Bee's father was Thomas Edward Richards, born in 1895 in Llantrisant. He served in the army during World War One and World War Two, as well as in the Territorial Army and the Home Guard. But as with so many proud and humble men from that time he never talked about his time in service.

Thomas Edward Richards in his uniform with his first wife Catherine Morgan taken sometime during WW1

Thomas Edward Richards with his first wife Catherine Morgan

So Bee turned to me for help finding out what her old man did in the war. The two photographs were crucial since she knew nothing at all; no details of a regiment or a service number or any sign of any medals.

World War One war records

Many people had waited patiently for the World War One military records to become available online, but a large proportion was disappointed to learn that there was only roughly a one in seven chance that an ancestor's military record survived the Blitz. The basement in which all the World War One records were stored was bombed, badly burned and then subsequently so water damaged that those records that survived are known as the "burnt series" in their permanent home at the National Archives.

But Bee had other obstacles to overcome before she could even determine whether her father's records were part of the burnt series. How could she work out exactly which of the vast number of men called Thomas E Richards was her father?

The Eureka moment

I couldn't see a way forward to start with and so I turned to my brother Tim for help. He is interested in military history, especially World War One, and he scrutinised the photographs. While there was little to be gleaned from the first image of the young Thomas something caught Tim's eye in the second photo.

Sgt Thomas Edward Richards in Belfast 1940

Sgt Richards in Belfast 1940

We viewed the photo on the computer and zoomed in on the cap badge he was wearing. Comparing it to ones listed on various World War Two military history websites it looked as though it could be from the Royal Army Service Corps but Tim couldn't be certain. He then noticed that Thomas was proudly displaying three medal ribbons.

This was one of those Eureka moments, since only men who served in France after entering the army in a specific time period were awarded all three medals. Therefore it was then possible to narrow down the vast number of possible Thomas E Richards to just a handful, and since one of these was a Thomas E Richards serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers he seemed like the most likely candidate.

MOD Historical disclosures section

We knew that Bee's father had served continuously from World War One into World War Two but we did not know that the World War One service records of those soldiers who saw continuous service would not have been released with the others. Instead they were retained with their main service records and still held by the historical disclosures section of the MOD.

Permission from his next of kin was required, so I quickly asked Bee, and she agreed to me submitting a request on her behalf. Depending upon what you want there are various types of service record available, and providing you send the £30 fee and proof that the person has died then the records will be sent out.

It took a few months of waiting patiently, but it was worth it. Pages and pages of A3 sized paper thumped onto my door mat and I learned that Private Thomas Edward Richards 15617 enlisted into the RWF on 20 September 1914, and entered France a year later on 27 September 1915.

Further investigation revealed that this was the day the 10th Battalion arrived in France. Using another website Tim discovered that the majority of RWF soldiers who died with a 156** number were from the 10th Battalion.

Rather more poignantly I learned that Thomas was just 5'7" tall with a 38" chest, a fresh complexion, brown eyes and he was Roman Catholic with his attributes listed as "clean, smart, honest, sober and works well."

Among the many military facts and figures, one detail that caught my eye was this one:

on 26 December 1939 in Llanelli Sgt Thomas Richards... "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline in that he did, whilst escorting prisoners, enter a licensed building with his prisoners" for which he was severely reprimanded.

And to think that all this valuable and personal information about Thomas Edward Richards could have been lost forever were it not for my eagle eyed brother.

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