World War One: Family stories uncovered

Photo of Reginald Goatham and suitcase full of documents Anne Warner has a suitcase filled with documents that tell the story of her great uncle Reginald Goatham

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The World War One centenary means personal war diaries, letters and photos are emerging from dusty attics and drawers across the UK and beyond to offer a different perspective of the conflict.

The National Archives has begun the mammoth task of digitising 1.5 million WW1 diary pages, mainly taken from official war diaries, describing the lives of British soldiers on the front line.

Following the launch of the project, BBC News asked readers to tell us about some of their own treasured documents from the time. A huge number and range of items were sent in, from vivid diaries of life in the trenches and heart-felt letters to photographs of war graves.

This kind of material allows people to "make a direct connection with those who were alive at the time", says Luke Smith from Imperial War Museums. Its own ambitious digital project, Lives of the First World War, will enable anyone to upload and share information of those who served in uniform during the war and worked on the home front.

Even the smallest of artefacts can contain the greatest of memories. In 2001 Moira McPartlin, from Killearn, Stirlingshire, discovered the 1918 diary of her grandfather James McPartlin - whom she had never met - tucked away in an old wallet in a drawer.

A personal record

Inside page of diary reads: James McPartlin, 37 Queen St Courtesy, No  11 Coy D Batt, No  11 Coy D Batt. First page reads Walker;s Diamond Diary 1918 London

Despite being only 1.5in by 3in (4cm x 7.5cm) and containing nine entries, the diary gave "a real connection with this man and I felt his pain", said Moira.

James had been gassed and spent most of a year in hospital. "He told me his whole story in these few words," she says.

The diary is "beginning to fall apart" and must now be handled with care.

'Worse troubles in the firing line'

16/9/16 // Dear Mother & Father // Just a few lines to thank you for that splendid parcel… I hope some day I shall be able to repay you… Lill sent me out some apples which I had the beginning of the week… we are under canvas a few miles behind the firing lines… you have heard about the new advance which came off yesterday morning… everybody was in a great state of excitement for everybody is longing for the end of this war to come, we were all glad when we heard about this [ILLEGIBLE] which was used very successfully… we could do with blankets now for we only have our overcoat to sleep in but there are worse troubles in the firing line so… the guns dont half kick up a noise and our areoplanes go over in swarms, a German areoplane ventured over here yesterday and you ought to have seen our airmen go for it…  Now I must close hoping that you are all quite well and thanking you once more for that nice parcel with best love to you all // Reg
B.E.7, France, Oct 19th/1916 // Dear Mrs Goatham. // I write these few lines hoping that they may reach you in time to break the sad news of your Boy's Death. I would have written before, but we were in Action many days after his death and then on the March afterwards. I, as his Platoon Sergt knew him as a good soldier. He fulfilled his Duty as a soldier and a man and Died doing his Duty… We were being shelled heavily and he was hit in Several Places, One in the side which Proved fatal. We tried to get him down to the dressing station but being night we could not see & the trenches were very bad and shelling to heavy. All we could do was dress his Wounds and make him comfortable.  He fell asleep and Passed away quietly... I will conclude, trusting that you will accept the sympathy of myself and all His comrades in your Sad Bereavement. // Believe me // To be Yours sincerely // A.F. Stevens. Sergt // [ILLEGIBILE] // B.E.7

Anne Warner's great-uncle Reginald Goatham wrote home several times from the front throughout August and September, 1916, only for his family to receive notification of his death in October from AF Stevens, his platoon sergeant.

The memories of Reginald Goatham are held together in a small, brown, leather suitcase. It is now in the possession of his great-niece Anne Warner, who lives in Seattle, in the US. The collection was put together by Reginald's sister Olive, Anne's great-aunt and the "family historian".

It contains medals, images and correspondence from Reginald and others, including the note from his platoon sergeant to advise of Reginald's death in 1916.

The memories and the suitcase have now passed to Anne, and Reginald is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial, among the names of tens of thousands of soldiers who died at the Somme.

"When I first heard the story and looked at the suitcase with Auntie Olive I used to think how difficult it must have been for her to cope with her brother being killed when she was only 11 years old," says Anne.

By the time she came into possession of the suitcase she had children of her own and her thoughts turned to her great-grandmother. How did she feel when hearing of Reginald's death? Was she relieved when the war was over before her second son, Anne's grandfather, could be called up?

"My own son is now almost 22 years old and when I try to imagine what it would be like to see him go off to the trenches it's almost too painful to imagine," she says.

Mike O'Brien, from Sidcup in Kent, says his mother-in-law Germaine Louise Wall, aged 91, was inspired to get out some memorabilia having watched a BBC programme about WW1.

"She came downstairs with armfuls of stuff that had been in her bedroom 60-odd years," he says.

Germaine's father-in-law, John Wall, fought in the battle of Neuve Chapelle. He was wounded but his life was saved by the books and papers he had in his breast pocket. You can see the holes in the documents from the bullets or shrapnel from the battle.

Soldiers' instruction book with bullet holes. Reads: Page one: 1. You will produce this book whenever you require an advance of cash on account 2. You will give a receipt, on the acquitance [bullet hole] the Officer paying you for all cash advances made to you. The officer making the payment will sign the corresponding entry in this book on the page for Cash Payments 3. You will make no entries in this book, except to sign your name on pages 3 and 7 and to make your will, if you so desire, on page 13 4. Should you lose your book you will at once report the loss to your Commaning Officer. A new book will be obtained… Page two: Regiment or Corps: Grenadier Guards Squadron, Battery or Company No 10911 Rank: ? [bullet hole] Name in Full: Stephen Albert Coates. Date of Attestation: 22.7.93 ad Age of Enlistment: 19 1/12 If appointed to a United formed on Mobilization, the destination of such a unit should be clearly stated here… John Wall's life was saved by books and papers in his breast pocket.
Card with locks of hair - and bullet holes. Reads: You will recognise Dick's? [bullet hole] curl, Jack also insisted on me sending one of his Among the documents was a Christmas card from Wall's family and inside that locks of his sons' hair

Along with John Wall's own documents was a paybook from another soldier, Stephen Albert Coates.

At the time, John believed Stephen Coates had been killed. However, after some research Mike knows he actually survived and was honourably discharged from the Army, living until the age of 83. Mike now wants to "close the circle" and give back the lifesaving passbook to the family.

Andy Marshall in Fareham, Hampshire, uncovered a similar wealth of documents. A few years ago he began doing work on his family tree and discovered a folder that belonged to his wife's grandmother.

ASC Christmas Card, courtesy of Andy Marshall. Text: Tho’ ours is not the kind of job, That leads to much promotion, We try to do our little bit, And Tommy, I’ve a notion, Won’t want for much, if we can help. To give him good supply, And if we don’t always succeed, You bet, at least, we try. An Army Service Corps Christmas card is one of the treasures in Andy Marshall's collection
Letter from the army pay office relating to the death of Robert Maurice Manns. Reads: Date 6.7.17 I regret to state that information has reached this Office of the death of 50672 Pte R Manns of the Suffolks Regiment. The separation allowance and allotment of pay now being issued to you will continue to be issuable to you for [a period of crossed out] temporarily Other documents include a letter from the Army pay office following the death of his relative Robert Maurice Manns
Document detailing location of war grave. Etaples military cemetery A document detailing the location of Manns's war grave - complete with photo - is also in the collection

"Inside the folder the documents were all mixed up but as I started to piece it together I began to realise what I had," he says.

The items relate to his wife's great-uncle Robert Maurice Manns, who was in the Army Service Corps (ASC) and later joined the Suffolk Regiment.

'Lives' project

Luke Smith

Luke Smith, Imperial War Museums

We are launching Lives of First World War, an online platform that seeks to uncover the life stories of around eight million men and women who served the British Empire during the war.

These life stories will be pieced together by members of the public. Together they will form a permanent, digital memorial to all those lives.

We know a little bit about people's contribution to the war from large official datasets, such as the list of the 4.5 million men and women who served overseas in the British army.

People can enrich those life stories with digital images of the precious family mementos they hold at home, such as diaries, letters, photos and postcards.

Those who don't hold that material can make an important contribution by piecing together those life stories from hundreds of millions of historical records available within Lives of the First World War.

They include his photo and an ASC Christmas card to his parents, but also a letter from the Army pay office following his death in 1917 and a photo of his grave.

Andy says he was shocked when he discovered the letter and the document describing the location of Robert's war grave. He began to imagine what it must have been like for the family to receive these items at the time.

Jeremy Gordon-Smith discovered his great-great-uncle Ivan Bawtree was one of those employed to photograph war graves. He has recently been working on a project compiling the diaries, memoirs, various letters and numerous photos taken by Bawtree.

He discovered Ivan worked for Kodak and was headhunted in 1915 by Fabian Ware, founder of the then Graves Registration Commission.

The organisation set about recording and caring for all the graves its staff could find. It received letters from relatives of soldiers who had been killed, asking for photographs of their graves. By April 1917 some 12,000 photographs had been sent to relatives.

Many people have come forward with treasured mementos - from diaries, to letters and maps - of the bloody Western Front, including the battles of Ypres, Verdun and the Somme.

Ian Carman in Buckinghamshire discovered the hand-written diary of his great-uncle Jack Farrell while going through the possessions of his mother when she died four years ago. Farrell was a conscientious objector and was exempted from fighting on the grounds he was a paramedic.

The diary begins in 1915 and covers a period of about six months. After arriving in northern France, Jack was detailed to build a hospital.

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. Courtesy Jeremy Gordon-Smith In May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter

"What stands out is the futility of war," says Ian, who lives in Newport Pagnell. The hospital Jack was building was shelled, forcing him to rebuild.

The description is to the point and powerful, as when he describes the events of Tuesday, 20 April. He calls it "the day of days", when the Germans were "shelling the town with 17-inch [shells]".

Extract of diary dated Tuesday 20 April 1915: Tuesday the day of days, Germans are shelling the town with 17 inch shells.  We are evacuating into ward now ready but just begun and news arrives of civilians being wounded and wounded begin to arrive on foot, sitting ambulance and stretcher.  They continue all through the day and night.  Jack Farrell was a conscientious objector and was involved in building a hospital in northern France

"We are evacuating into ward now ready - but just begun and news arrives of civilians being wounded and wounded begin to arrive on foot. They continue all through the day and night.

"About 30 outpatients are attended to and about 12 bed cases... 17-inch [shells] are falling at intervals of about quarter of an hour and small shells and shrapnel are falling continually."

Richard Mellor's grandfather Edmund Mellor also served in the trenches but his memory of the time is preserved in a different way - in a spoken-word account of his experiences.

The recording was made by Richard's cousin Andrew Wadsworth, Edmund's grandson, in the late 1970s and stored on cassette tapes for many years.

"It's fascinating hearing his stories told in his thick Oldham accent," says Richard, who lives in Blackburn.

Richard Mellor's grandfather  Edmund Edmund Mellor's memories were recorded by a relative

In one section, Edmund talks about the first time he saw "real action", on 31 July 1917. He goes "over the top" after mines are exploded under the German lines.

"They expected it to be without any trouble because they thought everything would have been blown to smithereens but it wasn't so," says Mellor. "They were ready for us with machine-guns and whatnot. But luckily, for me at any rate, I wasn't wounded in any way.

"Eventually I think we had to make our way back to our own lines that we had come from. That was typical of the First World War."

It is very likely that other people will have further information or material related to Edmund Mellor or the other people featured in this story, says Luke Smith.

If you have documents from WW1 you wish to share, you can upload them yourself to the IWM's Lives of the First World War, adding to a "hall of memories" for the 21st Century.

Find out how letters during WW1 reached the front line in only two days and discover unfamiliar stories about a war we think we know.

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