WWI records – a personal journey
Record Office volunteer Doug Ireland gives a poignant and personal account of his work looking at Suffolk’s WWI records
For nearly four years I have spent nearly all my waking hours dealing with death! It all began when it was suggested that it would be a good idea to look into the lives of those soldiers commemorated on our local war memorial in the church (Kelsale) in readiness for the centenary in 2014. Being a member of the Parish Council and having done a lot of work on the village history, the task fell to me. For some reason, this escalated into looking into all the war memorials along the Suffolk Coast (83 parishes and towns). This quickly led to an involvement with the World War One indexing project at the Record Office, which nearly three years later I am still doing.
A small world
My first task was to look through issues of the Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury for 1918 to extract all mention of those who served; this can be quite sad and harrowing at times, but occasionally an item will make one sit up and think. One such was a short article with a photograph “Nacton Sergeant’s wedding”. In reading through the article the bride’s surname seemed familiar as did the church where the wedding took place. It then dawned on me that this was someone from my distant past that I knew. Many years ago, long before I moved to Suffolk for work, I was living and working in Dorset and in my spare time was involved with a research project on Sika deer in Forestry Commission woodland. The forester for the area, whom I worked closely with, was the younger brother of the bride in the photograph. As they say it is a small world!
Having finished work on the 1918 papers, I was asked to help complete the work on the 1915 issues. Regularly, the papers published photographs of sons, and their parents, who were serving their country; one which stood out for me was of the Sprunt family from Westleton. Having lived in Westleton parish before retiring to Kelsale, I used my skills as a wildlife sound recordist to interview and record some of the older residents of the village to record their memories of life in the village throughout their lives. One resident interviewed was the grandson of one of the soldiers pictured in the photograph. He gave me some superb details about his life growing up in Westleton during World War 2.
I stopped work on the Leiston Observer newspaper when I reached the end of 1918, but I do need to go back and do the 1919 issues. Before I reached the end of 1918, I had read all the items about the Leiston “Conscientious Objector”. Leiston is one of two towns in Suffolk who held Tribunals for those men who wished to “be excused military service” where the minutes and records of the Tribunals survive. It was possible to track the proceedings involving this objector from 1916 to 1918; most of the proceedings at Leiston were acrimonious in the extreme with tempers being lost on both sides. The Objector eventually lost all his appeals in summer 1918 and he was told he had to serve; I have to date been unable to ascertain whether he did sign on for service or not. His name is not on the war memorial and also does not appear in the roll of honour of those who served and survived, so it is possible he did not serve.
I then began work on the Woodbridge Recorder and Wickham Market Gazette. This weekly newspaper has been a delight to work on in that it published so much background information about individuals who gave their lives for their Country or who were injured, which has been a great help for my personal work on World War One. In working on these papers you do come across lots of poignant stories which tug at the heart strings. One sticks in my mind, not because it was the most recent but because I learnt something new of my home area. This was in 1919, two De Havilland 6 biplanes took off from Aldeburgh aerodrome to carry out some manoeuvres north of the airfield over Hazelwood Common. During one of the manoeuvres one aircraft clipped the tail of the other, nosedived into the ground and landed upside down, crushing the pilot underneath and killing him outright. The other crashed about 300 yards away, with the two crew being thrown out. Both aircraft had a crew of two, three of whom were killed and one survived. The pilot of one of the aircraft who was killed outright was due to leave the Royal Air Force after he had landed, and return to his wife and family in Aldeburgh. The new piece of information for me was that there was a WW1 airfield at Aldeburgh – the first reference I have come across of its existence.
A disappointment has been the number of reports in the Recorder of disagreements about what form a memorial to those who gave their lives should take in both Woodbridge and Wickham Market. Agreement could not be reached about where any memorial should be sited. After about six months wrangling where “party politics” took a part, agreement was reached at both places and we have the Memorials that can be seen in both towns. Contrast this with Bredfield where one meeting was held, full agreement was reached about type and placement of a memorial and a list of which names should be on the memorial was agreed the same evening!