Please find a selection of research from our previous trips. In each case we were given basic information by our guests, such as a soldier’s name and unit and asked if we could find anything out about them. By utilising service records, unit war diaries, written histories and trench maps we were often able to take our guests to the very spot at which their forebears were in action. These examples show our tours provide a high-end, bespoke service.
On all of our trips we have spent some time looking at the actions of Bristol’s battalions – the 4th and 6th (Territorials) and 12th (Bristol’s Own). A summary of this research and our visits are provided on THIS dedicated page.
Sergeant Frank Collins, 1/2nd Monmouthshire Regiment
Prior to our first tour back in 2016 Terry McGill told us of his grandfather, Sergeant Frank Collins, 1/2nd Monmouthshire Regiment. Frank was an interesting character and illustrative of so many of the original BEF who went overseas in 1914. He had served with the East Yorkshire Regiment in the Boer War and had also been mentioned in a Despatch from Field Marshal Sir John French dated 14 January 1915, and published in the “London Gazette” dated 17 February 1915, for gallant and distinguished service in the field. Frank’s was a name I was aware of from reading about the 1914 Christmas Truce. Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton’s excellent book on the subject covers the events surrounding the truce and dispels many of the myths that have sprung up around it. What is generally unknown to the public is the truce was only observed in parts and, as such, men were killed that day. Frank, a pre-war postman, was one of those casualties. Brown and Seaton’s book describes his demise, having been out in No Man’s Land fraternising with the enemy and swapping cigarettes when, on his way back, he was shot in the back. The Germans later sent over an apology. I had also found an account of Frank’s death whilst researching many years ago in The Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh at Brecon many years ago. Cornelius Love witnessed the incident:
“One of our Company Sergeants [Sergeant Frank Collins] was spotted in No Man’s Land, and was fired at from the enemy reserve trench and hit in the breast. I honestly think it was the act of a maniac. I could see he was badly hit. He staggered to where I was standing and just managed to reach our wire. I helped him in and commenced to bandage and treat the wound where the bullet had entered, but when I turned him over I could see it was a hopeless case. The bullet had entered his lung. We did the best for him. He was sent on a stretcher to the Medical Officer but he did not live long.”
Using battalion and brigade war diaries we were able to ascertain the sector of line near Ploegsteert Wood in which Frank was killed, show Terry the area and take him to his grandfather’s grave at Calvaire (Essex) Military Cemetery. At the graveside Terry produced Frank’s memorial plaque (often known as “Dead Man’s Penny“). It was a fitting end to our visit and Terry’s pilgrimage.
Private Stanley Thornton, 2nd Honourable Artillery Company
Glenda’s uncle was Private Stanley Thornton, 2nd Honourable Artillery Company, who had been killed in action at Bullecourt on 3 May 1917. Glenda was aware of this and that Stanley had no known grave, being commemorated on the Arras Memorial. However, she had never been to Bullecourt and had no idea how the 2nd Honourable Artillery Company fitted into that day’s terrible action.
His battalion were part of 22nd Brigade (7th Division) who were supporting the main attack by 62nd (West Riding) Division. The original assault had gone in at 3.45am supported by tanks but was very costly and fighting was particularly bitter. 22nd Brigade were ordered to assist and it was at 10.30pm that the 2nd HAC went into action. In seven hours of fighting the battalion fought their way into the village, breaking through the Hindenburg line but were driven out by determined German counter-attacks. In crossing the ground from the railway embankment and fighting 200 yards into the village their casualties were 11 officers and 200 other ranks.
At some point during this action Stanley was killed. When I started to research him I was lucky to find his service record had survived German bombing in the Second World War. Along with the usual details provided one page gave a tantalizing clue as to Stanley’s burial location. The map reference 57c NW.U.27.d.3.6. was recorded as his original burial location. Using the map above from 22 Infantry Brigade war diary I was able to transpose this reference on to it and note the location was immediately in front of the battalion’s jumping-off point at the railway embankment.
We were able to take Glenda to the entrance to the village, talk through the attack and then let her walk in Stanley’s footsteps to the spot recorded as his burial spot where she was able to lay a cross in his memory. We then continued to the Arras Memorial where we were able to see his name recorded on the HAC’s panel.
Private Charles Cox, 37th Battalion Australian Imperial Force
In 2019 were were joined by Sue Read who had been researching her relative, Private Charles Cox, for over ten years. Charles was a Somerset man serving in the Australian Infantry. Like so many British men, he had sought a new life in the Dominions prior to the war and joined up in Australia. Researching a soldier who served in either the Canadian or Australian armed forces is easier for us as their service records survive, have been scanned in colour and are free to download.
Charles’ record is enormously detailed and shows he first went over to France in November 1916, serving just three months with the 37th Battalion before being wound by shrapnel in the left buttock. This wound required a period of convalescence in the UK before returning to his unit on 6 July 1917. Having missed the battalion’s part in the Battle of Messines, Charles is soon in action, advancing with his comrades on two occasions during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) on 4 and 12 October 1917.
His luck ran out, however, on a trench raid against German positions at Warneton on the Belgian-French border on 10 February 1918, after which he was declared ‘missing in action’. This was later amended to ‘killed in action’.
Whilst at Tyne Cot Cemetery (the largest CWGC cemetery in the world) on the Passchendaele Ridge we showed Sue the ground over which Charles and his 37th Battalion comrades advanced in October 1917. The 12 October attack passed straight past the side of the cemetery and it was hard to visualise the hell described in the detailed after-action report with the peaceful field of crops there now.
As Sue had been researching Charles for so long it was enormously rewarding to take her to Warneton, talk her through the details of the trench raid and show her where Charles had been killed. She left a cross at the field’s edge in his memory and, as he has no known grave, later visited his name on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres.
For anyone researching family members who fought in the First World War and thinking of following in their footsteps, I can recommend joining Clive and Jeremy on their tour of the Western Front. My own dossier of records was handed to Jeremy who greatly supplemented it with maps and war diaries on my great uncle, enabling me to be to be shown specific sites related to him. The highlight was to place a cross in the field in which he died and to see his name on the Menin Gate after the Last Post ceremony. A very moving and memorable four days learning all the stories from other group members made the tour like a live documentary, well above any expectation. Thank you.Sue Read
Many thanks to Terry, Glenda and Sue for granting us permission to use their relative’s stories on this page.