The BIG ques­tion

Was my an­ces­tor a de­serter be­fore he was even­tu­ally killed in ac­tion?

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - Q & A - Vivi­enne needs help find­ing out if her great un­cle was a de­serter in WW2. We lend a hand...

QMy great un­cle, James Spell­man, Pte 3156 in the Welsh guards, was killed in ac­tion in 1917. He lived in Liver­pool, and there is a fam­ily story that he didn’t re­turn from one of his leaves, was ar­rested and sent back to France. How can I find out if there is any truth in this?

Vivi­enne Cliff, by email

AFam­ily sto­ries such as th­ese are of­ten dif­fi­cult to prove or dis­prove, es­pe­cially with so many sol­diers’ ser­vice records de­stroyed in WW2. De­ser­tions can be traced, with dif­fi­culty, us­ing the of­fi­cial pub­li­ca­tion Po­lice Gazette, pro­duced weekly by the Home Of­fice and sent to po­lice forces as a list of all wanted crim­i­nals – in­clud­ing army de­sert­ers. Copies of the gazette are held by the Bri­tish Li­brary and aren’t on­line, but for­tu­nately a friend of mine has copies of most of them on a mi­cro­film and he’s able to help me with en­quiries like this one.

The Po­lice Gazettee of 6 March 1917 says that James Spell­man, 2nd Bat­tal­ion Welsh Guards, aged 19 and from Liver­pool, de­serted from Or­p­ing­ton on 22 Fe­bru­ary 1917. Or­p­ing­ton was the De­pot for 2nd Welsh Guards and they were the Re­serve Bat­tal­ion for the 1st Bat­tal­ion, which had been in France with the Guards Di­vi­sion since Au­gust 1915. The Re­serve Bat­tal­ion, as the ti­tle sug­gests, held a re­serve of trained sol­diers to be sent out as re­in­force­ments if re­quired. The

Po­lice Gazette also tells us James had en­listed on 20 May 1916 (which means he was a con­script, not a vol­un­teer) and that in civil­ian life he was a foun­tain pen maker. Most likely, rather than de­sert­ing while on leave from France, James de­serted from leave granted to him be­fore he was due to go to France for the first time. Most de­sert­ers went ab­sent at home, or headed home where they thought they’d be safe. Un­for­tu­nately it was the first place the po­lice looked and most were picked up fairly quickly. The Po­lice Gazette of 13 March 1917 car­ries a note say­ing that James had re­joined or was oth­er­wise not to be ap­pre­hended.

If James had been con­sid­ered a de­serter then he could have been tried by Court Mar­tial – if he’d de­serted in France or on leave from France then it would have been a Field Gen­eral Court Mar­tial which could give a max­i­mum penalty of death for the of­fence, com­muted in most cases to a lesser penalty. Hav­ing, as I be­lieve, de­serted while on leave be­fore go­ing to France, he could have been tried by a Dis­trict Court Mar­tial – while records of th­ese are sparse there are reg­is­ters of them be­ing held, the charge(s) and the re­sult­ing sen­tence in TNA’s WO 92 se­ries – “Judge Ad­vo­cate Gen­eral’s Of­fice: Gen­eral Courts Mar­tial Reg­is­ters, Con­firmed at Home”.

Th­ese are roughly, but not ex­actly, chrono­log­i­cal – some re­sults weren’t re­ceived for weeks af­ter the trial. I’ve searched the two vol­umes for 1917 (WO 92/3 and WO 92/4) and there’s no men­tion of James stand­ing trial so pre­sum­ably he didn’t face one. In many cases, where a Gen­eral Court Mar­tial might have ap­plied, the sol­dier could ask his Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer to judge and sen­tence him to up to 28 days detention or 28 days Field Pun­ish­ment. Pre­sum­ably this is what hap­pened.

James cer­tainly went to France to serve with the 1st Bat­tal­ion as he is recorded on the Me­mo­rial to the Miss­ing at Ypres, The Menin Gate. The Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion web­site says he was killed on 30 July 1917 and for some rea­son his body was not re­cov­ered af­ter the war. The War Di­ary for 1st Welsh Guards on that day (WO 95/1224/1) says the bat­tal­ion were mov­ing up into the front line near the Ypres Canal in prepa­ra­tion for the open­ing of the 3rd Battle of Ypres next day. The di­ary says “ca­su­al­ties were very slight” but pre­sum­ably James was one of them, his grave be­ing lost in the sub­se­quent fight­ing.

Phil To­maselli

Pre­sum­ably, James was one of the ca­su­al­ties at Ypres but his grave was lost in the sub­se­quent fight­ing

A line-up of the 2nd Bat­tal­ion Welsh Guards in WW1 – James Spell­men served in this reg­i­ment

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.