Can you tell me more about how my relative died in the First World War? We help Lorraine uncover the life and death of her riflfleman ancestor...
I’ve just found out that a relative of mine is buried in Beaurepaire National Cemetery. His name is Albert Edward Patchett. He was in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Wiltshire Regiment, regiment number 27555, formerly 38550 Rifleman, and he died on 31 May 1918.
They say he died of wounds, but is there more information than this and why was he formerly a rifleman? Can you help me find out more? Lorraine Watmough, by email
AIf you’re new to researching First World War soldiers, there are some main sources you should be aware of. Since you know he died, the first is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website ( cwgc.org), where you can search for basic details of your soldier, usually next of kin, his battalion and date of death, as well as location of the cemetery if you want to visit. If you don’t already have the soldier’s regimental number (important for identifying him later), you’ll find it here.
The two main online sources for First World War service records are Findmypast and Ancestry, with The National Archives (TNA) also having a large amount of information. Be aware, though, the majority of soldiers’ individual records were destroyed in 1940, so there’s only a 40 per cent chance of finding one for Albert. I’ve looked on Ancestry and Findmypast and can’t find a service record but it might be wise to check again.
While looking, I did find a transcript on Findmypast from the official publication Soldiers Died in the Great War, which added one detail – Albert had previously served in the Rifle Brigade as Rifleman 38550.
With no service record, the next place to go is the soldier’s Medal Index Card. These can be downloaded from Ancestry, TheGenealogist and TNA’s website. The image is better on Ancestry but the indexing is superior on TNA, so I often search there first, confirm there’s a card, then download it from Ancestry. The card itself confirms Albert was in the Wiltshire Regiment and his number. No other regiment is mentioned, meaning his service with the Rifle Brigade must have been in Britain. If he’d served with them abroad, it would be on the card. There’s no mention of him receiving a 1914 Star or 1914- 1915 Star (they’d be mentioned in black or blue ink), so he didn’t serve abroad before 1916.
There’s nothing written in the box ‘Theatre of war first served in’, usually indicating he first fought in France. The reference in the middle of the card, C/1/102B10 page 1113, is to the actual Medal Roll his name appears in. ‘C’ indicates the medals (The British War Medal and Victory Medal) were issued by Exeter Records Office and 1/101/B indicates the Wiltshire Regiment. The roll itself is on Ancestry and says he served with 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment – if he’d served abroad with another unit it would also be recorded here.
There’s one other record for Albert. Ancestry also has the Soldiers’ Effects Register, detailing monies paid out to next of kin. Curiously, it says Albert was presumed dead on 27 May 1918. At some point the army changed its mind – I’ll leave that mystery for you to solve.
Another invaluable website for First World War researchers is The Long, Long Trail at 1914-1918.net. It explains much about a soldier’s life, recruitment, training and service. Using this, it’s possible to work out the basics of Albert’s career. He was probably conscripted in 1917 and did his basic training before moving to one of the Rifle Brigade training battalions. From here, he was posted to 1st Wiltshire Regiment, probably in early 1918.
You can download the battalion War Diary (this is the daily account of events) from TNA’s Online Records at bit.ly/1TzQwq4. The 1st Wiltshire’s diary is in sections and you can buy the part covering Albert’s service with them (1 November 1915-30 June, 1918) for £3.30. A day-by-day transcript of the diary is available free from the Wardrobe Museum in Salisbury (Wiltshire Regiment Museum). On 27 May the battalion were resting, after fierce fighting further north, near the River Aisne.
The Germans launched a huge surprise attack: “Enemy attacked when, owing to greatly superior forces, the Battn was compelled to retire and, splitting up into small parties slowly withdrew, fighting rearguard actions,” says the diary. Over the next few days, the battalion withdrew, fighting as it went. Albert was wounded around this time, dying from his injuries.
Albert E Patchett, shows up on this UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects from Ancestry