In search of my grandfather
Lancashire Life writer Martin Pilkington marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice by tracking
down a fascinating family war record
The Blitz destroyed many World War One service records held at Kew, so the online search for Mark Pilkington’s service in The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment may be fruitless. It isn’t. The record card (H/2/101 B10) for Mark, my paternal grandfather, regimental number 22931, appears on the screen, the right side burned and blackened. Like my grandfather himself it was lucky to survive, but unlike him – he rarely spoke of those days – it reveals plenty about his war.
Mark was born in 1896 in Horwich. The 1911 census records him as a grocer’s assistant living with his widowed mother. In June 1915 he becomes a Kitchener volunteer, choosing like so many Lancastrians to attest – signing up early to join a specific regiment when called upon, doubtless in the hope of serving with friends.
Called up in December he trains with the Loyals until in late May 1916, the new recruits
With the first and last name of the combatant, and ideally place and year of birth you can use Ancestry.com online (for a fee) to get your own relative’s WWI service record, providing it still exists. Match dates and places in that document with details in official regimental histories sourced via libraries and museums, census records, medal lists and family lore to build a fuller picture. depart from Devonport not for France, but East Africa. From a large working class family, he had probably never left Lancashire previously, so what thoughts flood his imagination as the troopship Elele docks in Kilindini, Mombasa’s harbour?
Poorly provisioned, often on half and even quarter rations (what did the Lancastrians make of the biltong, that supplemented their supplies?) the Loyals regularly march 20 miles a day in East Africa’s baking heat and occasional tropical downpour. Malaria, fever, exhaustion and malnutrition are greater dangers than enemy fire in a war of movement in stark contrast to the trench-bound stalemate in Europe.
Once, at Kwa Di Rema, they tramp 30 miles overnight to surprise the Germans. Brilliant generalship then pushes the force beyond their own artillery support but beneath the enemy’s guns in the Kanga Mountains for some time. On August 13th 1916 they attack another camp in Tuliani, taking heavy casualties before the Germans retire to the Uluguru Mountains – General von Lettow-vorbeck fighting a clever and ruthless guerrilla campaign to frustrate the larger Allied force.
After further action through September, the Machine Gun Company, reduced to five officers and 20 other ranks, is ordered to Dar-es-salaam via a disused slave route. Eight days later just three officers and 17 other ranks arrive there fit for duty, against a normal company strength of at least 80.
Three ‘crime reports’ in Mark’s African service record throw some human light on that martial shade. In Dar-es-salaam he receives 14 days confined-tobarracks for being in a forbidden area outside camp; another five days for failing to sleep under his mosquito net; and later seven
ABOVE: Officers of the 2nd Loyal Lancashire in France at Soissons (Courtesy of Lancashire Infantry Museum, Preston) LEFT: A pencil sketch of Mark Pilkington in later like by his son