First World War centenary: Looking for my family’s boy soldier
- Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO
A First World War centenary exhibition in Hitchin includes a research service to help visitors trace their relatives. Comet chief reporter JP Asher has been in to try to learn more about his great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather was Carl Herman Myers, born the son of a Liverpudlian watchmaker in Nottingham in 1899.
According to what I have always been told by family, Carl – my father’s maternal grandfather – was on the Somme with the Royal Engineers at the tender age of 17.
So when the Herts at War team invited me to come into Hitchin’s British Schools Museum to look at their First World War exhibition and try out their research service, my interest was piqued.
I knew that Carl, who grew up mostly in Sheffield, was in adulthood a prominent doctor in Preston, Lancashire. But I’d never been able to find out much about his war service beyond vague family anecdotes.
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Jonty Wild from the Herts at War project greets me happily when I walk into the museum off Queen Street, and we start with a tour of the exhibition.
The team have created a superb experience, in which visitors are introduced to six Herts soldiers and invited to follow one or all of them through the war as they go through the museum.
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Along the wall of the museum’s monitorial schoolroom – the only one left in the world keeping to education reformer Joseph Lancaster’s design – are lined photographs of people yet to be identified by researchers.
Soldiers, sweethearts, children, clergymen and more stare out at the viewer, frozen in time after a century. Visitors are invited to fill in a form if they recognise anyone. Jonty says this has produced successes.
We then walk through into a convincing reproduction trench, which Jonty says took a week to build. At one end is a sign saying Queen Street, with a notice at the opposite end saying Hitchin Road – a real trench name in France.
We then have a look inside a mocked-up officers’ mess, where we get a fascinating look at the Hertfordshire Regiment itself through a unique film of them.
The film – taken mere months after the Herts Regiment was decimated at St Julien in 1917 – was lost for a century. Jonty says it is the only known film of the ‘Herts Guards’, whose men are seen doing jolly exercises and smiling at the camera.
Coming back up and through the museum’s yard, we have a look at some First World War weapons and equipment, and listen to audio recordings of a Herts veteran interviewed in the 1960s.
We then finally make our way back to where we met, and Jonty sits down behind the desk to have a look into my family history.
We quickly uncover two census records from when Carl was two and 12 years old, which among other things reveal his mother Dora was born in Russia – something I hadn’t known.
But military records prove difficult to track down. Survivors, Jonty says, are much harder to trace. After half an hour, the closest match seems to be a document describing a CH Myers who joined the war late and transferred from the Royal Engineers to the Officer Training Corps. But I tell Jonty I’m fairly sure Carl was never an officer.
Jonty says he will keep looking for my great-grandfather and let me know what he finds. So the mists of time surrounding my family’s boy soldier remain largely unbreached as I return to my young son and daughter – Carl’s great-great-grandchildren. The experience was still an emotional one.
While we had no immediate breakthrough in my case, Jonty says there have been remarkable discoveries made at their research desk. One visitor, he tells me, found out for the first time that they had a winner of the Military Cross in their family.
As we approach the centenary this November of the ceasefire that ended the war that would supposedly end all wars, there will perhaps never be enough we can do to remember all the sacrifices made, and all that was lost.
But the work of the Herts at War project, and their exhibition in Hitchin, go a massive way towards reaching across the years and bringing them all home again.
• The Herts at War exhibition at the British Schools Museum will be open each Friday, Saturday and Sunday until November. To find out more, see hertsatwar.co.uk.