A Journey of Remembrance

At a family gathering a few years ago I was reminded of two photos which took pride of place on my paternal grand-parents’ sideboard. They were of my two great-uncles: Haylock Owen, my grandmother’s brother, and James Powers, my grandfather’s brother, both of whom died as young men in World War One.

IMG_1192When I began researching my family history I started to uncover their story. Surname searches on The Commonwealth War Graves Commission site enabled me to download remembrance certificates providing details of their regiments, rank and date of death, as well as the location and plans of the cemeteries where they were buried. A brief summary of the military action at the time of their deaths was also available.

James had obviously enlisted with his local regiment, 2/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, but Haylock, living in Oxfordshire, had signed up to 8th King’s Royal Hussars, which was a cavalry regiment. The Owen family’s connection with working with horses may explain this.

Having the regiment details now narrowed down any further research. The National Archives in Kew holds the collection of WWI medal records but you are able to search the catalogue online, view copies and, for a small fee, download the documents. As well as the medals awarded you’ll find personal regimental numbers plus a reference to the roll, page and volume of ‘Soldiers who Died in the Great War’. Haylock’s card contained the rather final term ‘K in A’ – Killed in Action.

IMG_1199Service records for WWI may also be traced in this way, although those of James and Haylock proved to be among the many destroyed by fire in WW2.

When a family member sent through a copy of my great grandparents’ memoriam card for James, and a chosen transcription for his grave, it was time to start sharing this and other family history research with family members far and wide. We casually agreed that some of us, sometime, on a holiday in France perhaps, would try to visit the graves – but would we?

In 2010 my cousin from Australia emailed with the news of a planned trip to England in October – ‘Any chance of us arranging visit to the war graves?!’ This was what we needed.

The location of the graves was now known, so after downloading further online resources linked to Somme Tourism, a ‘Battlefields of the Somme Remembrance’ map as well as ferry timetables, we were able to set a date for eight family members to embark on what came to be known as our ‘Operation Picardie’

Meanwhile two of our group – previously unknown second cousins who had always wished to visit Haylock’s grave – forwarded a response to a query sent to the National Army Museum back in 2004: ‘If we cross reference the information from the regimental war diary August 9th 1918 – ‘Two men were killed and Lieutenant Rolf, thirty men and sixty five horses were wounded’ – with the details from ‘Soldiers who Died in the Great War’, we find that this is a direct reference to the deaths of Pte Haylock Owen and another Private, Henry Carter.

Would the content of the relevant regimental war diaries provide us with background information leading to a closer connection with James and Haylock as we made our journey of remembrance?

There are an increasing number of war diaries online now but luckily even in 2010 the 2/7th Royal Warks was accessible, readable as well as downloadable! The Hussars diary was not online but their regimental website referred to a two-volume history of the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars, based on and with extracts from the war diaries. Amazingly, I was able to order this through Pontesbury library; a rather tattered copy arrived with a ‘Handle with care’ note, stamped ‘British Library’.

These two resources, written in different styles and formats, provided us with such illuminating information, ranging from the weather conditions, daily routines, even sports day results during a period of rest and training for the Royal Warks, to the following day’s battle plans and trench maps, records of gruelling distances marched, progress impeded by wire and shell holes, horses not watered for days, being under heavy bombardment, and the trench state with its distressing casualty and fatality numbers. Congratulatory messages and visits from commanders were recorded too.

Officers and sometimes other ranks are referred to by name, but regimental museums have staff who will respond to queries and would, for a fee to support their work, carry out research on your behalf. The Royal Warks Museum cross-referenced the diary entry for October 24th 1918 to the ‘Soldiers who Died in the Great War’. Its response confirmed that ‘It was during the final allied advance of the war, as the regiment crossed the River Ecallion, , near the village of Sommaing, that Pte James Powers was was killed in action’.

IMG_1195Something that I wasn’t expecting to find in the diary entries was that on the night of [??], in preparation for the battle of St Quentin, James’ and Haylock’s battalions were side by side:

2/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment war diary February 2nd 1918                                         Maissemy Wood: Line as January 26th                                                                            Battn on Left: 8th Hussars of 5th Cavalry

Were James and Haylock aware of this? We have no idea how well they may have known each other anyway, as the Owen and Powers families lived 50 miles apart and my grandparents were not married until March 1916.

With further background information to James’ and Haylock’s involvement in WWI, resourced from battle websites, our journey of remembrance was enhanced and so much more poignant. We travelled a more personal route through the beautiful, rolling, rural countryside of Picardie, at times alongside the River Somme, but we now knew more of the hidden horrors that two members of our family had experienced. We visited trench and crater sites, museums and extensive military cemeteries.

Emotions were at their highest as we placed crosses on the graves of Haylock and James in immaculately cared-for cemeteries near Rosières and Sommaing, reflecting on those last entries in the war diaries. We looked across the railway line where Haylock’s battalion had advanced, engaged in the battle of Amiens which ended two days later, heralding the final retreat of the opposition. We walked across the bridge over the River Ecallion near Sommaing where James’ battalion had met with such fierce bombardment during the final Allied advance of the war.

James and Haylock were no longer just two young men in those photo frames. We felt a personal family link with them and the role they must have played during a significant period of history.