Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Grandfather's Eyes - Throwback Thursday

I never knew my paternal grandfather. He died a few years before I was born. And I realized a couple of months ago that, not only did I know very little about him, I didn't even have any photographs of him. So when we visited my sister in England earlier this month, we went through some of the old family photos that she had, and she kindly gave me a couple of photos of our grandfather.

There he is, in his army uniform. I knew he had been a professional soldier and had served in South Africa and India and World War 1, but knew very little else about his military career.

When I examined the reverse side of the photo, I realized it was actually a postcard. The stamp and the postmark (if it ever had them) had been removed. But the card was addressed to my grandfather's mother. The only other writing on it was his name and service number, the message "With love to all" and the two German words…

gefangenenlager Gardelegen

It didn't take long to discover that "gefangenenlager" is the German word for "prisoner of war camp" and Gardelegen is a town in Germany which was the site for a camp for British POWs. If I had ever been told by my parents that my grandfather was a POW in Germany, I had long since forgotten it.

I was intrigued to find out more so started looking around at various online records. It turns out that the International Committee of the Red Cross has an excellent archive of records of prisoners of the First World War and I was quickly able to find a scanned image of a handwritten record card with my grandfather's name, various reference numbers and in the top right hand corner the date 31-10-14.

31st October 1914. 100 years ago tomorrow. I wondered what the date signified. The date this record was created? The date he was captured?

I searched further records on the same database and found entries for my grandfather in a couple of ledgers of prisoners, and these confirmed he was indeed held at Gardelegen and that he had been captured at Ypres on 31-10-14. It also recorded that he had been wounded in his left leg.

Then I hit the jackpot. I managed to find the records for him in the British Army WW1 Pensions Records Database. It had page after page of information about him from the day he enlisted in 1900 (one month after his 18th birthday) until the day he was demobilized in May 1919. Among other things it confirmed the ICRC records of his being captured at the end of October 1914 because he was officially reported as "wounded and missing" on 1 November 1914 and officially reported as a prisoner of war on 25 January 1915. What a worrying three months that must have been for his family.

I wondered if I could find out any more about the fighting in which he was captured so I went to the Wikipedia entry for the First Battle of Ypres which raged from October 19 to November 22 1914. The only entry for my grandfather's regiment (The Royal Lincolnshire Regiment) was for the fierce fighting on the Wytschaete–Messines line on 31 October 1914. When the 1st Battalion of the Lincolns were committed to the battle it is recorded they lost 30% of their strength. It seems almost certain that it was in this battle that my grandfather was wounded and captured.

Mud and muck at the First Battle of Ypres, October 1914

My eye casually scanned the reports on the battle as it continued that day and a name caught my eye. A very familiar name.

A couple of French divisions had been rushed in to reinforce the British, and the Germans brought in two more divisions including the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment. And earning the Iron Cross (Second Class) on that day, for rescuing a man under fire, was a lance-corporal in the Bavarian Regiment called Adolf Hitler.

Holy cow. My grandfather fought in the same battle on the same day in the same part of the front as Adolf Hitler. 100 years ago tomorrow.

There were a lot more details about my grandfather in all those records I found including his height (5ft 5 and 9/10 inches) and weight (133 pounds) on the day he enlisted in 1900.

And the fact that he had blue eyes.

I never knew.


Baydog said...


Tillerman said...


Damian said...

Amazing - really incredible.

Tillerman said...

Amazing that you can find out so much these days from online archives and other sources on the Internet.

And amazing that both my grandfather and Hitler had something significant happen to them on the same day and at the same place so that I can now identify their proximity 100 years later. Especially as both of them weren't (in 1914) anybody famous - just two out of millions of ordinary soldiers who fought in that war.

Anonymous said...

In the not so unlikely event that your grandfather would have been killed in that terrible battle, we wouldn't have this remarkable blog and I wouldn't be typing this...


Keep Reaching said...

Excellent post.

A few days ago there was an article in the New York times about Hitler on 29 October 1914 almost getting killed by friendly fire when another German unit mistook the Bavarians’ gray-green caps for British uniforms. The article can be found on the NYT site - called History Without Hitler? on 26 October.

Tillerman said...

Thanks for that KR. There's even a picture from 1914 of Hitler and other soldiers in his unit with that article.

And yes, I have thought about what would have been different if either my grandfather or Hitler had been killed in that battle. Apparently Hitler was almost killed several more times in WW1.

As the NYT commented, "It was one death too few in a war that claimed far too many."

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