It seems that the second most common use of the internet – behind pornography, of course – is family research. I find it hard to believe that internet commerce isn’t the biggest user, or even pictures of cute cats, but that’s what we’re told. And I have recently had a glimpse of why that should be.
To start at the beginning. I was in London at a family birthday party, and stayed at my brother’s house. He gave me a photograph which he had found in our mother’s effects, of a nervous but determined young man in military uniform. On the back, in my mother’s unmistakable primary school-teacher handwriting, was a message:
“Ernest Babb, son of William Tregeare Babb of Exeter and nephew of Clara Bishop, wearing uniform of Australian Expeditionary Force as he emigrated to Brisbane, Queensland before the First World War”
Clara Bishop was my grandmother, that I knew, but apart from that, nothing. Then I spent a few minutes on the internet, and it all comes out. I recognise that it is helpful to have an odd surname – Babb rather than Smith or Brown – and that the military are better at keeping records than most, but the ease with which you can find out stuff is astonishing.
The first page of a Google search told me that Ernest enlisted at Capella, Queensland in the 5th Light Horse (service number 1232), and embarked at Brisbane for the front on 17 September 1915 on the HMAT Hymettus, a ship which this web page tells us was able to transport 500 horses. Another government record revealed he was a 22 year old station hand, born in Exeter, and worked as a station hand. He was unmarried, so did not sign the declaration about giving his wife a portion of his 5 shillings a day (£25.76 in today’s money) wages.
Whether he got to Gallipoli, I can’t say. The 5th Light Horse were certainly there, but maybe not their later reinforcements. Seems unlikely, as the Australians were withdrawing by the time he would have arrived in Egypt (5thLH left 17 December 1915). The Discovering Anzac website, however, has all his records. He was engaged in the Palestine campaigns (remember Lawrence of Arabia). He started with the Light Horse, and was then transferred to the 2nd Machine Gun Squadron. Ernest was wounded on 16th November 1917, it seems, at Dueidar, which is a small oasis in the Sinai Desert, though the record simply says “EEF” which stands for Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The casualty record speaks of GSW Foot (gunshot wound). He was invalided back to an army hospital at Abbassia, then on to Australia on the transport ship ‘Ulysses’ (nothing to do with Alistair Maclean’s novel) on 15 February 1918, arriving 20th March 1918. He was awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – standard fare, I guess.
That’s it, the product of maybe 90 minutes of bashing a keyboard. There are bits I found but haven’t investigated – such as the Light Horse website, and the history of the 5th Light Horse Regiment. The enthusiasm for militaria, the passion of Australians for their Anzac history and the excellence of military records is not matched by civilian life. The trail goes dead when Ernest gets back to Australia – I hope his right foot healed enough for him to have a good life.
One of my great uncles – Frederick William Daly, from my father’s side of the family – emigrated to Canada, and also enlisted in the forces to come to the Empire’s aid. He went through his war with the Canadian forces on the Western Front, and was killed near Amiens in 1918. Another story, I’ve told elsewhere (blog, August 1914), but also illustrating the richness of military records.