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.
There’s another relative story from the Great War, less happy. 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, signing up for the 28th Canadian Battalion which was authorized on 7 November 1914, embarked for Britain on 29 May 1915 and arrived in France on 18 September 1915. Recruited in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the 28th Battalion fought as part of the 6th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division in France and Flanders until the end of the war.
Fred was killed on 18th July 1918. Family stories said that he was a horseman who died when he went out to calm the horses during an artillery bombardment. However, when we visited his grave with my Grandma, there were 18 others killed at the same time, which makes the story unlikely. With the wonders of the internet, which has each day’s battalion records, you can find out the truth, which is that he was killed by a bomb whilst sleeping in the night of 18th/19th July. If you’re going to be killed in WW1, not a bad choice. He is buried in Wanquetin Communal Cemetery extension, an addition to a village cemetery near Arras.