More than half of young Britons are unable to name the years the First World War started and ended, according to a survey which highlights a “shaky” grasp of even basic details about the conflict.
This news article caught my eye in light of the Decade of Centenaries initiative to remember key events in our local history. How do we ensure that events such as the First World War continue to be remembered once they pass out of living memory? Belfast City Council’s ‘Decade of Centenaries‘ panel debate explored this topic. Fergal Keane, Fintan O’Toole, Dr Jonathan Bew, Nuala O’Loan, Jonathan Bardon and Glenn Patterson debated the question ‘Should we commemorate the past?‘. Although all panel members were in agreement that events should be commemorated, there was less consensus on the method. All agreed that there should be an honest engagement with the past, but that the current cultural views of history needed to be challenged. They felt that to avoid ‘political manipulation of the past’, events such as the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Rising needed to be viewed as part of a continuum of events set against a world stage. A number of panelists suggested using popular topics such as genealogy to engage the public in the act of remembering.
I wanted to see if an ancestor’s personal experience could bring an historical event to life. I knew that my great-uncle, Robert Hamilton, died in the First World War. I decided to find out more about him; his life and military career.
I looked at the Decade of Centenaries section on the Community Relations Council website and found Military History from the Street; this provided me with a useful starting point for researching Robert’s military history.
Research stage 1: First World War service records
I began my research with the background information in the census (above) and the name of his regiment: Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. I visited the Commonwealth Graves Commissions Website and used their search facility to find a memorial in Pozieres dedicated to Robert:
Robert Hamilton, DCM, MM, 15572,
9th Bn, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who died on 23 March 1918 Age 22.
Son of James and Ellen Hamilton, of 77, Fountain Street., Londonderry.
Remembered with Honour Pozieres Memorial .
Unfamiliar with military history, I looked up DCM and MM and found that the ‘Distinguished Conduct Medal and the ‘Military Medal were awarded to warrant and non-commissioned ranks for gallantry in action against the enemy. I was impressed by my great-uncle’s bravery and was keen to find out more about his commended acts of gallantry. I visited the Long Long Trail website and discovered that a notice of the award would have appeared in the London Gazette. The National Archives WO 372/23 and WO 372/24 collections contain medal index cards for the years 1909 to 1931. A soldier’s medal index card lists the name and date of the award and the issue of the London Gazette that contained the medal citation. I used the search facility on the National Archives website to find index cards relating to Robert’s medals (see left). Although these do not detail his acts of bravery I was able to use the date of the award to search the London Gazette index and, after an hour, I was able to find the following citation.
I was keen to find out if Robert’s name was listed on a local war memorial. I knew there was a large memorial in the centre of the Diamond in Derry; a quick google search led me the Diamond War Memorial Project. This site details research on the soldiers from the Derry/Londonderry area, who died during the First World War. I found a detailed entry on Robert, listing his background, military career, memorials and commemoration. This gives me a wealth of information on which to base further research. I want to give context to the medals by gaining a deeper understanding of the battles and the conditions, soldiers, like Robert, would have faced on the battlefield. I would like to find out more about the experiences of the soldier’s families and visit the memorials in the Diamond and St Columb’s Cathedral.