Have you ever wondered about the First World War casualties named on your War Memorials?
Members of Chorleywood U3A Family History group did, so we decided to investigate the background of the fifty men named on the board in the War Memorial Hall.
We hold our monthly meetings in the local War Memorial Hall where there is a large board displaying the names of 50 local men who died in the First World War. It occurred to some of us who are interested in family history that whilst we see these names regularly we know nothing about them as people – where did they die, how old were they, where did they live and work? So the Chorleywood U3A World War 1 Project was born.
We quickly realised that our research would be more interesting if we could find out what Chorleywood was like in 1914-1918, so we enlisted the help of our U3A local history group to do this research.
Some 18 months on, we now know a great deal about life in the village and have produced biographies for all 50 men named on the memorial. In addition we have found another 28 casualties with Chorleywood connections who are not named. Why we do not know, as the criteria for displaying the names on the memorial have not been found.
When war broke out, the village was primarily an agricultural community with a small number of large landed estates which meant that the majority of local men were labourers or gardeners. However, the coming of the railway had resulted in a new housing development attracting middle class families and these provided a handful of officers.
We found that the young men of Chorleywood were involved in every major theatre of war, though inevitably the majority perished in France, Belgium or Gallipoli. Most were killed in action, a few succumbed to disease or sickness and a small number died of war-related illnesses after hostilities had ceased.
The impact on a small community is hard to imagine. We found families who had lost more than one son, cousins and brothers-in-law who had perished, and roads where several young men and their families were near-neighbours.
Our research was primarily conducted through Ancestry and Findmypast on the internet, with each member of the project group researching a handful of names. We managed to find a small number of descendants who were able to provide holy-grail photographs and background information about families. We also discovered a number of old photos of the village which had not been seen before.
There are no outstanding heroes on our memorial – although you could say that everyone who took part in this war was a hero. They are just ordinary folk who were sucked into the most unimaginable horrors and carried out what they saw as their duty. This became very evident when we consulted the battalion war diaries for the days on which our men were killed or recorded as missing.
For example, on the day when Private George Hookham was killed the battalion war diary records:
21 Apr 1915 - Bombardment & counter attacks continued during early morning & position critical at times. Casualties very heavy. Enemy’s machine guns partially enfiladed reverse of Hill 60, trench mortar bombarded it, & field guns were brought up to within about 30 yards & fired point blank at parapet, blowing it to pieces & mangling the defenders. Casualties of Bedfords 4 officers killed, 8 wounded. Other ranks over four hundred.
Our research is now complete, so to ensure that these men are not forgotten we have published a book containing their stories. This has taken us into uncharted territory, as none of us have relevant experience, but in the true spirit of U3A we are rising to the challenge. Copies can be obtained from the WW1 project team.