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What did you do in WW1, great-uncle?

Appropriately, as the centenary of the 1918 Armistice looms, I am making great strides with the research into my great-uncle Fred's war service. I am finally piecing things together, to understand where he was and what he was probably doing during the four and a half years of that conflict.

Luckily, Fred's war service records have survived and are held at the National Archives at Kew. And now that I have had a chance to view the records, the information they contain has given me the impetus I have needed to carry out the necessary detective work.

There is a misconception that soldiers on the Western Front spent all their time in trenches, but they weren't in fact on the front line for very long periods and they were often granted home leave (although there were no concessions given for soldiers who had to get home all the way say to the north of Scotland rather than via a relatively short journey to a home in southern England). I soon realised that Fred didn't serve in France for the whole time, but spent about a year and a half in total in England while he was serving.

For one thing he seems to have suffered recurring bouts of 'trench fever' in 1916 which meant he was hospitalised, first locally and then in Kent. This I found out was a painful condition, entirely different to 'trench foot', as it was a lice-borne infection. It first emerged among the soldiers in 1915, but went on to infect up to one million by the war's end. It could take months to recover from, and Fred spent most of the second half of 1916 recovering back in England.

I also realised that Fred had served with the 4th Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers Territorial Force (NF TF) right through to May 1918, and only joined the 1/5th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry (DLI), when he received his commission. So he was really only with the DLI for a relatively short period of time.

And he would have needed training to be an officer - this meant at least four and a half months away from the front line - and so he had spent many more months in England in late 1917 and early 1918 in order to get trained up.

Also, his papers show that he was with the 14th Platoon, "D" Company, which was based at Prudhoe. So armed with this specific information, and knowing when he was in France (and well enough to fight), I could work out which battles he was likely to have fought in.

His papers also mention that he was a widower (certainly by May of 1918) - I had suspected this to be the case, but had had no proof of this before. His two children (aged 8 and 6 at the end of the war) were living with their grandfather (also a widower).

And it seems that Fred had received a number of promotions whilst in the Territorial Force - from private to lance corporal, and then to sergeant - and was even an acting company sergeant major for about five weeks. But he was a sergeant for nearly all of 1916, 1917 and on into 1918.

I had thought the photo of a soldier who was in the Northumberland Fusiliers' uniform in the old family album (and reproduced in this blog entry) must be of my great-uncle, but there was no proof and his 'sergeant's stripes' hadn't seemed to fit with him being a private and then a 2nd Lieutenant. However the army records show that Fred was indeed the rank of sergeant for two and a half years, and crucially both times when he was in England, so I'm now as certain as I can be that the photo is indeed of my great-uncle Fred Cowling.

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