My Great-uncles William and Jack Westcott
I’d like to take you on a tour of my personal connection with World War I. We will be visiting some archives and the Picardy region in northern France, where the various ‘Battles of the Somme’ took place between 1914-1918. It’s the subject matter of my novel In Picardy’s Fields, out in September 2020!
How it all started
My late mother, Helen Ferguson, was a keen amateur genealogist of both her own British/Irish ancestry and of the Dutch branch of my father’s family.
At first, I did not share my mum’s fascination with stuffy archives and bone-dry Internet sites, but I inherited the yellow envelopes with all her scribbles and earmarked photographs on her passing in 2017. Moving the envelopes one day – I had cautiously marked them ‘Hannah’s retirement project’- this photo fell out.
Standing left: William Alexander Westcott, sitting Jack Westcott (photo Jan 1915)
Now this was intriguing. First someone other than my mother had tried to identify the two relatives who had died in WW1 (see different handwriting in middle of backside note). Then my mother had done some more research and found out they were her uncles William Alexander Westcott and Jack Westcott, brothers to my maternal grandmother.
My great-uncles, my heroes
Faces of men who have died for our liberty, even if it was over a century ago, triggers something deeper than just another story about the Great War. And these weren’t just anyone’s faces; these were my blood relations, men who may or may not have done great deeds but in any case, died in an effort to deliver us from evil. And in doing so – dying young and childless – had both become as forgotten and untraceable as their bodies. Both were never found; anonymous men unless I change their fate. By making them my heroes, they become everybody’s heroes!
William and Jack’s WW1 war medals
It’s sad that my great-uncles never knew they were awarded these medals, let alone pin them proudly on their lapels. But I’ve cleaned and polished them to the best of my ability and ironed the ribbons. Side note: there is no one alive these days that can publicly wear these medals. The last WW1 veteran was Florence Green, a British citizen who served in the Allied armed forces, and who died 4 February 2012, aged 110. The last combat veteran was Claude Choules who served in the British Royal Navy (and later the Royal Australian Navy) and died 5 May 2011, aged 110.
Gosh, I keep being side-tracked; hope you forgive me. 😛
My search for the truth
At first, I had no idea where to begin with my search for my great-uncles’ war history. The info my mother had left me was sparse and there were no family members to tell me more about this generation.
I soon found that the first step to find British war dead is to go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (https://www.cwgc.org/), which is very helpful when you have first and last names. You wouldn’t believe how many names there are in that register! It baffles the grey cells. Within seconds both my great-uncles popped up. Well their names!
Register Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Sherlock Holmes’s amongst you will already have spotted the discrepancies. Either the War Graves Commission had their deaths wrong, or my mother. I can never ask her where she found these wrong dates but yes, hers were wrong, although only by a month. My great-uncles, unbeknown to each other, died within 8 days of each other, one aboard the S.S. Calypso, lying now on the bottom of the North Sea, 15 miles west of Listafjorden, Norway and the other near Ovillers, in hilly northern France. But we’re getting ahead of the search. Just for a moment imagine my poor great-grandmother, losing her eldest and her youngest son in a matter of days!
Private Jack Westcott
For the rest of this blog series I will concentrate my research on the youngest brother, Jack. I traced his path, and much more is known about him. We’ll start with the cap that rests on his knee. The emblem’s of the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment). Stay tuned.