SEARCHING FOR YOUR GUNNER ANCESTOR

SEARCHING FOR YOUR WW1 GUNNER ANCESTOR

I regularly receive requests from people who, having seen the website, assume that I can find their own ancestors in whatever brigade or battery they may have served. My field of expertise is fairly limited to the history of 241 Brigade and to the timespan 1914 to 1918, the period of the 1st World War. It will, therefore, be disappointing for people to have their hopes raised only to find that I cannot really help without going into hours of individual research for them - something which I regret I am unable to do. The following notes may, however, help point people in the right direction.

Right from the beginning it should be borne in mind that your first bit of bad luck is that your ancestor was a gunner. Every town worthy of the name had its own artillery unit at this time, which effectively made it the largest unit in the British Army and hence one of the most difficult to research. The Royal Artillery was divided into three separate bodies:

The Royal Field Artillery
This was the largest of the three units. Many brigades started the war with 15 pounder field guns, ironically a development of an original Krupps design from Germany. In 1916, batteries started being issued with the improved 18 pounder field gun. A field gun fired its shells on a low trajectory - generally the target was in sight. Shells were usually high explosive or shrapnel as required. By 1916, an artillery brigade consisted of four batteries each of six guns. The first three, A B and C, were field guns and the fourth D battery had 4.5" howitzers at their disposal. The howitzer lobbed its shell high into the air so that it dropped more directly down onto its target. This meant that the target could be behind obstacles, perhaps a wood or a hill.

The Royal Garrison Artillery
The RGA were equipped with much larger weapons than the RFA. Howitzers from 6" and 9" bore were common as were 60 Pounder heavy field guns. These weapons became the first to be hauled by motor tractors rather than horse power. Some of the guns were so large that they could only be deployed on railway tracks.

The Royal Horse Artillery
The RHA were generally equipped with lighter guns than the RFA -often mountain guns which could be dismantled easily and quickly to enable them to be transported on horseback in pieces to where they were needed. Although lighter - 13 Pounders were common - the bore of the barrel was not dissimilar to that of the 15 and 18 pounders of the RFA and they were not a lot less functional. The RHA were generally used in support of the three cavalry divisions on the Western Front.

Just to make things that little more difficult, there were also three other divisions in the artillery, the Regular or professional artillery, the volunteers (the Territorial Force), and the New Army (conscripts). The majority of men who volunteered before 1916 will have been in the TF.

Searching for your Gunner
The first question you need to know is whether or not he survived the war. If he died, he will appear in the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In addition to his name and number you will find the cemetery in which he is buried and the grave number. Sometimes, if the soldier had no known grave, his name will be engraved on a memorial like Thiepval on the Somme or the Menin Gate or Tyne Cot cemeteries respectively in and near Ypres in Belgium. If you are lucky, there will be more information provided by the army or relatives, but do not expect this. The records can be searched online by entering his details into the CWGC search page.

A set of CD-ROM's is available commercially called "Soldiers Died in the Great War". This often gives more information about the soldier's unit than the CWGC site, although the latter often gives more information on relatives. SDITGW can be obtained from Naval and Military Press

Whether or not he died, you will be able to find records of the medals he was awarded in the Medal Card Index. These can largely be accessed online at the National Archives' website. Records are being added all the time and at the time of writing this, records up to names beginning with S were largely online with most of the balance due by the end of 2004. Access these records by entering your man's details into the Campaign Medal search page. Be prepared for Territorial Force gunners to have more than one service number. New, unique ones were issued in 1916 to overcome the fact that twenty or more men in different brigades could have the same number under the old system. When you have found him, there is a facility at the bottom of the page to order the actual medal card from the National Archives for a reasonable price, and this should give you the actual unit to which he belonged.

Individual soldiers' records are held at the PRO under different references. The reference for men who survived the war or who were killed is WO363. Men discharged to pension are listed in WO364. Note, however, that this is harder to follow through than it may seem. First, some 75% of the records were destroyed when a German bomb hit the repository in 1940. Secondly, although the divisions seem simple, there is a lot of confusion even amongst PRO staff as to exactly where any particular record may be filed. After the alphabetical records, incidentally, there are lists of misfiles as well which may need to be checked. For further guidance on searching the records, see the PRO guide. If you want to check on an officer, go to the officers' page. If it is a soldier or non commissioned officer, go to the soldiers' page.

Once you know his unit you can, if you wish, visit the Public Record Office at Kew and have a look at the war diaries directly to see where and what the unit was doing in round terms at any particular time. Artillery war diaries were completed on a brigade basis. In the case of 241 Brigade, they covered all four batteries, plus the ammunition column and all the headquarters and ancillary members of the 800 strong brigade. These generally appear to be filed under the reference WO95. You have to either visit the PRO in person or appoint a researcher to carry out these searches as the staff can only help point people in the right direction, rather than help with research.

If you want to find out more about the artillery and its formations, you can do no better than to visit the excellent 1914-18.net website 1914-18.net. Hit the "artillery" heading towards the top of the page.

If, having read the above, your relative has a service number in the series 830001 to 835000, or if you have any other reason to suppose he served in 241 Brigade (earlier known as 2nd South Midland Brigade) RFA please contact me


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