Category: World War I

Naval Gazing

Given that 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I’ve set myself the task of finding out what part my ancestors may have played.

I’ve previously posted about my two Great-Grandfathers on my Dad’s side: George RETTIE and Hugh IRVING. I know Hugh was in the Scots Guards and died in Belgium and that George was in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve for the duration of the war (and after!) ending up in Dover. Now I’ve turned my attention to my Mum’s side of the family…

Skeleton Crew

Launching my MacFamilyTree database, I was immediately struck by how bare the entries were on my Mum’s side of the family – with only Birth, Death and Marriage data. Then, looking at the folder where I store the certificate images, I realised it’d been over 2 years since I’d looked at my Mum’s tree. This would have been the time when I first started my genealogy adventure with evening classes at Strathclyde University. Maybe we hadn’t got to Census records at that point in the course? Since that time I’ve been wrapped up in my RETTIE One-Name Study, so it’s fair to say this side of the family has been badly neglected.

Walking The Plank

My Mum’s maternal Grandfather was William Boyd BURNS. William was born on 14 Feb 1878 in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, Scotland and was the son of John BURNS and Rachel BOYD.1 John worked as a Ship’s Carpenter from the 1881 Census through to his death in 1922.2,3

Ancestor Chart for William Boyd BURNS

Ancestor Chart for William Boyd BURNS

Continuing the maritime theme, I found that William was a Marine Engineer in the 1911 Census and that his young family lived at Wallace Street in Grangemouth.4 He had married Elizabeth Jackson HENDERSON on 10 Nov 19025 and Elizabeth’s Father, James, had been a Ship’s Master, Fish Merchant, Ship Sail Maker and Master Mariner in his long career.

Excerpt from census of the household of William BURNS, ScotlandsPeople, 1911 Census 481/B2 009/00 001.

Excerpt from census of the household of William BURNS, ScotlandsPeople, 1911 Census 481/B2 009/00 001.

Grangemouth is the town on the River Forth where I was brought up, and its busy port was the main source of employment until the petrochemical industry arrived in the 20th Century.6 (My Dad was a Research Chemist at Imperial Chemical Industries’ Dyes Division).

Full Speed Ahead

I then found William’s Medal Card at The National Archives and also further documents within the Merchant Navy records on FindMyPast.

The National Archives, BT 351/1/18523, Medal Card of William Boyd BURNS.

The National Archives, BT 351/1/18523, Medal Card of William Boyd BURNS.

Navy Seamen 1835-1941, BT348, Card type CR2, Discharge no. 851937.

FindMyPast, Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1941, BT348, Card type CR2, Discharge no. 851937.

FindMyPast, Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1941, BT350, Card type CR10, Identity certificate no. 120812.

FindMyPast, Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1941, BT350, Card type CR10, Identity certificate no. 120812.

FindMyPast, Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1941, BT350, Card type CR10, Identity certificate no. 120812.

FindMyPast, Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1941, BT350, Card type CR10, Identity certificate no. 120812.

The 1878 year of birth and Wallace Street, Grangemouth address tied up with the Census and his Birth record. Extra detail provided was that he was a Chief and/or 1st Engineer (I think equivalent to a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy); he was aboard the SS Boorara out of Glasgow; he was awarded the Mercantile Marine Ribbon and British Medal Ribbon on 10 April 1921 and the Mercantile Marine Medal (awarded to those who served at sea for at least six months, and on at least one voyage through a danger zone) and British Medal (automatically awarded to all recipients of the Mercantile Marine Medal) on 17 April 1923; and there was even a picture of him!

Shot Across the Bow

The SS Boorara didn’t look much like a Scottish name. Sure enough it turned out to be an Australian ship, but it was also an ex-German ship – the SS Pfalz. And, to my amazement, it seems that this ship was fired on by an Australian land battery in the first shot of the First World War by forces of the British Empire!7

BOORARA X PFALZ, Allan C. Green collection of glass negatives, State Library of Victoria.

BOORARA X PFALZ, Allan C. Green collection of glass negatives, State Library of Victoria.

Carrying out further research on the SS Boorara, I found that it had been attacked twice by German U-Boats.8

This brought back a family story which I vaguely recollect from childhood. I remember my maternal Grandfather (who was also in the Merchant Navy) telling some story about the war involving a U-Boat but I’d thought HE was involved and that it was the SECOND World War. Perhaps this is the real story?

Sangster & Henderson’s have secured from the recent Sale of Ship Salvage Goods steamer, ex s.s. Boorara, which was torpedoed bound for Melbourne, part of the Drapery cargo, which amounted to over £20,000. The Goods are slightly damaged by Water.9

The ship was evidently repaired as she sailed on future voyages to Australia as well as places such as Antwerp and Hamburg after the war.10,11,12

I also found that the SS Boorara was moored at the former Prince’s Dock on the Clyde here in Glasgow,13 on the other side of the river from the Riverside Museum (European Museum of the Year 2013) – just a couple of miles from where I now live.

Compass Reading

I’ll be making my second visit to the WDYTYA? Live event in London next month and I have booked an ‘Ask The Expert’ session as part of my Ancestry VIP Pass. I now intend to use this to find out more about researching Merchant Navy records. This should hopefully help me locate more details regarding my Great-Grandfather’s maritime career.


1. 1878 Birth of William Boyd BURNS in Grangemouth, 14 Feb 1878, ScotlandsPeople (SR Births 481/0B 0022)
2. 1881 Census of John BURNS in the Household of Ellen SINCLAIR, 1881, FindMyPast (1881 Census RG11/481B/2/5)
3. 1922 Death of John BURNS in Grangemouth, 1 Feb 1922, ScotlandsPeople (SR Deaths GROS 481/B2 0028)
4. 1911 Census of the Household of William Boyd BURNS in Grangemouth, 1911, ScotlandsPeople (1911 Census 481/B2 009/00 001)
5. 1902 Marriage of William Boyd BURNS & Elizabeth Jackson HENDERSON, Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, Scotland, ScotlandsPeople (Statutory Marriages 481/B2 0031)
6. Falkirk Local History Society, Grangemouth
7. “AUSTRALIA’S FIRST SHOT”, Leader, 8 Aug 1914.
8. Australian War Memorial, Collection Item H02290.
9. “All Roads Lead To Sangster & Henderson’s Great Salvage Sale”, Aberdeen Journal, 23 Jan 1919.
10. “BOORARA, for Australia, left Clyde, 17th” in Shipping News, Edinburgh Evening News, 20 Nov 1920.
11. “Boorara, fm Antwerp and Liverpool, at Adelaide, June 6.” in Shipping News, Dundee Courier, 8 June 1922.
12. “Alexandra Dock, SAILED: Boorara, s, Hamburg, general” in Hull Shipping Intelligence, Hull Daily Mail, 26 May 1924.
13. Aberdeen University, Detail from Ships Database.

War of Attrition

Gosh! I haven’t posted for almost a year now…

Part of this is because I’ve been engrossed in my One-Name Study of the RETTIE surname and it can very quickly become all-consuming. I’m at the stage of being able to link the family trees of people currently living in Scotland with distant cousins living in the USA and Canada. Twitter has been a great help with establishing contact and also for quick-fire questions to establish the correct line. I’ve found WikiTree useful for publishing the findings as it lets people see the details in a $FREE environment and is also somewhere where they too can contribute.

Last April I finished the Military Archives module I’d been studying on my post-graduate course in Local and Family History at University of Dundee.

It was tough and a real hard slog. At one point I felt like surrendering and waving the white flag. I took ill at the end of January 2013 and was off work for three weeks. I fell behind with the course material and the submission of tasks for some of the module units. I had to play catch-up once I got better, and I managed to submit the Report assignment by the due date, but ended up late with the Essay. You get docked a grade for each day you are late with your assignment, although mitigating circumstances may be taken into account. The Essay and Report are each 35% of the overall module mark, with the remaining 30% being derived from the various unit tasks. Thankfully, I scraped through with an overall C1. So, having already passed the Skills and Sources for Family and Local History in Scotland module, this means I’m half-way there to obtaining my Post-Graduate Certificate.

The module tutor was Simon Fowler, author of Tracing Your First World War Ancestors, and it was the first time this particular module has been offered. In addition to the online Discussion Board, there were also a couple of Skype sessions where issues could be raised with Simon more interactively.

I thought the module material was very good and I learned a lot, not just about the archives themselves. Topics ranged from the Board of Ordnance to the Militia to World War One and Two and covered the Navy and Air Force as well as the Army. Another important aspect was the Home Front and the vital role that women played, including the various Voluntary Aid Detachments.

Joseph Lee, 'A captive at Carlsruhe : and other German prison camps', John Lane, London, 1920.

Joseph Lee, ‘A captive at Carlsruhe : and other German prison camps’, John Lane, London, 1920.

One of the sources I discovered whilst researching the Report topic was the works of Joseph Lee from Dundee. I had never heard of him until now and yet contemporary reviews rated his war poetry alongside Owen, Brookes and Sasoon. His book Capitive in Carlsruhe of his experiences as a prisoner of war is fabulous, aided by the fact that he was an accomplished artist and drew pen portraits of his fellow inmates – French, Italian, Serbian, and Portuguese. When the camp guards mutinied and overthrew the commandant during the German Revolution, he even made it to Berlin, where he witnessed Erich Leibnecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist Movement.

I’d thoroughly recommend this module to anyone considering the Masters course.

As an indirect result of the course, I now have my Great-Grandfather George RETTIE‘s service record from his time in the Royal Navy Reserve.

The National Archives, Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Royal Naval Reserve Ratings' Records of Service, BT 377/7/110328.

The National Archives, Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Royal Naval Reserve Ratings’ Records of Service, BT 377/7/110328.

From the long list of ship names it first appeared he had seen lots of action, however upon close investigation they all turned out to be shore stations – even HMS Victory II.

The National Archives, Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Royal Naval Reserve Ratings' Records of Service, BT 377/7/110328.

The National Archives, Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Royal Naval Reserve Ratings’ Records of Service, BT 377/7/110328.

Having volunteered in Aberdeen before the Royal Proclamation declaring War on Germany, his service ended five years later after being discharged at Dover.

Six months later there is a note to say that Mrs RETTIE has written claiming desertion and demanding payment of his war pension. Perhaps George was a little too demob happy and was enjoying a drink or two with this mates!

Postcard from the Trenches

Oh boy, this is going to be hard to convey how emotional I feel right now…

One of my previous posts concerned the five IRVING brothers – none of whom survived the Great War.

Well, I was just going through the box of family history research that my Dad gave me recently. He had traced the direct line of RETTIE ancestors back to 1678 (before the internet, with many hours trawling through microfiche I bet). The box is full of his hand-drawn charts, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, hand-written notes, etc. There was a separate folder labelled ‘IRVING’ which I hadn’t looked into before now.

And inside I found something more precious than any medal…

Postcard from Hugh IRVING to his daughter Charlotte (front)

Postcard from Hugh IRVING to his daughter Charlotte (front)

Postcard from Hugh IRVING to his daughter Charlotte (back)

Postcard from Hugh IRVING to his daughter Charlotte (back)

Dear Lottie.
Can you find me out in this Photo. This is the place w[h]ere we were digging trenches. 
I am away at the back with my hat the wrong way.
Are you still getting on well at school and behaving yourself.
Are you still going [for] Grannies messages.
From Dada with love and kisses. x x x x x

Lottie is Charlotte, my Nana (my paternal Grandmother) and this postcard is written by her Dad, Private Hugh IRVING of the Scots Guards, killed 19th June 1917, Flanders.

I also found a picture titled ‘Sgt E.H. Trinder’s Squad, Scots Guards, November 1915’. I presume my Great-Grandfather is somewhere – this time with his hat the right way round!

Sgt Trinder's Squad, Scots Guards, Nov 1915

Sgt Trinder’s Squad, Scots Guards, Nov 1915

I shall treasure these items forever and endeavour to find out more about Corsham trenches, the photographer(?) Spackman and Sgt Trinder.

Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood

My last few posts have concentrated on the RETTIE line of my family tree, specifically the brothers of my Dad’s paternal Grandfather George RETTIE.  This post concerns my Dad’s maternal Grandfather Hugh IRVING.

I knew Hugh was my Great-Grandfather a number of years ago, as I visited his grave in Belgium in 2001.  So too did my son Bryan last year, on a school History trip to Flanders’ fields.

What I didn’t know until the other night was the devastating affect of the Great War on his family – on top of already great sadness at the early deaths of two other brothers…

My previous post re John RETTIE had made me aware of the War Graves Photographic Project, a partner site to the CWGC. I thought I would see how their picture of Hugh IRVING’s grave compared to my own and duly typed his name into the Search facility. What I didn’t expect was an entry coming up for Edinburgh Eastern Cemetery!

I could see it was a memorial inscription for the whole family, so duly ordered an email copy of the photograph (costs are suggested donation of £3.50 for email copy and £5.50 for hard copy).

The email arrived promptly the next day with the photo of the headstone:

IRVING family headstone, Edinburgh Eastern Cemetery

IRVING family headstone, Edinburgh Eastern Cemetery. Courtesy of The War Graves Photographic Project.

Erected by Hugh & Charlotte Irving in loving memory of their sons.
JOHN died 13th January 1895, aged 18.
WILLIAM died 30th July 1909, aged 18.
HUGH killed 19th June 1917, aged 36.
CHARLES killed 13th July 1917, aged 29.
FREDERICK killed 20th October 1918, aged 37.
Also the above
HUGH IRVING died 18th August 1928, aged 77
and his beloved wife
CHARLOTTE LEEDER died 6th September 1928, aged 78.

Hugh IRVING was a Blacksmith and before the Great War, he and his wife Charlotte had lost their sons John and William (both Apprentice Boilermakers) to illness – Tuberculosis and Appendicitis respectively – at the tender age of 18.

If that wasn’t bad enough, imagine the grief when, within a month of each other, two more sons are killed in battle and, a year later, the fifth and final son is killed in France? Truly incomprehensible…

The three brothers killed in action had all joined separate units – Hugh the Scots Guards, Charles the Highland Light Infantry and Frederick the Royal Scots Fusiliers. If this was an attempt to spread out to avoid them all being unlucky enough to be in the same place at the wrong time, it proved a futile tactic.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
‘For the Fallen’, Laurence Binyon, 1914.

Headstone of Hugh IRVING, Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium

Headstone of Hugh IRVING, Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.

Headstone of Charles IRVING, Coxyde Military Cemetery, Koksijde, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium

Headstone of Charles IRVING, Coxyde Military Cemetery, Koksijde, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. Courtesy of The War Graves Photographic Project.

Headstone of Frederick IRVING, Willems Communal Cemetery, Nord, France.

Headstone of Frederick IRVING, Willems Communal Cemetery, Nord, France. Courtesy of The War Graves Photographic Project.

Rule #1 – Never Assume Anything

…because it makes an ass out of u and me!

France and Flanders

A decade or so ago, whilst preparing to visit my Great-Grandfather Hugh IRVING’s grave in Belgium, I remember searching for RETTIE on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission‘s excellent web site, and wondering if any of the casualties could be related to me.

Recently I had another look and went through the 16 entries for World War I, examining the Additional Information which can list next of kin and/or address. Knowing that my family hails from the North-East of Scotland, I examined the 6 members of the Gordon Highlanders first as most likely candidates to have a family connection. Nothing jumped out and then I turned to the other regiments. There was a John RETTIE in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers listed on the Arras Memorial:

Son of James and Janet Carruthers, of Carlisle Place, Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire.

I discounted this immediately as a) he was from the South-West of Scotland and b) his parents weren’t even called RETTIE! He couldn’t possibly be related to me.


Nipper In Stone Yard

In my last couple of blog posts, I recounted the transatlantic adventures of my Great-Great Uncle James RETTIE and the sad death of my Great-Great Uncle Adam RETTIE in the Poor House. Next I decided to find out more about their brother John.

Sons of Adam RETTIE and Harriet MIDDLETON

My starting point was the 1881 Census record of the household of my Great-Great-Grandfather Adam RETTIE and his wife Harriet MIDDLETON. John was listed as:

Nipper In Stone Yard, age 13, born about 1868 in Methlic Aberdeenshire.

10 years later he is listed as a “Stonecutter”, still living with his parents. However, he is nowhere to be found on the 1901 Census. Had he emigrated like his brother James?

Shotgun Wedding?

Then I found a marriage for a John RETTIE in Glasgow for 30 Mar 1896. Hmmm, could it be him? He was around the right age, but what had taken him to Glasgow from Aberdeen?

The marriage certificate confirmed it was him, listing his occupation as “Mason” and giving his parents as “Adam Rettie (deceased)” and “Harriet Rettie M.S. Middleton”. However, what was this in the second last column?

1896 Marriage of John RETTIE and Janet WALLACE

1896 Marriage of John RETTIE and Janet WALLACE, Glasgow, ScotlandsPeople (SR Marriages 644/03 0160)

Warrant of Sheriff Substitute of Lanarkshire dated 30th March 1896

So, it was an Irregular marriage via a Sheriff’s Warrant – what did this mean?

I then checked to see if they had any children and a record came up for a John RETTIE born in Kilsyth on 19 May 1896:

1896 Birth of John RETTIE

1896 Birth of John RETTIE, Kilsyth, Stirlingshire, ScotlandsPeople (SR Births 483/00 0160)

Ah, so Janet was already 7 month’s pregnant at the date of their marriage and would have shown – perhaps why a Church Minister would have nothing to do with them and they had to apply for a Sheriff’s Warrant to get married? (A re-inspection of the marriage cerificate also highlighted that they were living together before the marriage).


Whilst looking for “John RETTIE” in the 1901 Census, I had turned off the age filter and had noticed a record for the parish of Hoddom in Dumfriesshire and it listed a John RETTIE and an Adam RETTIE living with a family named CARRUTHERS. Eh? Had these boys been adopted?

1901 Census of Household of James CARRUTHERS

1901 Census of Household of James CARRUTHERS, Hoddom, Dumfriesshire, ScotlandsPeople (Census 1901 829/00 002/00 021)

Viewing the original image showed them listed as “Step Sons” of the householder James CARRUTHERS. Where was their Dad? Had he and Janet divorced so soon after their marriage?

I found the birth certificate of Adam RETTIE for 2 Nov 1898 – and was dismayed to see to word in brackets after the father’s Occupation:

1898 Birth of Adam Rettie

1898 Birth of Adam Rettie, Buittle, Kirkcudbrightshire, ScotlandsPeople (SR Births 859/00 0021)

I then searched for death records for “John RETTIE” between May 1896 and Nov 1898 and found the following entry for 16 Jul 1898:

1898 Death of John RETTIE

1898 Death of John RETTIE, Edinburgh, Scotlands People (SR Deaths 685/05 0725)

My Great-Great Uncle John had died (from Peritonitis) when his first son John was just 2 years old and, worse, 4 months before his second son was born. How sad. Neither child would grow up remembering their father.

Double Tragedy

Then it struck me: the John RETTIE I had previously seen listed on the CWGC site as having died in France during World War I and my Great-Great Uncle’s son John was one and the same person!

So, poor Janet – she loses her first husband John (aged 30) and then her eldest son John (aged 20).

The next time I’m in France I will endeavour to visit the Arras Memorial to pay my respects to my newly discovered first cousin twice removed.

John RETTIE Descendant Chart