To the memory of Raymond Hummel, 1886–1916, and John Sieber, 1893–1917, and to the 166 men and 1 woman of Perth Academy who died in the Great War.
The remains of my great-uncle Raymond Hummel lie in France, in a cemetery called Sucrerie. He died on 19 May 1916 at Colincamps, a village roughly mid-way between Amiens and Arras. He had arrived in France as Second Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire regiment (known as the Prince of Wales’s Own) about a week earlier. His death did not occur during one of the epic battles (Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge), but during a relatively “quiet” period several weeks before the Somme offensive, when the trench he occupied was shelled. He was 29 years old.
I know very little about him. He was one of twins, in a family of six brothers and one sister (I am descended from the sister). His father was a chemistry professor at the University of Leeds, and the family lived in a row house near the university. You can see it on Google Street View, and to modern eyes it looks wholly inadequate for a family of eight.
Raymond wasn’t married. He signed up in August 1914 as a private, but was promoted to officer after a few weeks. I don’t know what he did between August 1914 and May 1916. His widowed mother received the news of his death in a telegram about four days after it happened. She wrote to the Secretary of the War Office asking for details, and he promised to pass the request to the regimental officer in charge, but I have not seen the response.
However, now that the events have passed into history and all who were there are dead, the government has released War Diaries, daily accounts of the conflict written by the commanding officers in the field. The one pertaining to the West Yorkshire Regiment was more than 1,000 pages long, but eventually I emerged from the haystack clutching the needle I wanted: the record of Raymond’s death, written in pencil on the evening of the day he died by an officer sitting in a muddy trench at Colincamps.
“Intermittent shelling by enemy through the day. From 1 pm to 3 pm shelled our right centre with HE, doing a good deal of damage and causing 10 casualties (2 K, 1 DW, 7 W), at MAXIM ST. NORTH. Enemy appeared to be registering a new gun behind PENDANT COPSE. Trench mortars active at intervals, 20 canister bombs falling in right section during the morning. About 50 rifle grenades sent into right section between 3 and 6 pm. Casualties: K: – 1 officer (2/Lieut. R. Hummel); 1 OR; DW – 3 OR; W – 5 OR. All artillery.”
[HE = high explosive; K=killed; DW = died of wounds; W = wounded; OR = other ranks (that is, not officers). Maxim Street North would be the name of a specific trench.]
Raymond’s grave in the Sucrerie cemetery is my family’s corner of a French field. I have never been there, but a second cousin, descended from Raymond’s youngest brother, made the trip a few years ago and sent me photographs. I hope to follow his example in 2016, the 100th year since my great-uncle died.
So many of us – Canadian, British, Australian, New Zealander, American, South African – can lay claim to a corner of a French or Belgian field. But what do we know about those who died in the First World War? Actually, a lot more than we did 50 years ago. The release of formerly confidential documents and the medium of the Internet have brought us closer to the war.
Another great-uncle, John Lonsdale Sieber, brother to my paternal grandmother, had also been killed in action. Like Raymond, he had been born in Yorkshire, but he was educated in Scotland at Perth Academy. He trained as an engineer and went to work for the Argyll Motor Works near Glasgow. Also like Raymond, he signed up as soon as war broke out. He became a Lieutenant with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
However, unlike Raymond, John survived the Battle of the Somme, although he was wounded there. When he recovered, he was sent to German East Africa with the King’s African Rifles in 1917. And unlike Raymond, he got married shortly before he left England. John Sieber was killed 17 October 1917 in what is now Tanzania; today his grave is in Dar-es-Salaam (relocated from a more remote location). He was not quite 24.
As it happens, I have a friend in Dar-es-Salaam. I wrote to her last fall and asked her if she could photograph John Sieber’s headstone. She did better than that. On November 11, 2014, she brought flowers from her garden to adorn his grave, and sent me photos.
She also took a picture of her husband standing by the stone, to give me a sense of the location of his plot in the cemetery. Her husband is the current German ambassador to Tanzania, who had participated in a ceremony of remembrance with his U.K. counterparts earlier in the day. What an extraordinary testament to the changes since 1914.
The story does not end there. In July, Norman and I were in Scotland, visiting my cousin Jane. She has a trunk full of family documents, including many related to John Sieber. She told me that members of her family had tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to trace John Sieber’s wife after the war.
Of course, I had to try. And given the resources of the Internet, I found her quite quickly. She had remarried, moved away, died in the 1970s. But during this search, I was surprised to find that someone else was looking for information about John Lonsdale Sieber. This person had posted a request for information on a forum about the Great War.
I replied, cautiously, to the effect: Who are you and why do you want to know about my great-uncle?
It turned out that the request came from Dave, a former teacher at Perth Academy, the school my great-uncle had attended. He had served in the navy for many years before becoming a teacher. At Dave’s urging, the school was commemorating the 167 students and staff members who died in the First World War and are listed on the school’s war memorial. The project is called “Flowers of the Forest,” after the tune traditionally played at the funerals of fallen soldiers.
For each name, there is a page of information, and on the 100th anniversary of each death, Perth Academy holds a brief ceremony of remembrance. I know where I will be on 17 October 2017. The school is not in the same building my great-uncle knew, but the original building is still standing in Perth. Dave sent me a photo of it.
I sent Dave what I knew about John Sieber. Then, after we’d exchanged several e-mails about the project, Dave asked if I could look up information on 10 former Perth Academy students who had emigrated to Canada after leaving the school, and who had served in Canadian regiments. I had no idea what I could contribute beyond what he had already found, but it sounded like an interesting thing to do, so I had a go, and found some details to add to the information he had collected. When I had done that, I worked on a few other names for which information was needed.
It was a fascinating excursion into the stories of individuals in the Great War and how those stories were or were not documented. Class mattered: it was easier to find information about commissioned officers than about “Other Ranks.” Indeed, the fact that my great-uncles were officers meant that their names were relatively easy to find. (In the war diary I quoted earlier, Raymond Hummel was the only casualty of the shelling that day who is mentioned by name.)
And I learned that like my great-uncle Raymond, many had died in between the big battles, in periods described as “quiet” or “uneventful” in military records. They were listed as “killed in action” if they died on the spot from a shell or a sniper’s bullet, even if the action in question was eating dinner, smoking a cigarette, or chatting with fellow soldiers. If they did not die immediately, they were listed as having “died of wounds.”
I became familiar with the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (originally the Imperial War Graves Commission), and their many idiosyncrasies. I learned to squint at badly transcribed records to figure out what the actual words might have been. Here is an example. The Royal British Legion, using information from the CWGC, published this page on its site:
Corporal J Hardie
Royal Engineers, Died on 15 October 1916 age 26
Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, Nord
Native of Perth. Son of Bailie T. K. M. Hardie, J.P., and Agnes J. N. Hardie, of “Eveenbrae,” Petticur Rd., Kinghorn, Fife.
The first thing to catch my eye was the improbable name “Eveenbrae.” Has any house ever had that name?
Turned out it was a mistranscription of “Greenbrae.” I was so pleased at identifying it properly that Dave took a drive along the (misspelled) road in question and photographed the house.
But we also realized that the record is utterly misleading, since Greenbrae was the house that Hardie’s mother moved to after her husband died in 1920. The War Graves Commission was doing its work in the 1920s, so the names, places, and dates may be out of kilter with the families of men who died between 1914 and 1918. Jack Hardie (I don’t know why the CWGC listed him only by his initial; his first name wasn’t hard to find) never lived in Fife, and neither did his father.
Speaking of fathers, Jack Hardie’s dad wasn’t T.K.M. Hardie, but John King Morrison Hardie. He was a leading citizen of Perth (a Bailie is a town councillor), worked as a hairdresser and perfumer, and had a notable political career which merited a sizeable obituary in the local paper when he died in 1920.
Of course, the Internet being what it is, one mistranscription can be repeated many times, frustrating the searches of those who are trying to trace relatives.
Still, Dave drew on information in local newspapers and school yearbooks as well as official records, to ensure greater accuracy. Eventually, his work will be printed up as a book of remembrance for the school, although the project will never be really finished, as relatives like me learn about the project and come forward with new information.
On November 11, I will stand in silence and remember Raymond Hummel and John Sieber. I have always been moved by the words that are usually repeated at that time: “They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old…” but more and more I think they are not the right words, or at least, they fall short.
Growing old is no great accomplishment. Perhaps we should say: “They will not have families as we who are left have families” (Where are my missing second cousins who were never born?). “They will not contribute to their communities as we who are left can contribute to our communities” (What inventions, artworks, structures, laws, institutions, ideas, businesses, books, and other contributions are we missing because they died when they did?).
Nevertheless, in the end, “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”
Written by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Peter Lind, Wendy Kochanke, and David Dykes; documents from ancestry.com, Google Street View, and the National Archives of the United Kingdom.