Why you shouldn’t take your family stories at face value
Every family has their stories, scandals and historical facts that pass from one generation to the next. In the age before the instant gratification of 24-hour online content and services, these remain a route to our ancestors. Unlike today, you realise how little of their lives remain in meaningful ways, so every story and photo is that much more precious. We all have a tendency to change and embellish to make things a little more exciting or infamous. But for there to be actual value, we need to know the stories we’ve been told are accurate.
My family story
My great-uncle was John James Cutler, born in Portsmouth, England, in 1892. The England and Wales Census, 1911, records John as a “Butcher’s assistant”, the only piece of career information I have for him before the First World War began in 1914.
The story I was told as a child was that:
“Johnnie was killed at The Somme and had his head was blown off.”
The description and the horror of his death have always remained with me.
Most families are likely to have similar tales of a loved one going off to war and giving their life to their country. In this way, Johnnie’s story may be similar to yours.
In my 30s, I became interested in genealogy and wanted to explore my roots — not because I wanted to find links to Kings and Queens but because I am estranged from my immediate family and this was now an important issue for me. Johnnie’s story was one of the few pieces of family history I knew, so gave me an avenue to investigate.
Following the evidence
Genealogy resources are now available more than ever, and there was no shortage of free and subscription services to help my research. Before long, I had a copy of Johnnie’s marriage index from the last quarter of 1916 when he married Florence Maude Clarke.
This set the alarm bells ringing.
The infamous Battle of the Somme — claiming over 300,000 lives — took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916. Did Johnnie get a leave of absence amid battle, return to England, get married, and then come back to the war zone to get killed before the fighting finished?
Something didn’t feel right.
Further investigation of sources led me to the Find War Dead database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). With Johnnie fighting overseas, it was no wonder I couldn’t find his death record in UK sources. The CWGC would help clear things up, I thought, and give me the details of when Johnnie lost his life at The Somme.
I drew a blank. There was no record of his death.
My immediate thought was the battle claimed the lives of 300,000 soldiers. Maybe his details got lost over the years. Keen not to give up, I broadened my search and looked for details of Johnnie’s death between October 1916 until the Armistice in November 1918. Sure enough, I found my great-uncle’s details and confirmation of his death during the war.
But the surprises continued.
Private John James Cutler of the Northumberland Fusiliers, 25th Tyneside Irish Battalion, died on 28 April 1917 and had a burial plot at Canadian Cemetery №2 at Neuville-St. Vaast in France.
My first reaction was this couldn’t be my relative. Johnnie was from Portsmouth and had no links with Northumberland. But there were no other John James Cutlers in the database. This also was not the timeframe of the Battle of the Somme. My family story was unravelling.
After ploughing through more records and posting questions to World War 1 experts via online forums with my details, a picture emerged. Other records corroborated these details with Johnnie’s war pension going to his wife, Florence. I knew this was my great-uncle. The forum experts told me the volume of casualties led to decimated units becoming parts of other battalions. This was why my great-uncle was with the Northumberland Fusiliers. The date and burial location also confirmed Johnnie died at The Battle of Arras.
Not only a different battle, but a different year of death.
And then the most poignant revelation of all. The report of Johnnie’s death stated he “died” rather than was “killed”. A subtle difference for the experts, showing he hadn’t died instantly, otherwise being “killed” would have been the term. The myth of “having his head blown off” was also no more.
The family history passed down the generations was wrong. I now had the evidence to prove it.
Giving more than just his life
I didn’t start my family history research to debunk the stories told to me as a child. That just happened. You may ask why is Johnnie’s story, and the need for the facts to be accurate, so important to me?
John James Cutler’s wife was Florence Clark — who was my great-grandmother. After the war, on 3 June 1919, she married Johnnie’s brother, Albert Cutler — my great-grandfather.
On the centenary of his death on 28 April 2017, with my wife and children, we visited Johnnie’s grave at Neuville-St. Vaast and the trenches preserved at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. This was my opportunity to not only thank him for serving his country, but that sacrificing his life meant I was born, as were my children.
If I hadn’t begun checking the family story that came down the generations, I would never have found Johnnie’s last resting place or been able to pay my respects.
I don’t think for a minute my relatives changed the story for any malicious reasons. Memories fade, reliable information at the time was scarce, and millions were dying or grieving from a devastating war. They shared it in good faith.
But if you want to know your own history is true, don’t just take the facts as a given — do a little digging, you never know where it will take you.
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