On the eve of 52 Davids

Before tomorrow and posting the first of 52 profiles of my ancestors, I want to reflect a bit on what has brought me here and clarify my own expectations of what this year will and won’t bring.

I’m not a professional historian. I’m not a professional genealogist. My methods in assembling this blog will probably make professionals from both those fields roll their eyes.  I was an academic briefly–long enough to know that my lack of secondary sources,and avoidance of historiography/critical theory is more than enough to not take this effort seriously as a contribution to any major discourse in Great War history.  And that’s fine. I’m ok with that. If any of my old profs from Waterloo ever read this, I haven’t forgotten what you taught me, I just decided not to do it that way.

I know that there are gaps in my family research too.  I have not aggressively sought out birth certificates or other documents through direct contact with archives, I have let my subscription to a genealogy service do that for me. I have reached out to distant family members, but I haven’t hounded them, and I have no intention of doing so.

I also have no intention of digging for secrets, scandal, or intrigue in these stories. I do not want to invade the privacy of the families of these men–men who in many cases their families still think of and remember. When family members have shared personal stories with me, I consider that a great privilege and am humbled to be trusted with that information. Such stories are only shared in these posts with express permission.

In many ways, each profile of each ancestor is like a thought experiment for me.  A jumping off point to consider the “what would that have been like” of a given situation. A way to reflect on my own life and how I would face a situation as a parent, a spouse, a daughter, a sister. It provides greater context for my life.

And then there is the commemorative aspects of this blog. I have a complicated relationship with acts of remembrance.  I deeply distrust the  “support our troops” rhetoric that has been rampant since 9-11, while also having profound respect for the armed forces and what they do. My mom is from a military family.  Her father, RSM Albert Rajotte, to whom this entire effort is dedicated, had a long career in the Canadian military. He was is one of my greatest heroes in many ways–and I am fully aware that he was, like all of us, not perfect. Tomorrow, although the posting of my first “David” profile is important, going to visit my grandfather’s grave is my first priority. He is my guidepost as I write each profile–I think about how I would want my grandfather to be written about. I wouldn’t want his story to be embellished or sugar coated–but I would want it to be respectful, honest, and placed in the context of where he was from and what the world was like for him. Hold me to that if at any point you don’t see me living up to it.

There was much written at the time and since about how a veil was lifted in the summer of 1914–that time was measured by “before” and “after.” In literature this is often described as a stripping away of innocence, in patriotic histories it is described as a crucible through which stronger national identities were forged.  I am fascinated by this idea of this kind of line in the cosmic sand, the crossing of which changes everything.  It bears a lot in common with 9-11.  Everything from the way we travel to discourse on race relations changed that day.  That bright September morning as people headed to work in the moments before the first plane hit is often described in the same language as the final summer days in 1914 before Germany attacked France and Britain declared war on Germany.  A charmed moment before all hell broke loose.

I’m grateful for the support of my husband Terry (who actually is a legitimate historian and public history advocate) who has been bearing with me as I squint at records on my computer screen and click clack away on the keyboard for the past two years. I’m grateful for anyone taking  a moment to read a bit of this effort. I hesitate to say that I’m grateful that my or anyone’s ancestors were involved in this conflict.  It was brutal and ugly, and over time spawned more brutality and ugliness.  I would rather that it hadn’t been a situation that anyone had to face. They did face it, though.  So I do want to commemorate it, and I want to learn from it. So that’s why I’m here.  We’ll see you tomorrow for the first post.

 

 

 

 

How Records Shaped the List of Davids

One of the biggest differences between researching this project and researching for my MA Thesis in 2002 is the complete lack of paper involved in this process.  In 2002, although I could see attestation papers of Canadian WW1 soldiers through Library and Archives Canada (LAC), in order to see a full military file, I had to file a request to have it copied and mailed to me.  The time lag between wanting to see the record and actually seeing the record was weeks, and there was a cost involved for the retrieval, copying, and mailing of the records.  As part of LAC’s Great War commemoration activities, they are working on completing digitization of all WW1 service files by the end of 2018.   They are working on them in roughly alphabetical order, and new batches of files are added to the database every two weeks. As of their last update, they are up to the last name “Russell.”  The scans are beautiful high quality colour images, allowing for a very detailed examination of the documents.  The files contain information about the attestation, service, medical treatment, action, pay, medals, and next of kin of the soldiers, and read in conjunction with the soldier’s battalion’s war diary, can provide at the very least a chronology of the soldier’s service, and in some cases, even a sense of what their experience of the war may have been like.

A similar experience can be had with the British Military Service files.  The scans are lower quality–they look more like what one would expect in scrolling through microfiche–but the biggest challenge with these records are the condition that they were in when they were imaged due to their physical history.  Whereas the Canadian files are largely in good shape and can be handled relatively easily by archivists and conservators, the British files, like the British capital, were victims of the bombings in London in WW2. In September 1940, a War Office repository where the records of WW1 soldiers were stored was hit, and up to 60% of the records were destroyed through fire and water damage.  These are referred to as “burnt” records.  Those records that do exist can sometimes be very tattered and difficult to read.  As such, there is not always a full record available for a British soldier, and one has to rely on other records such as military honour rolls or war graves records to learn more about the units in which they served.

As I’ve mentioned in the project description, I am quite certain that I have American ancestors who took part in that country’s efforts in the Great War.  Unfortunately, the American records were also largely destroyed, in this case affecting files from WW1, WW2, and the Korean conflict, as in 1973, a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Centre in St. Louis destroyed 80% of service records of men discharged from American military forces between 1912 and 1960.

There are many more Davids in my family tree than I will ever know, as my list of 52 men was shaped by the availability and quality of records available.  The stories that get told are the stories that can be uncovered in those boxes in archives and shown the light of day through careful conservation and, certainly in the case of this project, digitization.  Bless the archivists and conservators and those who fight to fund them–they are the best defence against more stories being lost.

 

 

Genealogy Terminology

The firsts and the seconds and the 4ths and how many times removed… it can make your head spin. A quick look at the terminology of ancestors may be in order before you meet the Davids starting in less than a month. I hope this works as a reference that we can return to if things start to get confusing!

Pedigree

Generationally speaking, my great war ancestors tend to be 3 to 4 generations in the past. The simplest way to look at this is in terms of pedigree, or, from whom I’m directly descended.  For instance, two of my Great Grandfathers fought in the Canadian Expeditionary Force as seen in this first diagram.

Uncle

In other cases, I am not directly descended from the soldier in question, but rather they are an uncle or husband of an aunt.  Because we add the “great” to our uncles and aunts one generation earlier than our grandfathers (making my Grandmother’s sister my Great Aunt, the number of “greats” before an aunt or uncle’s title can make it seem that they are more distantly related than they are.  In the case of the second  diagram, he is my 3rd Great Uncle, and his sister is my 2nd Great Grandmother.

1st cousin

Cousins are where it gets a bit more complicated.  While any child of an aunt or uncle (no matter how many “greats”) is a first cousin, how far “removed” that cousin is depends on how many generations separate you.  In this example, this cousin is three times removed from me. The same person is my father’s first cousin twice removed and my children’s first cousin four times removed.

 

Removed cousin

Finally, what makes for a 2nd or 3rd cousin? As I mentioned above, any child of an aunt or uncle is a first cousin. That cousin’s children then become your second cousins, and their children your third cousins. The same rules of how to count the “removes” still apply, but the generational separation will have also been impacted by how many steps of cousins we are discussing.  

 

Counting down

There are just over 6 weeks until I start this endeavour in which I will post one write-up per week on ancestors who took part in the Great War.  All this is my effort to mark and honour the centenary of the final 52 weeks of the conflict.  For more on what brought me here, please see the About the Project page.

For now, I am busily writing, in contact with relatives near and far, most of whom I am connecting with for the first time.

I look forward to sharing this journey with you!