Alfred Charles Perring

Alfred Charles Perring was born in Edmonton, UK in early 1894. Like his brother, Edmund Alfred, he was my first cousin, 4 times removed on my maternal grandmother’s side. Where his brother’s service began with conscription and was drawn out over several years, Alfred was an early recruit and his service was brief: he died in June 1915 of wounds.  I am beginning this post with his death rather than the story of his service because his personnel file is “burnt.” It is one of the 60% of WW1 personnel files that were destroyed in the 1940 bombings on London.

From the medal rolls, listings of war dead, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records, we know the date of his death, the unit with which he served, and where he was buried. We are left to piece together and fill in the rest from regimental diaries and general histories of the war.  Unless there are personal family records existing that I do not have, there is very little in the way of record left for this very young man who died at the age of 21.

CWGC cemetary listing

UK Commonwealth War Graves Listing detailing grave location in the Etaples Military Cemetery in France.

Assuming he enlisted in late 1914, as a member of the 1st Battalion of the Welch Regiment which was (part of the 28th Division), he would have sailed for France in January 1915 and made his way with the regiment to Belgium. This Division took part in the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915, a month-long, deadly battle during which the German forces used poison gas for the first time.

Whether he was wounded as part of this battle and later died of wounds or was wounded in one of the myriad of other ways that a person could be fatally hurt in the month that followed second Ypres is unclear.  But thanks to the meticulous records of the CWGC, we do know that he was buried in Etaples Military Cemetery.

I am honoured to share the CWGC commemorative certificate for my cousin here.

 

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.