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I have always known quite a bit about my Grandfathers’ service in WWII but I always assumed that none of my Great Grandfathers had fought in WWI as I had never been told anything about them serving. Having never done any WWI projects at school I didn’t know much about this period in history and I guess I just never asked about my family’s contribution to the Great War.
At a family event not long after I started at Ancestry.co.uk I started asking questions about the wars and found to my surprise that three of my Great Grandfather’s had served in WWI, the fourth being South African. Over time I collected various photographs of my Mum’s Grandfather George Calvey in uniform, including his wedding photos.
When we released the WWI Service records, much to my delight George’s record had not been destroyed in the Blitz! From his record I discovered that George had been in both the Devonshire regiment and the Labour Corps. I found out that George was transferred to the Labour Corps in 1917 and had also been promoted to Sergeant. He got ill from a fever in June 1917 in Flanders, just before the Battle of Messines, but soon returned to his unit and luckily didn’t suffer any further injuries. His service record shows that he was still serving in France when the war ended, but that he didn’t return home until September 1919, nearly a year after the war ended. During this time George remained in the Labour Corps, so was most likely working on battlefield clearance and searching for the graves of soldiers, a dangerous and disturbing job.
When we decided to create print and TV ads for Remembrance this year we wanted to demonstrate the kinds of stories that individuals can discover from our military records and I decided to use George Calvey’s records as I had a Service record and Medal Roll Index Card for him as well as the photos of him in uniform. George’s records did not tell stories of remarkable valour, terrible injuries or a detailed account of the battles he served in, but they tell the story of the average man. They have given me enough information to understand some of what he did and how lucky he was, as well as allowing me to read accounts written by men who did similar jobs.
Learning these small pieces of information about my Great Grandfather’s service has really helped me to understand what we owe to this generation of men, because it has personalised this period in history for me. I used to wear a poppy and be appreciative of those who fought, but now I also think of the real people who lost their lives in WWI and other conflicts, and of those who had to live the rest of their lives having seen what they’d seen.
In our print ad we say “George Calvey is a hero”, considering the lack of family knowledge about his service I doubt George would have liked to have been called that. However, some generations on, I think it is definitely clear that all the men who fought in this Great War were heroes.