Posted by on 15 September 2011 in General

Who Do You Think You Are? on

I found Alan Carr’s Who Do You Think You Are? episode intriguing – I was constantly unsure what direction his tale was going to take. We started by exploring his northern mining roots. His grandfather Wilf Carr had all the promise to be a top footballer for Newcastle United only to be struck down by a knee injury and spend his working days down the mines instead.

But the programme soon changed track and we swapped to Alan’s maternal line. Alan and his mother’s knowledge of her family was very limited. Her father had been one of 12 children, born to Maria Annie Wayman and Henry Carter. This is where the mystery began, as Alan’s mother knew that they also went by the surname Mercer.

We then went on a fascinating journey through Mary Ann’s life. We first spotted her with Henry in the 1911 England Census. We then looked at the England, Birth Indexes and certificates of their 12 children. It became clear that they moved to Crayford in Kent in 1916 – Henry was working at a factory producing artillery for the war. But the question still remained what else was Henry doing during World War I?

At the Imperial War Museum, Alan and the researchers started looking at the WWI service records and Henry’s career history. We saw that he signed up in 1915 as part of the recruitment drive led by Lord Kitchener. However, Henry’s resolve soon came into question, as his conduct records showed he went absent without leave. On September 13th, he went missing again and this time did not return. They tried to track him down to his home in Camberwell, but he had disappeared with Mary Ann and the children.

Alan was embarrassed by this revelation – but he quickly changed his view and considered how different things may have been had Henry not deserted. The story then unravelled and we discovered that despite appearing in the Police Gazettes during this time and being a wanted man, Henry was able to evade capture with his family by changing their surname to Mercer.

I found the ending really thought-provoking, as domestic deserters is a subject I know so little about. I even found myself considering my view on this when I woke up this morning – considering the fear that young men at this time must have felt, particularly if they had a wife and family that they wanted to protect.

What are your thoughts on this difficult subject? Let us know in the comments below.


Sue Lovett 

Very thought provoking indeed. Having ancestors who died in the Great War, I was initially aghast at the revelations. I was also shocked at the large number of these domestic deserters. I wasn’t particularly surprised that Henry Carter was able to disappear so easily – after all there was no technology to track him down and can you imagine how many folk were displaced and on the move during these chaotic times? Somewhat begrudgingly I then found myself admiring him and his capacity for self preservation. I’ve been thinking about it on and off all day – and my opinions swerve wildly from one extreme to the other. Without knowing all the facts it’s very difficult to reach a conclusion about Henry.

15 September 2011 at 5:10 pm
Les Holmans 

I find it hard to believe that the authorities did not trace him. He and his wife may have been able to maintain the Mercer name change but what of the children? Children are renowned for letting slip a secret. Such stories would have filtered back to the headmaster/mistress who would have felt duty bound to investigate further. Perhaps there was a compassionate government overseer who turned a blind eye?

16 September 2011 at 9:55 am
Gail Duffy 

I find it very hard to pass judgement on anyone’s actions almost one hundred years ago as I don’t have enough access to their personal reasons for their reactions to the situation. I personally don’t know how I would react either! My own great-uncle signed up at 16 in order to allow his 17 year old sister to get a dependent’s allowance for their five brothers and sisters which would allow her to keep the family together when both their parents died. He was injured, recovered, returned to the front, and died age18. Who can really say which way is correct and proper? I only know the anguish sit caused my grandfather who never mentioned his elder brother. There are as many different tales as there were men and women and why do we feel the need to say who was right and who was wrong?

25 September 2011 at 3:49 pm