By Neil Holden, AncestryProGenealogists
Alan Small recently won our Branch Out Sweepstakes, and received 20 hours of research with AncestryProGenealogists. High on Alan’s list of interests were the experiences and movements of his grandfather, John James Collins, who served in the British military both before and during World War I. Our research provided detailed context for John’s service, and highlighted the value of a resource that is sometimes overlooked—military pension records.
John James Collins was born on 6 June 1876 in Walsall, Staffordshire, England, the son of Irish immigrants. He signed up for the British Army in 1895 and enlisted in the Royal Irish Regiment. He served through to 1908, and during that time was well-travelled. In 1898 John was stationed in Mhow, located in western India, then a part of the British Empire. He arrived shortly after Tirah Campaign, a military conflict against native tribes in northern India. However, John’s stay in Mhow was certainly not uneventful; in February 1900 a perilous fire broke out in the Commissariat stack-yard in Mhow, and the battalion took charge in putting it out. A regimental history states that the soldiers were commended for their “promptitude” and “zeal” in handling the danger.
John’s battalion was reassigned to South Africa in 1902 to assist with the ongoing Second Boer War, but the war ended just before the battalion arrived, meaning that John had again, fortunately, just missed out on a conflict. He was later sent back to India, spending time in Rawalpindi, now a city in Pakistan. However, he saw more than his fair share of warfare during World War I. After finishing his original term of service, John James Collins signed up for the military reserve, and was consequently activated in the summer of 1914. He was sent to front lines in 1915 and saw the worst of the war’s horrors at the town of Ypres in May 1915. John was among the soldiers who were incapacitated by the use of poison gas and sent back to Great Britain to recover, later serving the remainder of his time stationed in Ireland. In addition to being a victim of a gas attack, John also suffered from deafness as a result of shell concussion.
All of these details are outlined in the pension file that pertains to John’s service. Many of the men who survived World War I applied for a pension, although many such applications were rejected. These pension records are referred to as the “unburnt collection,” since they have largely survived and were not lost during World War II. Many of the “burnt collection,” the World War I service records, were lost, and so there is great value in learning whether or not a military ancestor applied for a pension. As Alan Small found out, they can provide a wealth of information about our ancestors’ lives.