At the end of World War II, millions of soldiers’ personal artifacts were left on the battlefields. Most were destroyed, others lost, buried and forgotten. For a military historian, more artifacts all have a story to tell–especially personal items with names and numbers etched on them.
By accessing military records with the help of Ancestry’s assistance on family history we can actually connect the lost artifacts with the particular soldier, and perhaps more importantly to their families as well.
In our search for lost artifacts Dave and I had the opportunity to go to Northern Germany to the Reichswald Forest. Bloody fighting occurred here in early 1945.
It was cold, it was wet, the Germans literally were behind almost every single tree. It is one of the most difficult terrains for any soldier to fight through.
When we arrived at the forest, we met up with a young collector named Joey Lehman.
“This is Wayne.”
“Hey Joey, how are you?”
“So, the area that we’re walking in right now this is the same axis of advance that the Canadians took in ’45.”
“Yeah, exactly the same.”
Joey really impressed me. For a young man, he’s got an incredible passion for the history of World War II.
“So, of all the battlefields you could have covered, what is it about this one that’s so special?”
“It’s one of the biggest operations on the Western Front. A lot of stuff happened here, and a lot of people got killed.”
“Is this a way to pay tribute to the people who fought?”
“Yes, I visited cemeteries, museums, and this is part of it.”
It’s hard to believe that this forest saw such horrific fighting back in 1945. Today, as we walk through it, it seems so peaceful, until you look closer. Then you start to see the remnants left over after the war.
“There’s the foxhole and that’s the dugout.”
We even came across various fragments of ordinance that were still scattered everywhere on the forest floor. Needless to say, some of these were still quite dangerous.
As we walk deeper into the forest, Joey just suddenly stopped, took off his backpack, and then pulled something out to show us.
“It’s a mess tin. You found this here?”
“Yeah, about one year ago.”
This is exactly the type of artifact we look for. A mess tin from a war that a soldier would have used as he sat in the forest eating what could have been his last meal.
“Is there any markings on this at all?”
“There’s an engravement on it. It’s very faint but it’s visible down here.”
“What do you think the name is?”
“Birmingham. Okay so it would be ‘B’… is that an ‘I’?”
“I think this is an ‘E’.”
“You think the name is Bermingham?”
“But you think it’s spelled with an ‘E’? We have an artifact that came right from the floor of the Reichwald Forest. I mean this takes us literally back to the winter of 1945.”
“Yeah, it was laying here 70 years.”
We then carefully analyze the letters on the mess tin, and Joey was right it was Bermingham with an ‘E’.
By accessing both military files and Ancestry’s vast collection of family history records, we discovered a soldier by the name of Frederick Bermingham, a major in a Canadian anti-tank regiment. Then, in the Canadian National Archives we found the war diary for the second Canadian anti-tank regiment and luckily it gave us the coordinates for the unit’s location in mid-March.
“Here, read these out to me.”
“You know what’s amazing look how the forest is almost identical to what it was.”
“And that’s the position where Joey said he found the mess tin. It’s the exact spot.”
“We got our man.”
It was time to find out more about major Frederick Bermingham. On Ancestry we found a 1911 census form from England, the year Frederick was born. We discovered a Canadian census form from 1921 that shows that his family had immigrated to Calgary Alberta by the time he was 10.
Then Ancestry led us to a family member when we found Frederick’s obituary from 1991. As it turns out Major Bermingham was survived by twin daughters, Joy and Joan, born in 1939 just prior to the war. We had to bring them over to Europe to meet us.
“Well, I’m so glad you came over.”
“We’ve just been entranced and the mystery of all this is quite amazing.”
“We were six months old when he left for overseas. We were six years old when he came home.”
“You know he reflected off and on about different men that he fought with. We know there were some very good friends that were lost, and Mom always said to us we had to be brave little soldiers, you know, like Dad was overseas.”
Then it was time to take them to the Reichswald Forest to meet up with Joey.
“It’s difficult to believe this was once a war zone.”
“This is the place we wanted to take you. This is where a year ago he was walking through the forest and a piece of it was sticking up and he pulled it out of the ground.”
“Such an honor to be able to give this to you.”
“How do you know it was Dad’s?”
“There’s a name carved in. It’s very faint but you can see a ‘B’ here and ‘E’.”
“Oh my gosh.”
“What’s it feel like to be holding a piece of his wartime experience that he left behind?”
“It’s just mind-boggling to think after we grew all these years, and here we are and this brings back Dad so real to us.”
“So, here’s the war diary of the second Canadian anti-tank regiment.”
“And on the 13th of March you can see in the entry they were located at this particular map reference, and that is exactly where we are standing right in this area right now.”
“And just to think that artifact represents the last moments just before he went home to see you.”
“Oh my goodness. He’s here and we’re standing where Dad walked. It’s hallowed ground, this whole forest is hallowed ground.”
It’s been 75 years since men and women like Frederick Bermingham served in this war. Many of their stories like this one still remain untold. To honor our ancestors we must discover their stories and celebrate their grit, their tenacity, and above all their humanity.