The Perils of Passchendaele

Shows two French soldiers beside a muddy cemetery. (via National Army Museum)

Dear Father,
I think I have a little good news to tell you, but of course do not rely too much on what I am going to say as you know in the Army things may be altered at the last moment. We have just received news here that the Main Body are being sent home, and will probably leave any day. I think the news is fairly reliable as the old hands have had their names taken and according to what I hear they are making arrangements in England for the transportation home… …if that is the case I will be well on the way by the time this reaches you, and will be able to spend a very enjoyable Xmas at home. (20.9.17)

This letter was written to John Buchan (1858-1926) from his son Arthur from the battlefields in Belgium.  Sadly, he never got to spend that ‘enjoyable Xmas at home’ as a week later, Private Arthur Buchan of the ‘Main Body’ was gassed and received gunshot wounds to his head and arm. He died only ten days after writing that hopeful letter to his father.

Through gas and smoke, our troops advance to the final assault of Passchendaele Ridge’, 1917.  (via National Army Museum)

In 1893, Arthur was a 2 year old boy emigrating to New Zealand aboard the Rimutaka (seen in a previous post); the cousin of my great-grandfather, Charles Buchan (also aboard).

In 1917, Arthur was one of the 400 000 who died in the Battle of Passchendaele.

This year commemorates the centenary of this horrific event, also known as the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’.

A letter from a friend to Arthur’s cousin, Bill (my GGF Charles Buchan’s brother) gives more detail on the incident that led to his death:

We were in the old Hun front line at Ypres, in front of the village of St Jean & were to go into the advanced front line next evening. Early in the morning Fritz sent over gas shells & we had our masks on for 4 1/2 hours when we got word that it was clear. We were just settling down again to sleep when he sent a stray one over which landed clean on the duckboard in the corner of the bay.  Arthur was lying in the transverse & it landed within a yard of his feet and in addition to gassing him wounded him in three places namely, temple, left wrist shattered & a bad smack in the right shoulder. He was very game &, bad as he was, insisted in walking out himself. He was carried out though and I can truthfully say was not in any pain. The gas is very poisonous & I think that is the cause of his death as another chap got only a small piece in the back and died the next day… A McLennan (24.10.17)
Wounded from Ypres at improvised hospital, Bailleul, nd. (via National Army Museum)
Cousin Bill wrote from his own hospital bed in Walton on Thames to his Uncle John in New Zealand:
I have often told you he was a son and a brother to be proud of – a brave and fearless soldier who was ever ready to volunteer for any dangerous work. From time to time I have met men who had been in the trenches with him and their frank admiration of him as a soldier and acomrade has made me proud that I bear his name.  His many friends at Walton ask me to convey to you their sincere sympathy – his loss is deeply regretted by everyone he knew in the village… the real grief I met with on every hand is the best testimony to the manner in which he had endeared himself to all…
Perhaps even more tragic is the postscript of the same letter, which reads:
I have just seen the latest casualty list with Billie’s name on it.  What can I say? May God be with you in your time of trouble and comfort you in your bereavement.
Billie was Arthur’s younger brother who died on October 24, 1917, less than a month after his elder sibling.  A letter detailing the circumstances around his death was received by father, John from Billie’s lieutenant:
We had just made the attack on Passchendaele on the 12th October and were for a few days holding the line in front of the Village… We occupied a German pillbox as my [head quarters] and were in it when Fritz commenced a heavy gas shell bombardment. I was in the act of posting a Gas sentry when a shell burst in the doorway and filled the pillbox with gas. We all received a big dose before we could don our masks. We all took all known precautions against the gas, burning and fanning, and after having worn our masks for over an hour I took it upon myself the responsibility of ordering them off. The air smelled perfectly sweet and free from gas, but in about eight hours time most of us began to vomit and go blind. I sent all those affected out and followed shortly afterwards… Three others besides Corp. Cooney and Pte Buchan died as a result of this gassing and I feel sure their deaths in all cases were due to complications of pneumonia… I can only say that no one knew til afterwards that the gas destroyed the sense of smell and so prevented us from detecting its presence… (2nd Lieutenant David Williams (18.7.18)
German pillbox on the Passchendaele battlefield (via NZHistory)

Perhaps it was merciful that their mother, Jessie had died before the onset of WWI in 1910.

Lest we forget.

Arthur & William Buchan (via From Peterhead to Passchendaele, Roy Buchan)

The information and excerpts contained in this post were provided by Roy Buchan from his book From Peterhead to Passchendaele (2003).

Calendar of the Dead

Ancestry have now released the National Probate Calendar (1861-1941) which is almost like an index to wills.  A distant relative who has worked with me on my STILING line gave me the heads up and I checked it out:
STILING John 9 October.
The Will of John Stiling late of Tiverton in the County of Devon Yeoman deceased who died 3 February 1862 at Tiverton aforesaid was proved at Exeter by the oath of Edward Stiling of the Parish of Tiverton aforesaid Yeoman the Son one of the Executors.
Effects under £600.
[handwritten underneath] Resworn at the Stamp Office Feb 1865 under £450.

I believe this to be my John STILING for the following reasons:

  • he dropped off the census after 1861
  • wife declared a widow on the 1871 census
  • recorded living at Tiverton since 1811 (son Edward’s birth)
  • has son Edward STILING
  • farmer (yeoman) since 1841 census

This is the first time I had even come close to a death date for John STILING so I was very pleased indeed to see this entry.

I used ancestry to look further into the son mentioned, Edward STILING and found what appears to be his will too. The entry contained: formerly of Barton but late of Tiverton Farmer died 16 Feb 1873 at Tiverton – Elizabeth Daw, widow, his sister executrix.

Not only do I have a death date but also a daughter of John that I was unaware of until now.

Next Steps:

  • Obtain a copy of John & Edward STILING’s wills

Neighbouring Families

Dardarroch, Dunscore, Dumfriesshire in 2006
NOT Woodhead of Dardarroch

Eight years ago, I posted on the rootsweb message board regarding my BROWN ancestors farm, Woodhead of Dardarroch, in the parish of Glencairn. Recently someone replied that their ancestor was boarding with some BROWNS at Woodhead Cottage on the 1891 census. By 1891, James BROWN had died and his widow, Sarah (nee DOUGLAS) had moved away.  However, it is too much of a coincidence that the BROWNs still living at Woodhead were an entirely separate family as my BROWN’s had lived there since at least 1824 (discussed in this post).

I had long ago noticed the many BROWN families at and around Woodhead.  Now it was time to find out exactly how these BROWNs were connected.
Dardarroch via Get-a-map
First, I located William Brown at Woodhead Cottage on the 1891 census.  As you can see in the photograph above, Woodhead is quite a large house.  I presume Woodhead Cottage is the smaller part attached to the main building where the other family units lived together.  By this time, James’ widow and youngest son had moved to Keir where they lived in another home named ‘Woodhead Cottage’.
Woodhead on the 1891 census

I searched back for William BROWN (b.1829) and found him at Woodhead Cottage in all but 2 censuses.

Edited: It is here where I made a dangerous mistake.

! I found a William BROWN living at Shillanland (or Shillingland) with his uncle James FERGUSSON and a Jane and Sarah FERGUSSON.  I suspected one of these women (both listed as James’ sisters) was William’s mother.  Also listed was John BROWN (b. 1831) – I had discovered a brother to help with my search.

In 1841 the FERGUSSONs and BROWNs were all living at Burnhouse where the head of the household was a William FERGUSON and possible wife Mary.  This time Sarah was recorded as Sarah BROWN so is apparently William’s mother.  Since the 1841 census doesn’t record the relationships to the head, I will need to find records to prove William FERGUSON is his grandfather.  I will also search for a marriage between Sarah FERGUSSON and a BROWN. !

I now realise that this William BROWN is not the one at Woodhead from the 1861 census through to the 1901 census. A simple traceback through the censuses show that the head of Woodhead Cottage in 1891 is the son of George BROWN and Catherine McDOWAL – living at Woodhead from.  I now need only prove that George BROWN is the brother of my James BROWN


Edit 2: The picture at the top of this post is NOT Woodhead of Dardarroch as I mistakenly believed, it is actually a house called Woodhead in the nearby village of Dunscore. 

Next steps:

  • Find marriage record of Sarah FERGUSSON and BROWN
  • Find birth record of William or John BROWN
See following post – Neighbouring Families – Part 2

Ancestor Found (almost)

For a long time, I’d been searching for one of my WREFORD ancestors on the 1861 census without luck.

On the night of the 1861 census, in the Devonshire village of Witheridge, 14 year old Drusilla was recorded as head of the household and her occupation as ‘Innkeeper ?’ (note the question mark). Also in the household were 4 siblings aged 7 and under (including my direct ancestor, Augusta Harriet), and a 17 year old servant, Emily Cheriton. Their parents, George and Harriet, were nowhere to be seen.

Wreford Family on 1861 Census – Witheridge
I knew they weren’t dead, as George Wreford and his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1864. So where were they? For years this question has been unanswered until only a few days ago, when I happened to do a random search on The London Gazette website.
London Gazette, April 9, 1861

Before the Judge of the County Court of Devonshire, holden at Exeter, on
Tuesday the 23rd day of April, 1861.

George Wreford, late of Witheridge, in the county of Devon, Inkeeper, Butcher, and Farmer, also farming an estate at Tiverton, in the same county, previously of Withley Goodman Farm, in Tiverton aforesaid, Farmer and Butcher, formerly of Chulmleigh, Devon, Journey-man Butcher.
A deeper look at the search results yielded:



ORDERS have been made, vesting in the Provisional
Assignee the Estates and Effects of the following Persons:
On their own Petitions.

George Wreford, late of Witheridge, Devonshire, Innkeeper, Butcher, and Farmer.—In the Gaol
of Exeter.

(London Gazette, March 26, 1861)

So there he was – bankrupt and in jail.

The census was taken for the night of April 6th, 1861. This now explains where George was that night. I presume his wife, Harriet had travelled to Exeter with him for moral support.

I now know where to look for them. This is brilliant, except my searches of the census are still not bearing fruit. My next step is to find ‘Exeter Gaol’ on the census and browse from there

The GeneaBlog Seed Is Planted

I’ve been researching family history for a few years now and my computer has lots of little notes to self (or others) about how I’ve come to conclusions or where I plan to turn to next.
I recently started a blog about my retro interests and thought a blog may be a good way for me to store thoughts and record my research.
I will begin with my most current ‘branch activity’ – which involves gypsies AND convicts!