For some time I have felt the need to visit Ypres to pay tribute to my Great Grandfather, James Archibald McPhee, who lost his life there in 1917. However in order to get the most out of this trip I needed to carry out some preparatory research.
Some time ago I had visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website to find out details of where he is commemorated. This is a free to use site and can provide a wealth of information. Below is the entry for James:
I had also visited his regimental museum at Nottingham Castle but hadn’t really gleaned much more.
By using Ancestry I recently searched for more information on James and was amazed to find his military papers online. Sadly, many WWI records did not survive WWII but his did and they gave me lots of information such as his physical build, when he signed up, where he spent his service and his date of death (amongst a host of other information). Curiously, his date of death on a number of records was listed as 31 July-3 August 1917. This pricked my curiosity: did he go AWOL, was it so chaotic that they didn’t know who was alive or dead at any time, was it a drawn-out death or was the record keeping very ‘informal’? Pinning down the exact date was important as that affected exactly where he died.
I then looked on Ancestry for the war diaries and again hit lucky as they were now online. They made really interesting reading as I had not previously grasped the concept that the battalions moved around so much, with a rotation scheme providing rest, reserve operations and front line action. By narrowing down the dates in the diary I could place the likely location of James’ death to Kitchener’s Wood, a dugout between Canopus trench and Venhuelle farm, California Drive or St Julien.
During my research I also tracked down a book written by an officer from the same battalion giving a more detailed and personal account of life during action. The book is “A Short History Of The 16th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters (Chatsworth Rifles)” by R F Truscott. It is out of print now but a kind person responded to a post I made and let me have the relevant entries. This highlighted the unimaginably poor conditions that they were operating within and the sheer misery endured by all. It seems likely from this account that James either died along with 29 other ranks at battalion headquarters in a disused German gun-pit at VanHuelle farm on 2nd August or on the 3rd August when A and C company suffered heavy losses in Canteen trench or the area between Vanhuelle farm, Canteen trench and Canopus trench.
My next stop was to visit the National Archives in Kew who had a range of trench maps at various dates through the campaign. It was very eery to handle the actual maps who, if they could have talked, would tell a tale of misery, hardship, terror, despair and grit of those who had used the maps. The maps were in good order but the ragged edges, stains and various thumb tack marks could only hint at their history.
Fortunately I have tracked down a map for August 1917 showing the area that James died in which I can transpose to a modern map so I now know where my pilgrimage should take me.
I am planning a visit and it is likely I will hire a local WWI guide rather than using a standard coach trip as it is important to me to walk where he walked as well as visiting his official grave at Tyne Cot.
What I have learnt from this is to check back at Ancestry frequently as this information was not available last time I searched and to not overlook googling terms – that is how I found Truscott’s amazing book detailing the battalion’s activity.