Two years ago, while I was on holiday in Germany, I had a call from a client who wanted to know if I could help him to track down his elusive grandfather. When I got back to the UK, I set up a meeting with the client (let’s call him Alan) and I soon started to get to grips with the problem. It turned out to be a fascinating case and one which serves as a reminder of just how much material is out there that we can’t access online but one which also neatly illustrates the ways in which the internet has opened up research possibilities that simply weren’t available to us a few short years ago.
It took about 18 months of painstaking research before the answer was found but today, back in Germany almost exactly two years after setting out on the journey, I found myself standing next to Alan’s grandfather’s gravestone; remarkably, he had died in Wiesbaden, just 80 miles from where I had been holidaying when Alan first contacted me back in 2016.
Alan’s grandfather was born in Batley, Yorkshire on Christmas Day 1880. He grew up in Yorkshire, following in his father’s footsteps, working as a gardener, but in 1905, he married a woman from Oxfordshire in the Suffolk parish of Exning, near Newmarket. Five years later, Alan’s grandparents (we’ll call them David and Elizabeth) set off for a new life in Canada; and this is where the story starts to get interesting.
In August 1913 a boy called Harold was born in Hamilton, Ontario; David was the father but Elizabeth wasn’t the mother. Harold’s mother was a young woman called Emily. It seems as if Elizabeth had become aware of the situation as, the following month, she and David returned to the UK. Harold sadly died in February 1915.
Then, in September 1914, on the outbreak of war, David enlisted as a Private in the 2nd County of London Yeomanry. He later transferred to the Military Mounted Police and after the war ended he was posted to the British Army of the Rhine, finally being discharged in June 1922. David was then living in Cologne and he clearly intended to stay there as the previous year he had started divorce proceedings against Elizabeth, claiming that she had committed adultery and that Alan’s father (Reginald, born in February 1918) was the result of this illicit relationship.
It’s hard to say whether David was actually Reginald’s father or not; he’s certainly named as the father on the birth certificate and Reginald is listed as David’s son on the Army service papers but there’s some doubt as to whether David (who was posted to France in April 1916) could possibly have been in the UK at the right time to have fathered a child who was born in February 1918.
The divorce was finalised in December 1923 and the following year David married a German woman, Hilda.
With the assistance of some very helpful people at a variety of German archives (not to mention my wife’s excellent grasp of German), I was eventually able to discover that Hilda died in Heidelberg in 1978 but the details of David’s death eluded me for some time. Indeed, it was a chance search on the Ancestry website which eventually turned up the relevant record, part of a database that was only uploaded to Ancestry in January this year.
It seems that David had remained with the British Army of the Rhine as a civilian employee, working in the Physical Education department and he’d moved from Cologne to Wiesbaden when the whole operation shifted south in 1926. David died in Wiesbaden in January 1929 and was buried there in the British Military Cemetery, part of the Südfriedhof.
David’s grave is one of the 100 or so memorials to members of (and those connected to) the British Army of the Rhine to survive in the British section of the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden today. There are surely other remarkable stories to be told, hidden amongst the stones.
There’s much more to the story that I’ve left out here (for example, the death of David’s first wife Elizabeth in the Richmond Union Workhouse – remarkably, she died just six months before David) and I’ve changed the names to respect client confidentiality.
I should mention the assistance of Carl Becker, a researcher based in Wiesbaden who located the gravestone and who was there to meet me at the Südfriedhof today. Carl played an important part in bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.
Research of this nature was virtually impossible just a few years ago; but now, thanks to the internet I was able to quickly communicate with staff in German archives, access German records online and make contact with a knowledgeable German researcher. But I also had cause to access a whole host of records (army service papers, workhouse records, divorce proceedings etc.) which aren’t available online. The World Wide Web is clearly a gift to family historians but it’s important to remember that, despite what the adverts might suggest, you can’t do it all online and that you sometimes have to, as my colleague Audrey Collins likes to put it, ‘go to a place and look at a thing’.