Wednesday, 25 September 2013


The Ruler of the Queen's Navy?
 There is an old saying “when you assume - you make an ass out of u and me” and that is exactly what I did with the photo of my grandfather in a splendid military uniform that is shown here. 

I found it in my grandmother’s photo album along with four other military photos of him. I decided to use it illustrate a blog posting about Harry Welch’s time in WWI. I thought this interesting photo would be a great addition to the piece.

One thing did trouble me about the photo.

I knew from one of the documents I had, his May 1918 discharge papers, that he had enlisted in the Army in 1915, was called to service in January 1917 and served with the Army Service Corp until his discharge due to health reasons. However, my grandmother had written alongside the photo “Harry Ball Dress 1913”.

Taking the military document as higher authority than my grandmother’s note, I assumed she was mistaken about the date when she compiled the album much later in her life, likely after she was widowed.

Since I wanted the blog to be as accurate as possible and I was trying to compile a good description including the colour of the uniform and the accessories, I researched WWI British Army uniforms at some length expecting to find that the uniform was used in 1917-1918. I had no success in finding anything similar to the uniform in the photo.

I had been curious about internet forums for some time but I did not know much about how they worked nor taken the time to learn about them. While researching my grandfather’s role in WWI I came across a website devoted to WWI information which I found helpful in some of my research. (The Long Long Trail ) I noted at the time that there was a forum attached to it and I read a few entries as a visitor. I decided I would finally take the time to sign up and learn about forums using this one to see if there was any information about the uniform known to other users of the site.

To my surprise, within hours, I had half a dozen replies from people who have served in the military and have a wide knowledge of WW1. They were telling me that the uniform was a Royal Navy Officer’s Uniform. They agreed it was likely ball dress and noted the dance shoes he was wearing. Some made reference to the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy from HMS Pinafore.

The reference to the HMS Pinafore was due to the story behind the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera of 1878 which among other things lampoons the Royal Navy and the rise of unqualified people to positions of authority. In the production the First Lord of the Admiralty, the character of Sir Joseph Porter, brags of his career from office boy to First Lord of the British Navy and calls himself The Ruler of the Queen’s Navy. In fact the actual First Lord of Admiralty at that time had no nautical or military experience.

I knew my grandfather had never been in the navy although my grandmother’s brother was but not as an officer. So, I did some looking and found some British Navy Dress uniforms at the Royal Museum Greenwich uniform collection  that were much like the one in the photo including the unusual hat.
The uniform examples I found that were like the one in the photo was identified as a Royal Naval Uniform circa the mid 1800s. A similar beaver felt with gold lace cock hat was presented to Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Napier in 1855. Other similar features were the epaulettes, sleeve and collar detail as well as the double breasted brass buttons.
Dressing Up

Feeling foolish, I began to think of other reasons why the photo might be dated correctly after all.

My grandmother had an extremely good memory, my grandfather won a ballroom dance contest in 1914 and later in life they both enjoyed “dressing up” for theme parties or special occasions.

I have come to the conclusion that Harry was wearing a military costume with dance shoes to attend a fancy dress ball in 1913 when this studio photo of him "in uniform" was taken.

This experience has been a reminder about the dangers of making assumptions in family history and the need to consider all explanations that come to mind.

Regardless it is a wonderful photograph and I still love it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        


Harry Welch’s service in World War I was quite short.       

England had declared war on Germany August 4, 1914 and by the spring of 1915 the flow of recruits was slowing down. In October 1915 a program called the Derby Scheme gave men two choices; volunteer or attest with the obligation to come if called up to military service.

Recruitment under the Derby Scheme was to have ended on Saturday December 11th 1915 but due to the late rush of recruits it was extended an additional day to midnight Sunday December 12th.  Newspapers reported that after that date, enlistment could only be for immediate service without the intervention of the group system. The rush of recruits had completely overwhelmed the arrangements made for dealing with them.  Just as in the early days of the war, men waited for many hours in vain outside the recruiting offices.

It was decided at the last moment to take the names of men still unattested at midnight on December 12 and keep the group system open for them alone for a further three days. In some cases no attempt was made to carry out a medical examination and anyone who presented himself was attested, leaving it to the future to decide whether or not he had qualified for his place in the Army Reserve.

Those who registered were classified as married or single and grouped by age then placed in Section B of the Reserves without pay and allowances. They did receive one day’s pay at infantry rates, which The Times newspaper placed at 2/9d (2 shillings 9 pence) for the day of attestation. According to the UK National Archives, there were twenty shillings in a pound and in 1915 the 2/9d amount would have approximately the same spending power as £5.92 did in 2005. They were given an armband to wear as a sign that they had volunteered, then sent back to their homes and jobs until they were called up for active military service. 

Regardless of the Derby Scheme, conscription did follow in 1916.

Since the Scheme did not elicit the desired results, the Military Service Act was passed in January 1916. Voluntary enlistment was stopped and as of March 1916 all 19-41 year old British males who were unmarried as of November 1915 were conscripted. Two month later the act was extended to include married men and those as young as 18.

I have not found Harry’s war service records. Only 20-30% of these military records remain due to a fire in 1930 in the building where they were stored. I have found no pension records for him and I know he did not receive one. The only other public record I have found is his medal card which shows that he was discharged for medical reasons. 

It seems odd that he didn’t have a pension given the reason for his discharge. Perhaps he didn't apply. Apparently if a soldier was wounded, gassed or suffered illness which was attributable to his war service and he applied for a pension, he was sent before a Medical Review Board. If, in their opinion, there was sufficient cause, then a pension would be allowed, usually a few shillings a week. Pensions were often for a set period of time, such as 26 or 52 weeks, after which there was a review by Board to see if the pension was still needed. 

If a person was able to work after discharge perhaps a pension was seen as not needed or maybe his medical condition had existed prior to his war service. I have not done enough research to know the reasons that may have been used in determining whether or not a pension would be given.

I do have Harry’s discharge papers and his war badge certificate. His discharge papers show that he enlisted on December 11, 1915 which was the original deadline under the Derby Scheme and Harry would have then been sent back to his job. He was working in a munitions factory, likely because he was an experienced brass worker. 

During the war, women were called upon to take on roles previously done by the men including working in factories making ammunition to be sent to the front. Bess was a munitions worker at this time too but it is unknown whether or not they were working at the same factory.

Harry remained in the Reserve for one year and thirty-four days. When he was called up to active service on January 15, 1917 Harry was found to be unfit for service overseas. Given his mechanical and driving skills he served at Home in the Mechanical Transport Depot Company of the Army Service Corp. (ASC).  

ASC Companies filled a variety of administrative, recruitment, induction, training and re-supply roles. Huge tonnages were moved through a complex supply chain beginning at base depots in Britain. Then they travelled by sea to the ports of entry in many countries and across land by train or vehicle where they were handled by the ASC Companies attached to the various Army Divisions in each theatre of war. 

Harry held the rank of Private with the Woolwich Unit and his regiment number was M283872. He served as a despatch rider or motor-cycle courier, delivering urgent orders and messages between military units. It was a vital role at a time when telecommunications were limited and insecure. Harry was stationed in Salisbury Plain, near Stonehenge in central southern England and rode a Trusty Triumph bike, the chosen vehicle of the British Army. 

On May 7, 1918, after serving with the colours one year, one hundred and fourteen days, Harry was discharged from the Army under paragraph 392 (xvi) “being no longer medically fit for war service at Home”. The National Roll of the Great War notes that at the time of his discharge, Harry “was engaged on important duties in the repair shops at Swindon, Larkhill and Reading”. This area was only about two hours from his family in Birmingham so Harry was able to get home occasionally during his time in the army.

Since Harry served at Home he did not receive any campaign medals but he received The Silver War Badge which as of September 21, 1916 was issued to men who were discharged as a result of sickness or injury caused by their war service. It was made of sterling silver and was worn on the right breast of a recipient’s civilian clothing, not on his uniform. After April 1918 eligibility for the badge was extended to include civilians serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps, female nurses, and staff and aid workers.

I do not know what particular sickness or injury deemed Harry “unfit for further service” and led to his departure from the army. Family lore has it that his discharge was due to pneumonia but he did have hemophilia, a bleeding disorder in which blood does not clot normally and a heart condition which troubled him throughout his life.

His discharge papers describe his character as follows: “His conduct has been good. He is honest, sober, reliable and intelligent - Is a qualified Motor Driver and performed his duties satisfactorily.”

The National Roll of the Great War also tells us that Harry’s home address at the time of his discharge was 4 Cobden Place, Edward Road, Balsall Heath, Birmingham, where he would have rejoined his family.