I am the first to admit that my handwriting is pretty awful.
It has definitely worsened with age. When I was
but 6 years old I was chosen by my teacher to write Form 1’s letter of invitation to the Headmistress, Miss Howard, to attend our Fairyland Party – because I had the best writing out of the whole class. It wouldn’t happen now. Mr B,
indeed, says my handwriting is so bad that I cannot be allowed to write the addresses on our Christmas cards. That sounds like a result to me...
I am forced
to confront my own calligraphic deficiencies afresh this morning at the County Records Office as I open the Nominal Roll of the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment dated 1914-1918. At the top of every page a beautifully scripted name, all curly flourishes
but perfectly readable. I think how disappointed a reader would have been had I been in charge of compiling the record all those years ago.
I am looking
for the name of Second Lieutenant A.W. Richardson who was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the action at Kemmel in Belgium. I have copied out his own account of the action but that is about all the information I have about him. How on earth am I
going to write a case study of between 1500 and 3000 words when I don’t even know his first name? Algernon? Arthur? Albert? Alexander? Archie? He could be any of them. And without his first name and some idea of where he lived before he went off to war,
I can’t find him in Census 1911. There is no sign of a Service Record for him – his must be among the so-called Burnt Records. His award must surely be recorded in the London Gazette but, up until now I haven’t been able to locate
it. I would be tearing my hair out if I wasn’t (i) so vain and (ii) generally afraid of pain.
Regular readers will have guessed that I am still engaged
in the Great War Project for which I am one of no fewer than 140 volunteers. The end-of-year deadline is approaching now but I am still no nearer fleshing out the story of AWR. My other case studies are coming along reasonably well. My first
draft of Arthur the Artist’s story is with his family, awaiting their additions, amendments and, hopefully, approval. My stories of Ernest the Country Boy and Albert the Gardener are coming along well. For all three I have photographs, some
of excellent quality, others more challenging to decipher but fascinating. Of AW Richardson – nothing. I need to see what he looked like. It will help me write his story.
Sitting at the next table to me in the Search Room is the Searchroom Supervisor. I throw myself on her mercy. She admits that she isn’t a military expert (does she, perhaps, think I am? How thrilling!) but she provides me with
the reference numbers of several more files which she thinks may help me.
That is how I come to be turning the pages of the Nominal Roll Book, looking for AW Richardson’s
name. I turn the pages slowly, because it seems somehow wrong not to silently note each name of Those Who Have Served. I have to stop myself getting waylaid with Other Soldiers’ Stories and tell myself to stick to the task in hand.
Finally, near the end of the volume, just as I am beginning to despair, there he is – A.W. Richardson. No first name, I note with disappointment, no address. Just
a few dates of when he signed up and when he was posted abroad. Then, written in pencil below in writing so faint I almost missed it, there is a note: “Awarded Military Cross (Sussex Dly 9.12.1918.) I have never heard of the Sussex Daily and it
turns out it isn’t a West Sussex local paper. My Helpful Friend tells me that I will have to approach the East Sussex Record Office to access the document.
I am excited. Will the Sussex Daily News of the 9th December 1918 have a really informative article about AW? Will there be quotes from his wife / father / mother / childhood friend? Will there - oh, please, please – will there
be a photograph?
When I get home I email the East Sussex Records Office and check out their new home in case a Visit in Person will be needed. I rather hope
it will be and I trust, if it is, that I will get to hold the actual newspaper in my hands as I read the article on the elusive AW. Once a journalist, always a journalist. I am buzzing.
Researching “my” World War 1 soldiers is one long, challenging but always fascinating detective story. My investigative skills, unlike my handwriting, are definitely improving.
Move over, Miss Marple.