Finishing off a long-term project brings mixed feelings.
On the one hand, satisfaction: it’s finally done, the months of research, drafting, re-writing,
struggling with dates and names and places are over. But, underlying that is a sense of sadness that it’s over. Will I ever again find myself presenting my reader’s ticket at the reception desk of the County Archives, exchanging a £1 coin
for a locker in which to keep my possessions, walking expectantly through the electronically controlled door into the treasure trove which is the Search Room?
Yes, folks, my work on the Great War Project
is over. This week, almost eighteen months since I signed up for the project, I emailed my final case study – on Arthur William Richardson – to the Project Manager, every finger crossed in the hope that it would not be too late to make it
onto the West Sussex and the Great War website when it is launched on June 22nd.
I am not quite so pleased with this case study as I was with the previous three. This is not in any way down
to Arthur William Richardson; the fault lies squarely at my door as his less-than-adequate researcher. Those of you who watch BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are possibly believe that tracing anyone in the past is simply a matter of accessing a website and
pressing a few buttons. Sadly, tracing Arthur William Richardson’s origins proved much more problematical. With his Service Record unfortunately among the so-called Burnt Records, I did not have all-important details such as his age and address from
which I might have been able to pick “my” Arthur William out from the literally hundreds of men of the same name in the 1911 Census. Even the article in the Sussex Daily News of December 1918 reporting on the award of a Military Cross, failed to
mention his age, or where he came from.
For, yes, the one thing I do know for sure about Arthur is that he was a hero. I have read his account, in his own handwriting, of the action at Kemmel,
Belgium in September 1918 where he displayed, according to the London Gazette: “conspicuous gallantry while commanding a patrol which was attacked by a superior force of the enemy and surrounded. Owing to his fine example of courage he succeeded in beating
off the attack and accounting for several of the enemy.”
Arthur’s account is mind-blowing in its matter of fact re-telling of horrific events:
“I heard movement and crawling about for about an hour I found a party of the enemy about 20 strong in the right rear of my platoon about 10 yards from me. I crawled back to my section and about turned them and ordered them to open
fire – the enemy at the same time doing the same at 20 yds range. I called on my Lewis gun to give flanking fire but got no response, but No 9 platoon opened fire from my then right flank and the enemy ran. I got two with my revolver and my servant
was shot through the head. The enemy used rifles, two automatic rifles and bombs, but fired too high. I then returned to my Coy commander and was ordered to bring my platoon back about 20 yards to a trench. I then went out to do what I could for my servant
– I found he was dead and brought in his personal belongings but was unable to get his body in. I then went out a second time and recovered one of my Lewis Guns and 15 full magazines, my team having retired with the two support platoons, afterwards saying
they had orders to do so. I tried to get out a third time to get identification of the enemy but owing to the no. of enemy snipers and M.G.s was unable to do so. One of my lance corporals was also wounded when my servant was killed. I had 7 boys, my servant,
an old soldier and two others with me out of a total of 27.”
This is no carefully typed-up report. It is written in pencil, on a scrap of paper which
appears to have been torn from an exercise book. Some words are unreadable. I am wondering if he was asked by a superior officer to note it all down while it was still fresh in his mind. I picture him in the trenches, notebook on his knee, perhaps
struggling to write in dim light, still shaking from the shock of watching his servant killed at his side.
That’s my trouble. I’m a tale-teller – I can’t help creating
my own interpretation of events, spinning a story that might just be true, but equally likely might not. None of this fanciful imagining can be included in my case study, of course, which has to stick to the facts, few and far between as they are.
I can only apologise to Arthur the War Hero for not being able to tell his story in full. Maybe somebody will read about him on the website when my case study is published and fill in the gaps?
Then, and only then, will I feel that my contribution to the Great War Project is well and truly finished.