Fuelled by TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, interest in family history has exploded in recent years.

And because it was the first British war in which the whole nation – women workers, nurses, and ambulance drivers, as well as men; volunteers as well as conscripts and professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen – were all caught up in the struggle, there is hardly a family in the land, or in the wider world of the former British Empire, without an ancestor who took part in the Great War.

Thankfully, as the careers of those who took part in the conflict were documented with military efficiency, interest in the war runs in tandem with interest in ancestry.

Combining his two careers as Great War historian and assiduous family history researcher, author Paul Reed here puts his unmatched knowledge and experience to excellent effect by documenting a dozen ‘Great War lives’. He has carefully chosen his subjects to represent a cross section of the different fighting services. Thus, as well as a rifleman and an infantry officer, we have a tunneler (William Hackett, who tragically won a posthumous VC for his heroism in sacrificing his life deep beneath the trenches at Givenchy); a gunner (Vernon Austin, son of the maker of the eponymous popular car); and two Royal Marines (Fred Stoneham who fought and died at Gallipoli, and Henry Penn who did not survive the hell of Passchendaele).

Perhaps most fascinating of all is Robbie Clarke, Britain’s first black aviator, who overcame racial prejudice to come from his native Jamaica to fly and fight for the ‘mother country’ over the Western front. Robbie, unlike Hackett, Austin, Stoneham, and Penn, survived the war and lived into his 80s, the pioneering precursor of hundreds of black airmen who flew for Britain in the Second World War. Reed’s book works on two levels.

It provides a fascinating picture of the Great War experience of ‘ordinary men’ whose exploits were often far from ordinary; and it gives practical and concise guidance to readers researching their own Great War ancestors.

However inexperienced you may be, Reed shows you how to get started from the most scanty initial information – an old medal or postcard forgotten in a drawer, for example – and what you might expect to find, as well as where to track down the data (both in museums and archives, and, at a time when a wealth of such data is available online, in cyberspace). I can think of few books which are at the same time as moving and as useful as this one.
Highly recommended.

Nigel Jones



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