A student in my genealogy class brought me a set of military papers relating to her great-uncle. She was keen to decipher the story they told.
She knew Robert Taylor had served with the Gordon Highlanders in World War II, had been decorated and been killed in Holland. What else would these papers, which had been in the possession of Taylor’s son, inform her of his life?
Military records create several difficulties, not least the military jargon and abbreviations. Military papers from the Army Personnel Centre come with an attached list of military abbreviations.The armed forces abbreviations web site is also useful: http://www.armedforces.co.uk/abbreviationsah.htm
To grasp a soldier’s story it is also useful to know where, and to what purpose, his battalion or regiment was engaged at any particular time. There are published histories of most British regiments and various useful web-sites. The most comprehensive guide to the location of units is Robert M Kitzmiller II’s, In Search of the Forlorn Hope. Unfortunately it only covers the period until 1914. Care must also be taken. Because a soldier was attached to a particular battalion and that battalion was employed over particular dates in a specific campaign does not automatically mean that the soldier was there. He may have been wounded, in hospital, on leave, or missing for countless other reasons.
Taylor’s military records start with his attestation papers. His army number was 2876093, an invaluable reference. By the 1930s, a soldier received an army number on enlistment which then followed him, irrespective of the regiment in which he served. He enlisted with the Gordon Highlanders for 7 years with the colours and 5 with the reserve. He was born in St Giles Parish, Edinburgh, on 23rd June 1913 of a Scottish father. He was a boot repairer, unmarried, without children and had not previously served in the armed forces, was not and had not been an indentured apprentice and had no criminal record. His “apparent age” was 19, he was 5’ 6¾” tall, weighed 129 pounds, was of swarthy complexion, had blue eyes, black hair, a scar on the back of his head and two scars, above and below the left knee. He was a Presbyterian and was certified medically fit.
Annual Report and Employment Sheet
The annual report and employment sheet provide perhaps the most informative data on the soldier’s behaviour and personality.
Good soldier – honest, clean & sober.
Excellent type of man, always willing & cheerful. Good first year machine gunner & range taker. Clean & smart. Third class certificate of education.
An intelligent and capable man. Good at games. Could be a great asset in the company if he so desired. 2nd class certificate of education.
Intelligent & capable. Employed as a clerk. Has initiative and is self-reliant but is inclined to be casual.
He has improved this year – he is a good man & if he were a little more level-headed would be excellent. He has a sense of humour & is loyal.
Army Form B220B
Army Form B200B carries data on the soldier’s career, including promotions, training and military history. He was declared a deserter in August 1932, surrendered himself to the military police at Edinburgh Castle in November and was awarded 28 days detention (for which he earned 5 days remission) and the forfeiture of 103 days’ pay. Taylor was employed as a machine gunner from 1934 to 1938 and as a clerk from 1937 until 1939. His 7 years’ service should have ended in February 1939 but were extended for 6 months and he transferred from the colours to the reserve on 27th August 1939.
He was recalled to the colours on 2nd September 1939. He had spent six days in the Reserve. Britain declared war with Germany on 3rd September. He must have cursed his luck. There follow brief tables illustrating his war service during the latter part of the 1939-45 War in North West Europe.
Military History Sheet and Card Indexes
These starts with the name and address of Taylor’s mother and with the name and regiment of his brother, Henry, good genealogical data. It continues the chronology from the earlier Military History Sheet with details of his war service and postings, wounds suffered, medals and decorations awarded (with London Gazette references) and of his next of kin, marriage and the births of his children. On re-joining he was posted to Number 5 Company, Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps as a dock labourer before he returned to the Gordons. He is shown to have been drunk on duty in January 1943 and absent for six days in 1944.
CONSTRUCTING A CHRONOLOGY
What became clear was that the data provided by Robert Taylor’s military papers was not in any meaningful order and required rearranging. Using a spread-sheet allows data to be extracted from the original material and rearranged in date order. It also supports the inclusion of material from sources such as regimental web-sites.
|14-Aug-32||Declared deserter||Private||GHs Depot|
|24-Nov-32||Surrendered to CP Edinburgh||Private||GHs Depot|
|25-Nov-32||Awarded 28 days Detention||Private||GHs Depot|
|17-Dec-32||5 days Remission earned||Private||GHs Depot|
|28-Apr-33||Awarded 3rd class education certificate||Private||GHs Depot|
|03-Oct-33||Posted||Private||2nd Bt GHs||Aldershot|
|26-Jul-34||Annual assessment||Private||2nd Bt GHs|
|Jul-34||Serving as a machine gunner||Private||2nd Bt GHs|
|09-Sep-35||Awarded 2nd class education certificate||Private||2nd Bt GHs||Gibraltar|
|18-Sep-35||Annual assessment||Private||2nd Bt GHs|
|25-Sep-36||Annual assessment||Private||2nd Bt GHs||Singapore|
|Feb-37||Serving as a clerk||Private||2nd Bt GHs|
|28-Sep-37||Annual assessment||Private||2nd Bt GHs|
|01-Oct-38||Annual assessment||Private||2nd Bt GHs|
|28-Feb-39||Posted (& posting extended for 6 months)||Private||GHs Depot||Aberdeen|
|27-Aug-39||Transferred to Section B, Army Reserve||Private||GHs Depot||Aberdeen|
|02-Sep-39||Rejoined from Reserve||Private|
|03-Sep-39||Outbreak of WWII|
|06-Sep-39||Mobilised & Posted||Private||Stirling|
|27-Jan-40||Posted||Private||No 5 Coy AMP Corps|
|23-Jun-40||Posted to ITC||Private||ITC|
|10-Jul-40||Posted to 1st Bt GHs||Private||1st Bt GHs|
|01-Jan-41||Mustered with regmntl pool as eqpmnt repairer||Private||1st Bt GHs|
|18-Apr-42||Daughter (Mrgt Rose Cruickshank) born||Private||(Aberdeen)|
|20-Aug-42||Promoted Unpaid Lance Corporal||L/Cpl||1st Bt GHs||M East|
|28-Oct-42||Wounded (& posted X List II)||1st Bt GHs||M East|
|23-Nov-42||Posted X List (iv) d & reverts to private||Private||M East|
|28-Dec-42||Posted (i.e. returns) to 1st Bt GHs||1st Bt GHs||M East|
|07-Jan-43||Promoted Acting Corporal||Cpl||1st Bt GHs|
|27-Jan-43||Charged: drunkenness on duty (2nd); reduced to Pte||Acting Cpl/ Pte||1st Bt GHs|
|17-Feb-43||Appointed Unpaid and Paid Lance Corporal||L/Cpl||1st Bt GHs|
|10-Jul-43||Invasion ofSicily||L/Cpl||1st Bt GHs||Sicily|
|10-Jul-43||MM for bravery at landings at Cap Passaro|
|26-Aug-43||Promoted Unpaid and Paid Acting Corporal||Cpl||1st Bt GHs|
|Sep-43||1st Bt GHs||Italy|
|21-Oct-43||Military Medal awarded (London Gazette)||L-Cpl (sbstntve rank)||1st Bt GHs|
|24-Nov-43||Promoted W/S (War Service) Corporal||Cpl||1st Bt GHs|
|28-Nov-43||Serving at Home (i.e. inUK)|
|Jan-44||Battalion returns toUK||UK|
|Jun-44||Battalion lands inFrance||NW Europe|
|18-Jun-44||Wounded||Cpl||1st Bt GHs||Normandy|
|18-Jun-44||Awarded Bar to MM for action at Escoville||Cpl||1st Bt GHs||Normandy|
|22-Jun-44||Y List A: posting after wound|
|02-Aug-44||Bar to MM awarded (London Gazette, 31 Aug 44)||Cpl||1st Bt GHs|
|03-Aug-44||Posted: No 1 Infantry Depot||No 1 Infantry Depot|
|09-Aug-44||Absent until 15 Aug: reprimanded, lost pay||Cpl||No 1 Infantry Depot|
|19-Aug-44||Posted 30 RHU||No 30 RHU|
|18-Sep-44||Serving (i.e. arrived back) in N W Europe|
|23-Sep-44||Son (Robert James) born||(Edinburgh)|
|14-Oct-44||Posted (i.e. returned) 1st Bt GHs||1st Bt GHs||NW Europe|
|02-Nov-44||Missing||Cpl||1st Bt GHs||Holland|
Such a chronology creates a logical, readable and meaningful narrative of the soldier’s experiences.
AWARD OF MILITARY MEDAL
It was known that Taylor had been awarded the Military Medal. Announcements of decorations can be found in the London Gazette: http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/
As with other MM awards, the London Gazette announcement gives only minimal information.
No 2876093 Lance-Corporal Robert Taylor, The Gordon Highlanders (Aberdeen)
He was awarded a Bar to his MM. Again the London Gazette announcement is minimal.
No 2876093 Corporal Robert Taylor MM, The Gordon Highlanders (Aberdeen)
The Military Medal was awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and men serving in the army for bravery in the field.
The National Archives at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/ holds details of Military Medal awards. Enter the site and search the section noted as Recommendations for Honours and Awards.
Taylor’s original Military Medal was awarded for gallantry during the Sicily landings in July 1943. Taylor’s section had been transporting ammunition when an enemy machine-gun pinned down the advance. He led his men in a charge, using grenades and bayonets, knocked out the enemy machine gun post and took several prisoners. The recommendation went from his own Commanding Officer up the chain of command, before endorsement by Generals Montgomery and Alexander.
Taylorwas awarded a bar to his Military Medal (i.e. a second award of the same decoration) for action in Normandy, shortly after D-Day (6th June 1944). On 18th June his unit was attacking through dense woodland. Taylor was wounded in the shoulder but despite this continued to lead his men and was personally responsible for wiping out an enemy mortar crew. His commanding officer recommended him for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for this action but ultimately he was awarded the lower award of an MM.
Taylorwas reported missing on 2 November 1944 inHolland. The deaths of Scottish soldiers who died or were killed overseas are recorded on the regimental death returns in Register House. Corporal Robert Taylor’s death is recorded on the Gordon Highlanders’ WWII deaths record.
2896073 Corporal TAYLOR Robert 31 Scotland 2.11.44 Western Europe Killed in Action
It is noteworthy that he was not the only Robert Taylor of the Gordon Highlanders who died in WWII. He had a name-sake, a Private, killed in action inItalyonly two months before his own death who, of course, had a different army number. This clearly illustrates the key importance of the army number as a differentiating identifier.
A search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, http://www.cwgc.org/search/casualty_details.aspx?casualty=2034384 confirms the above details and identifies the burial place of Robert Taylor as Bergen-op-Zoom War cemetery in Holland. A photograph of his grave shows the moving inscription which would have been requested by his wife: “There’s comfort in knowing we will meet again someday when grief & pain are over”.
The Genealogical Trail
The military data is fascinating. It also leads to more traditional genealogical sources. Taylor’s date and place of birth are given on his attestation papers, facilitating the discovery of his birth certificate. From this it would be a simple step to start to establish his family tree. His military papers also state the date and place of his marriage. The Birth Certificates of his children can also be traced from the data in his military papers. His daughter was born in Aberdeen, his wife’s home town, his regimental base and, since his marriage, his home town. His son however was born in Edinburgh. It is unclear why Taylor’s wife was in Edinburgh for the birth of his son but Taylor would never have seen his son as he had returned to the front prior to his birth. His noted absence from his unit however, from 9th to 15th August 1944, while unexplained, makes much more sense knowing that his wife was then some eight months pregnant.
Robert Taylor was a heroic soldier – as well as one who twice during his military career was absent without leave and who was “inclined to be casual” and insufficiently “level headed”. Perhaps by the time that Sicily had been left behind and Normandy well on the way to reconquest, his officers would have put a greater value on his individual characteristics. His military papers give a powerful indication of the man behind the name, rank and number. They also point to other documents which establish the life and lineage of a soldier, tragically killed without having ever seen his son.
Such military papers make an excellent starting point in pursuing an soldier’s personal and family history. A few technical conclusions can be drawn.
- The data in military papers is not usually in chronological order. To make sense of it, it must be rearranged.
- To make sense of military data it is always useful to have some general knowledge of the relevant regimental and campaign histories.
- The National Archives and the London Gazette are key tools in tracing service careers.
- Information on servicemen and women who died while serving will be far more detailed than for those who survived. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is an excellent starting point.
- Military records often carry excellent pointers to civil records by noting dates and places of birth and marriage.
This article was first published, with a minor amendment, in The Scottish Genealogist, Volume LVIII, No. 3, September 2011, pp 126-131