Adam Saxon isn’t an academic (yet), but you wouldn’t know it from his enthusiasm for history. Adam is the son of AHRC Associate Director Alexandra Vincent, and for his year 9 school project he used AHRC resources to uncover the history of one soldier from World War One, including that he was still a child when he enlisted.
At the end of March I was lucky enough to be part of a trip with other students from my school to visit the World War 1 battlefields in Belgium. I really didn’t know what to expect. I enjoy history at school and thought it might be an opportunity to learn more about a topic that interested me, especially in the year when we commemorate the end of the First World War.
Before we went my history teacher set each of us a research project. We were given the name of a missing soldier from our local town, or nearby, and had to find out all about him. I was given William Richard Kent. All I had was a name but I was meant to find out about his family, where he lived, how he died… I didn’t have a clue how to do that!
I guess I am lucky to be living in a time with the resources of the internet at my fingertips. Gateways to the First World War, one of the AHRC funded Engagement Centres, has a section which points you in the direction of how to find out more about an individual who served in the First World War. From a combination of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Census Data and National Archives I was able to find out quite a bit of information about my soldier. William Richard Kent was born in 1897 in the Swindon area to George and Fanny Kent. In the 1911 Census, when he was 14, he was living in Wroughton in Wiltshire and was listed as being an Errand Boy. I can’t imagine having already left school and having a job at my age!
However, by comparing this census information with the register of births and also the record that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had, I could spot an anomaly. William’s service record had his year of birth as 1896 but the record of his birth, and the census data, had him listed as being born in September 1897. Through the war medal records held by the National Archive, I could tell that he won a medal in October 1914, so I think that it is probable that William was under 18 when he enlisted. Rather than being almost 20 when he was killed in the Battle of the Somme, he was only 18. Only 5 years older than I am now… a very sobering thought.
My trip to the World War One battlefields is one that I won’t ever forget. We visited lots of places like the Huts and Lijssenthoek Cemeteries. I will never forget those thousands and thousands of white headstones, neatly presented in their rows, each representing someone that had been killed in the war. Just the scale of people killed was something I don’t think I could have believed before I visited the cemeteries.
One of my lasting impressions will also be the contrast between the neatness and perfect white headstones of the Commonwealth Cemeteries where one headstone marks the grave of one soldier and the German cemeteries. There the headstones were much rougher and instead marked the graves of between 8 and 15 German Servicemen killed in the war. It made me think more about how it must have must have felt, at the time and maybe even now, to be German mourning a relative killed in the First World War. Reading some of the work being done by The Centre for Hidden Histories, including the Hidden Strangers project, made me think this is something I would like to find out more about.
Visiting the Thiepval Memorial, built to commemorate the missing British and South African servicemen of the Battle of the Somme, also brought home the sheer number of people killed. I found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that each of those names on the monument, over 70,000 of them, represents a person who was killed in the battle of the Somme and has no known grave. It is difficult to think of the words that could express what it must have been like. Amongst those names recorded on the Thiepval Memorial I found my soldier, William Kent, amongst all the other members of the 1st Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment who were killed at the Somme.
I won’t ever forget my visit. Listening to the last post being played at the Menin Gate, the thousands of names recorded on the graves and memorials, walking through the trenches that have been preserved for over a hundred years and trying to imagine what they would have been like during the height of battle… it really bought home the sheer number of people who were killed, from all sides of the conflict, during the First World War.
Reading the content provided by the AHRC funded First World War Engagement Centres, has helped to deepen my understanding of what it must have been like both to fight and be involved in the war as well as to be normal person “back home in Blighty”. Some of the stories on the Everyday Lives in War and Gateways to the First World War sites, really made me think about what it would have been like to be a child in the First World War. I am very glad I am growing up in 2018!
I will also never forget my soldier, William Kent. He was only five years older than me when he was killed. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for him to fight, and lose his life, in the Battle of the Somme. But I am glad that he is remembered and hope that we all continue to remember the scale and impact of the First World War way beyond this year’s centenary commemorations.