Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Witness to History

Family legends are wonderful tools for the family historian. How often do they turn out to be real and how often complete fiction? It's usually the case that a story started out truthful but, through Chinese whispers, ended up somewhat different. Through careful probing and research, it's possible to get to the root of the matter so that the actual facts emerge. One of our family legends is that, as a young woman, my paternal grandmother, Esther May Cullip, observed a little bit of history as it happened. The story goes that, in 1916, Esther May witnessed the first ever shooting down of a German airship, watching it fall out of the skies. That year there were two incidents involving airships being shot down, both happening within a month of each other and in the same area. Family legend says my grandmother saw the first airship be destroyed, but whether or not this is the case, I do believe that Esther May witnessed one of these incidents in the autumn of 1916.

A Zeppelin airship

The Zeppelin Raids had begun a year earlier when Germany's ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, gave his approval for airships to cross the English Channel and target military establishments in places such as East Anglia and the south coast of England. He initially forbade the bombing of London due to the risk of killing a member of the royal family! King George V was his first cousin after all. However by the end of the year, raids were being carried out over the capital city.

The airship falling over Cuffley
The first airship to be shot down over British soil happened in the small hours of 3rd September 1916. Lt Leefe Robinson spotted the ship whilst on night patrol in his fighter plane. Approaching the airship from below he emptied his machine gun first into one the side of the ship, then the other, before firing shots into the rear. The back of the ship burst into flames resulting in the Schutte-Lanz SL11 ploughing into the ground in Cuffley, Hertfordshire. A dreadful choice had to be made by the crew. Should they jump or await the horrible fate of burning to death. Whatever their decision, the commander of the ship and his 15-man crew all perished.

As the crow flies, Cuffley is about eight miles from East Finchley and judging by newspaper accounts of the day, the event was witnessed by thousands of Londoners:

"The most amazing fact in connection with the downing of a Zeppelin on Saturday night, was the immense number of people who witnessed the spectacle despite the lateness of the hour. Warning of an imminent raid was given out early, and spread with astonishing speed by hundreds of channels which each fresh raid increases. Thus many thousand Londoners remained out of their beds out of curiosity awaiting development, in the hope that, if the raid materialised, they would see what was to be seen.
When the raiders approached the capital, the firing of guns and the dropping of exploding bombs seemed to wake up half London. Thus the actual burning was witnessed from every suburb and almost from every street. The Zeppelin's height enabled the watchers for miles around to gaze at the awe-inspiring spectacle, and its absorbing brilliancy as the airship fell."
(The Great War in Europe, Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 12 Sept 1916)

Esther May and Gladys, c.1917
My grandmother lived her entire life in East Finchley, north London, and by the beginning of September 1916 she was a new mother with a six week old daughter on her hands. Perhaps the crying of a small baby meant that Esther May was awake at 2am in the morning, or maybe it was the sound of gun fire and explosions that woke her up and drove her outside to watch this extraordinary event take place in front of her eyes. For my grandmother, a little bit of the war had come to her doorstep.

The Zeppelin L31 falling
over Potters Bar
The second airship was shot down less than a month later. On 1st October 1916, 2nd Lt Wulstan Tempest was responsible for the destruction of Zeppelin L31. This ship crashed into an oak tree in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Again, the whole crew died and their death was witnessed by thousands of Londoners who watched as the burning ship crashed to earth.

I'll never know which airship Esther May saw falling from the skies. I like to believe it was SL11, the first and most famous of the airships shot down over Britain. Either way, my grandmother did witness a bit of history in the making. But we mustn't forget that even though a burning airship would have been a dramatic spectacle to watch, it was also a tragedy, as all the German airmen died in horrible circumstances. The Zeppelin Raids aren't well remembered due to the overwhelming horror of the Blitz and the destruction wrought on Britain by the German air raids of the Second World War. So let us not forget the 500 civilians, all over the country, who died when a bit of World War One came to their shores.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Levi Alfred King 1892-1954

It's been nearly two months since I last wrote on my blog. Not good, slapped wrists! So I've made one of my new year's resolutions for 2013 to blog more. To start things off here is a post about an ancestor whom I have chosen completely at random (I closed my eyes and picked his name off a list!).

Levi Alfred King is a fairly distant relation, the husband of my second cousin twice removed on my father's side. However he's one of the few people whose First World War service record survived the bombing during the 1940 Blitz in London and so I've got a pretty full account of his wartime experience.

But I'm jumping the gun. As Julie Andrews would say, let's start at the very beginning...

Levi was born in the first months of 1892 in Hadley Wood, Barnet, in what was then the county of Middlesex. This was a quiet, rural part of the world where his father, Alfred, was employed as an ostler at a local inn and his mother, Edith, was a dressmaker.

I'm quite curious as to why he was baptized Levi. His siblings all had more traditional Victorian names such as Henry, Arthur and Florence. Interestingly though, in a survey of the top 1000 names in the 1890s in the US, Levi was number 207, so by no means an unpopular name.

Life was ordinary for the first years of Levi's life. He was to be joined by five brothers and sisters, all of whom survived childhood, and with 13 years separating the eldest from the youngest, it must have been a noisy and chaotic household.

By 1914 the 22-year old Levi had reached the height of 5 ft 11 inches and at 121 lbs must have been fairly tall and thin. He was employed as an Emulsion Washer in a photographic studio. I'm not quite sure what an Emulsion Washer did but I'm thrilled to think he worked in what was still a pioneering industry, even though his job may have been quite menial.

His work in a photographic studio wasn't to last for much longer however, as in August of that year Britain declared war on Germany. Levi was the perfect age to sign up and serve his country and enlistment was to follow a year later on 23rd October 1915. At the age of 23 years and 10 months Levi enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). He stayed on home soil until August 1916 after which he was posted to France and Flanders.

The job of the RAMC was to provide medical backup to the front line troops. They operated the Field Ambulances and the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) where injured men were sent to be treated before returning to the trenches or before being moved on to one of the Base Hospitals which were also operated by the RAMC.

The RAMC at work on World War One battlefields

Levi was initially posted to the 70th Field Ambulance in September 1916. A couple of months later in November he was posted to Casualty Clearing Station 17 at Remy Siding, near Poperinge in Belgium where he was to spend the remainder of the war. He was even admitted a couple of times to his own CCS suffering from ailments such as influenza which laid him low for six days.

The buildings at Remy Siding in 1920

Remy Siding was so named because of its location next to the railway line which linked the CCS to Poperinge. The town itself was close to the battlefields of Ypres, Messines Ridge and Ploegsteert Wood, and as can be seen on the map, there were trenches situated fairly close to the CCS. Although Levi wasn't a fighting soldier, he would have witnessed more than his fair share of appalling sights. One can only imagine the atrocities that he would have seen: dreadful injuries, death and anguish on a far too common basis.

Trench map showing the location of CCS 17 at Remy Siding

Nevertheless there was some relief from the war for Levi, for in December 1917 he was granted 14 days leave to return home and marry his sweetheart, Emily Esther Cullip. They were married in Christ Church, Barnet with their family and friends around them.

But this was only a short respite as, too quickly, Levi had to return to the war. He would be away from home until February 1919 when he was demobilised and able to return to his new wife. His time in the RAMC had been exemplary with no misdemeanours to blight his service record. He was rewarded with the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

As is so often the case in those years following the 1911 census and World War One, the story of Levi's life goes cold. However I do know that he had at least one daughter, Gladys, born in 1924 and that he died in 1954 at the age of 62, still resident in Barnet. He left a grand total of £376 14s 4d in his will, a tidy sum in those days.

Writing a blog about a randomly selected ancestor brings them to life. I'd not really thought about Levi much before (no disrespect intended), but looking back over his life and looking at the surviving records which tell us the dates and facts about his existence he has become real to me. I now picture a fairly tall, skinny man, conscientious in his work, honest and law-abiding, and for some strange reason, dark haired and with a moustache! I can't back up those last details but I'm sure I'm right about the rest...