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Service Papers


MelPack
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I was reading a set of service papers the other day that made me distinctly uncomfortable.

The soldier had enlisted under an assumed name in late 1915 with the Buffs before subsequently transferring to the MGC. The reason for the alias soon became apparent.

He spent the first three months of 1916 in hospital being treated for chronic gonorrhoea. It transpires that the reason for the alias was to evade his wife.

The file was highly unusual because it contained personal letters between the soldier and his wife. It would appear that neither were read by the other because her letters were addressed to the actual surname and his were returned to the sender but, again, in his real name. The correspondence ended up in the service file once the real identity of the soldier had been established.

The position of the wife was particularly tragic. It would appear that she was unable to work to support herself because she was so debilitated by the disease that her husband had presumably infected her with. She pleaded with him to sort her army separation allowance out and even wrote to his commanding officer requesting the same. The outcome is unclear.

At the end of reading the file (some 50 pages), I felt distinctly uneasy about 'eavesdropping' on such intimate material.

Has anybody else had a similar experience with skeletons that are best left in the cupboard?

Regards

Mel

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Hi Mel

I have down loaded about 2,500 mens records now, give or take a few, anyway I have lost count of the number of men with gonorrhoea, I used to think poor wife but now I just skip the medical details if I see the word. There are many other things that I see in the records which make me think to myself "I hope his relatives do not get to look at this chaps papers :blush:

Annette

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Mel

Yes, I have come across a number of officers' personal files that have left me with the same feeling. They included at least two cases of ex-officers found guilty of burglary and other crimes in the 1920s. They had all been diagnosed with shell shock during the war. In another case a Regular officer had an unfortunate injury while disembarking in France from leave in autumn 1915, suffering multiple fractures to his ankle which ended his active service. He was still serving in 1919, but had clearly taken to the bottle. This came to the notice of his superiors and he resigned his commission just before he was about to be dimissed. In the case of an officer who was killed it is clear that as far as his family was concerned he had married someone of a lower social class. While she received a pension, the family made sure that everything his possessed was returned to them.

All this was for my research for the history of a Service battalion, which was published. It would, however, have been unfair to have named names or made mention of these unfortunate happenings.

Charles M

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I had a memorial plaque to a Dunnville Ontario boy, conscripted under the Military Service Act. Went to Camp Borden and contracted gonorrhoea. His medical record was so awful I destroyed those pages. Went to Camp Niagara, fell sick and was sent home on leave, where he died of influenza.

I have an R.A. pair, he spent 55 days in hospital with syphillis.

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I tend to agree that the instances of treatment for venereal disease appears to be fairly commonplace to the degree that you become almost innured to it.

What was unusual in this case was the personal correspondence in the file - including a letter from the soldier, who was hoping for a reconciliation, in which he indicated that it was third occasion on which he had written but had had no response.

It seems that he had no idea that his letters were simply being returned and stashed in his file.

Regards

Mel

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I had a memorial plaque to a Dunnville Ontario boy, conscripted under the Military Service Act. Went to Camp Borden and contracted gonorrhoea. His medical record was so awful I destroyed those pages. Went to Camp Niagara, fell sick and was sent home on leave, where he died of influenza.

I have an R.A. pair, he spent 55 days in hospital with syphillis.

Presumably you destroyed your copy of the records?

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The correspondence ended up in the service file once the real identity of the soldier had been established.

You would think that the Army would have passed them on once they found out his real identity but by then he may have left the army and moved address without leaving a forwarding address. I have come across letters amoung mens papers, most seem to be from relatives trying to find out where their loved ones are.

Annette

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I think the first duty of the researcher is to the integrity of his transmission of the historical record and also to the physical preservation of that record. One's natural sympathy towards the deceased individuals caught up in the stories uncovered ought not, in my view, to cause us to censor the record. At some point someone will want to research such things as incidences of sexually transmitted diseases in a given period, and the results of their research will necessarily be distorted if previous researchers in other disciplines have obscured or hidden these in their own accounts, or, worse, destroyed the original record which is then a piece of the jigsaw lost forever.

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I too come across distressing peccadilloes in service files - the soldier contracting VD while his wife at home is heavily pregnant - another who hides his 19-year history of syphillis on enlistment, and then acquires some other crimes of an assault nature before dying. The sailor on a war memorial who seems to be a non-commemoration case but who turns out to have been expelled from the Navy as a syphilitic before dying of unconnected flu'.

I have no remit to whitewash these and others, but neither am I in the business of splurging their moral lapses all over the front pages. I can't literally hide their actions because these are public papers and anyone with the wish to see them can do so. Fortunately, my research is usually of the "brief biography" type rather than the full works and I can justify editing the record on the grounds that it's the military detail which is more important - which to me it is.

I would be in more of a pickle if I were being asked to tell a family all about their illustrious war-hero great-granddad. Once or twice I have decided to leave relatives to make the connection between stated facts and the truth implicit in them: if a man dies of "General paralysis of the insane" and the record shows that he was indeed treated in a mental institution, that's sad enough but understandable. That it is an archaic description of the final stages of syphilis I haven't bothered to spell out.

Likewise I have been asked for help to discover the war record of another, and have simply provided the family with the place to contact, knowing that they're in for a surprise when the paperwork arrives.

Am I chickening out? Maybe...but what would you do in such circumstances? I'm not trying to deny the truth, but neither am I keen on exposing all, regardless of the hurt it might cause.

LST_164

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Presumably you destroyed your copy of the records?

It was a photocopy. And only the pages that dealt with that admission.

This discussion reminded me of a quote from Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill

‘Thou knowest that evil mans true name,’ he replied, ‘but I have chosen to call him Fulke because I promised him I would not tell the story of his wickedness so that any man might guess it. I have changed all the names in my tale. His children’s children may be still alive.’ ‘True—true,’ said Puck, smiling softly. ‘It is knightly to keep faith—even after a thousand years.
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I have not found myself in that position LST, but if I did, I know what I would do. I would tell them everything in as tactful a manner as I could. I would try, as you have, to soften the blow as best I could. Under no circumstances would I destroy records. One's own notes are one's own to do with as one will. The actual records are priceless and irreplaceable. In public libraries and record offices in UK as well as most archives, to destroy material would be an offence and one which, if I witnessed it, I would not hesitate to report. There was a case reported just the other day of a man stealing pages from old books to sell. He was caught, has been convicted and is awaiting sentence which he has been warned, will almost certainly be a custodial one. To my way of thinking, destroying the documents is very little different to stealing them and in fact is worse as some of the stuff he stole was recovered and the authorities are hopeful of recovering more. Destroyed, they are gone for good.

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Officers' and soldiers' records were originally closed for 100 years. This thread shows why! The same applies to census returns, though those for 1911 have been released early.

The period for service records was reduced to 75 years, which is why they have become available in recent years, along with the capital courts-martial records.

Ron

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I have a really interesting one from a chap in the 16th Lancers (I am compiling an accurate Regimental History for the war) he enlisted in 1914 stating that he served with the 16th in the Boer War (I have found no records of this at the NA) he then was an absolute nightmare on orders so often that there are two pages for the defaulters sheets, the regiment then manages to get rid of him to the labour corps in mid 1918, he deserts 5 days before the armistace and is not heard of.....until the mid thirties when he applies for a job as batman/handyman to a ret maj secretary to an servicemans charity.

He is then given six pounds to kit himself out and does a runner. letters are written to the 16th asking for details on the serviceman which comes back very shady.

H e is then arrested in Whitby for a petty crime and the correspodence is brilliant, gets done for theft of the money and the army wants him back for desertion!!!!

John

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