Friday, 28 February 2014

Laurie Arthur Mealing

Warning: this blog is long!
Today’s blog has special meaning to me as it concerns the first person I ‘knew’ that had died during the First World War.  Now that probably makes no sense, as I was born 63 years after the First World War ended and couldn’t possibly know someone who died in the First World War, but it is the best way I can describe it.
I remember when I was a child my Nanna telling me that her Uncle Laurie had died during the Great War.  Being a child I didn’t listen fully to what she told me and so all I could remember was that Laurie was very handsome.  I have never seen a photograph of him, so cannot comment.  She herself was born years after he had died, so was either told he was handsome or had seen a photo – which has since been lost.

Going forward several years, when I began to research my family history, I rediscovered Laurie.  And so, my interest in him was rekindled.  This is his story.
Laurie Arthur MEALING

Laurie was born in Harwich on the 28th February, 1891.  His father was Charlie Mealing, a ships fireman, or stoker, on the Great Eastern Railway ships sailing between Harwich and Holland.  Laurie’s mother was Isabella, and at the time of his birth Laurie was child number five.

Isabella was always striving to improve the life of her family and instilled a desire in all the Mealing children to better themselves.  This message was passed all the way to me, many years later by my Nanna, with the phrase “You’re as good as anyone and better than most.”
Laurie older brothers were Alf, Claude and Clifford and his older sister was Minnie.  The family continued to grow and Olive, Ruth, Frank and Willie all arrived within the next seven years.

Their father, Charlie, worked hard as a stoker and managed to put money aside for the family – no doubt aided by Isabella whose skill as a cook supplemented his income. 
Charlie did enjoy a drink on occasion and one day was relaxing in the local pub after a hard week at work.  Isabella, disappointed that he had not returned home for his dinner sent one of the children to the pub to tell him to come home.  Charlie informed the child he would be home later – Isabella could save his dinner for him and he could continue to enjoy his drink and talk with friends.

The child ran back to Ingestre Street and duly repeated what Father had said.  Now Isabella had a few options.  Save his dinner for later.  Throw his dinner in the bin.  Feed it to the cat.
Instead, she sent a gang of the children to the pub, with his meal, cutlery, napkin and all the other paraphernalia – the embarrassment sure to send him home.

However, the meal arrived and Charlie calmly set himself a place at the bar, unfolded the napkin and proceeded to slowly eat the meal before sending the children back home with the empty plate.
It is not recorded what happened to Charlie when he returned home later that evening.

Laurie’s childhood was no doubt eventful with such a large family and strong-willed parents.  However, tragedy struck in 1907 when his younger sister Ruth, then 12, fell down the steps at the front of their house, hitting her head and dying.

Later that year Laurie signed up to join the British Army, enlisting with the Lincolnshire Regiment.  He lied about his age, claiming to be 18 when he was in fact only 16.  However, he was accepted into the army, measured and weighed and sent to do his training.  At this time he was 5ft 7 ½ inches tall and weighed 9st 10lbs.
While away with the army tragedy struck Laurie’s family once again.  His father, Charlie, was in Rotterdam while his ship, the SS Amsterdam, was in dry-dock there.  On 23rd February, 1908, Charlie was making his way back to the ship.  As he climbed the ladder to board, he slipped and fell into the dry-dock.  He was rushed to hospital, but died later from an internal haemorrhage.

Back in England, Isabella used the small savings they had collected to pay for her and her son Frank to sail to Canada and start a new life.  Her youngest, Willie, remained with his older brother Alf who had by now moved out to his own home in Harwich.  Willie would make the journey to Canada by himself three years later.

Meanwhile, in 1909, two years into his service Laurie requested a transfer into the Royal Garrison Artillery.  His record states his reason for wanting to transfer was in order to serve alongside his brother Clifford who at this time was stationed with the artillery in Singapore.  His request was granted, and they served alongside one another in the 80th Company, Royal Garrison Artillery.

This was to be short-lived; yet again the Mealing family was visited by heartbreak.  In August, 1910, Clifford was declared missing in Singapore.  The official army record states they believe he died rather than deserted and the family story was that he went swimming and drowned.

Laurie continued his service with the Artillery and was described at this time as being “a hardworking, intelligent, reliable man.  A good signaller.  Believed to be sober although he has one entry.”

The entry mentioned was a charge of being drunk & disorderly.  His accuser was a policeman and the case was dismissed by the military due to his previous good character – however, he did receive another charge on 1st August, 1914, of being drunk on active service.  This time Laurie was reduced to the ranks and demoted to Gunner.

Laurie was soon promoted once again to the rank of Bombardier and a request was received from the Border Regiment for him to be transferred due to his skill as a signaller.  On the 9th June, 1915, Laurie joined the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Border Regiment.

Now back in the infantry Laurie excelled.  In August, 1915, he was promoted to Lance Sergeant, and two months later he was sent to Gallipoli to join the 1st Battalion.

Gallipoli has deep meaning to those with some knowledge of the events of the First World War.  By the time Laurie arrived in October, 1915, it was obvious the British and French were fighting a losing battle against the Ottoman Empire.  Four days after arriving, Laurie was made Sergeant – almost certainly replacing a man who had become a casualty.

Heavy rain in the November flooded the trenches, drowning soldiers and washing the bodies of unburied men into the lines.  This was followed by a severe snowstorm and many men died of exposure.  The decision was made to evacuate and in January, 1916, the Border Regiment sailed for Egypt.  Some time was spent in Egypt, no doubt regrouping and organising after the Gallipoli campaign, but it was soon decided that the Border Regiment was required in France, and on 29th March they sailed for Marseille.

While in France Laurie was promoted once again to acting Company Sergeant Major, although on 28th June he reverted to Sergeant.  The 1st Battalion were now posted in an area south of Beaumont Hamel, on the Somme sector of the frontline.

At 7.30am, on the 1st July, the Border Regiment went over the top with the aim of capturing Beaumont Redoubt.  The artillery was supposed to have destroyed the German positions, but as they advanced they found the German machine gunners were not only in position, but had targeted their guns perfectly on them.

The war diary from that day describes the men as being “absolutely magnificent” but within 30 minutes the advance had been reduced to “little groups of half a dozen men left here and there.”

Just over 800 men went over the top that day.  66 were declared killed that day, 423 were wounded and 150 were missing.

Laurie was one of those men declared missing and enquiries were made as to whether he had been captured and held as a prisoner of war.  These enquiries yielded nothing and his death on 1st July, 1916, was officially accepted on 10th February, 1917.  This is when the War Office began the process of informing Laurie’s family what had happened.

As previously mentioned, Laurie’s mother Isabella was now living in Canada with her two sons, Frank and Willie.  She had also remarried.  When the War Office tried to get in touch with her to inform her of Laurie’s death, they had many problems.  First writing to Ipswich Police, they eventually tracked her down in Canada later in 1917, over a year after Laurie had been killed.

By this time Frank and Willie had both signed up for the Canadian Army.  Her two eldest sons, Alf and Claude, were both in the merchant navy so danger threatened each of them.  It must have been a heart-breaking time for Isabella and I’m sure I remember hearing that she never fully believed that Laurie had died – expecting him to return home one day.
As I said at the start of this blog, Laurie means a lot to me.  It is him I think of when remembering those who died in the Great War.

So, happy 123rd Birthday, Laurie. 


Friday, 7 February 2014

George Stratford Canning

George Stratford CANNING
George was born on the 7th August, 1880, in Edenbridge, Kent.  He lived in Kent for the first two years of his life, while his father, George, worked as a mineral water manufacturer. 

Soon the family moved to Lambeth, London – close by to where they had lived before George’s birth.  This move was driven by his father, who had gone back to his old career as a Pantomime Artist.  There is more on his father here.

George (junior) came from a large family – he had three older sisters, Florence, Mary and Emily; three younger brothers, Charles, William and Arthur and three younger sisters, Jessie, Grace and May.  Sadly Arthur died as a baby in 1887, yet the remaining nine of them were healthy.
Following their return to London, George was christened on 5th June, 1885, when he was four years old.  He attended school in Lambeth and the family lived at Pembroke Place, before finding themselves on Barbel Street in 1894.

Charles Booth – a philanthropist who studied poverty in London and urged the government to do more for the poor – described Barbel Street at the time as ‘the worst street about here.’  The place was inhabited by ‘thieves and prostitutes,’ and he describes the scene with ‘broken windows’ and ‘children with dirty faces, sore eyes, torn frocks, hatless.’
I'm not sure when the absence of a hat ceased to indicate how poor you were - however, whether he had a hat or not, George was poor.
Young George had gone from the idyllic countryside of Kent to the slums of London by the age of fourteen.  The reason for this change in fortune soon becomes clear when, on 20th December, 1894, his father died from tuberculosis.  Suffering from such a disease would have meant his father had been unable to work for some time prior to his death, and with no state safety net, the family had been forced by circumstance to live on one of London’s worst streets.
It was noted in The Era newspaper that the funeral expenses were covered by the Music Hall Benevolent Fund.
However, life continued and on 19th March, 1901, George signed up to join the British Army.  He was posted to the Royal Field Artillery, at Woolwich.  On signing up he was 5ft 4, with brown eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion.  As mentioned in the previous blog this height is only a little below the average (5ft 6) for the time. 

George’s army career was spent in England, mainly at Woolwich.  He was promoted to Bombardier several times, but each time after around six months he requested to revert to the rank of Driver.  In 1905 George moved to the Army Reserve – so although he was a trained soldier, he was now free to continue his civilian life unless called up in a national emergency.
So life went on for George.  He married Jemima Metcalfe on Christmas Day, 1910, in Chelsea.  The pair lived in Chelsea, on Luna Street.  George worked as a cab driver now and life was good. 

For some reason, maybe work was slow, George re-enlisted on 19th March, 1913, and made his way back to Woolwich and a life in the army.

On 5th August, 1914, George would have received news that his unit was being mobilized and was ordered to report to Woolwich with haste.  On the 5th October, 1914, George was sent to France with the 35th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
After two weeks George found himself on the front, at Ypres.  On the 20th October the German offensive was launched and the 35th Brigade fired their first shots of the war.  It was on this day that George was injured – most likely taking a fall in the heat of battle.  His injury loosened the cartilage in his knee, requiring a visit to hospital in Boulogne and then back to England two days later.  He would not return to France again.

George remained stationed with the Royal Field Artillery, this time the 4B Reserve Brigade in Boyton, Wiltshire.  In September, 1918, George was transferred to the Royal Engineers after it was noted he had a talent for electrics.
In June, 1919, he became qualified in Electrics and Searchlights and was posted to the London Electrical Engineers.  This move was to be short lived, and by September, 1919, he had been demobilized and was once again a free man.

George remained in Chelsea, on Blantyre Street, with his wife Jemima, for the rest of his life.  He had no children, but his brothers and sisters remained in and around London, so family were close by.
He died in 1944 at the age of 63.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

First World War Recruiting

A little information about recruitment and the soldiers themselves.

A shocking fact from the First World War is that the youngest soldier to serve on the front line in the British Army was just 12 years old.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

Obviously he had lied about his age.  You had to be 19 to serve on the front line and at least 17 to join the army.  However, it wasn’t unusual for children to sign up – looking for excitement and adventure.

I’m certain they could easily be identified as children – yet a blind eye was turned and lying about their age was encouraged.  I can recall the story of a young man signing up to join the army and saying his age, 14, and the recruiting sergeant telling him to come back that afternoon when he was 18.

However, there is no point condemning the recruiting officers as these were different times.  Children left school at 12.  Historically, as a society, we don’t have the greatest track record for looking after our children.  Sending them up chimneys or working in mills, they have quite often been seen as a commodity.  
The men signing up the children, hard as it is to believe, probably felt they were doing them a favour.  I am certain they were not rubbing their hands together at the prospect of sending them into a living hell.

At the other end of the scale is the story of Henry Webber who was killed on 21st July, 1916, aged 67.  Despite being well over the age limit, and being turned down several times, by 'adjusting' his age he managed to sign up and serve as a Lieutenant at the front.  His desire to serve came from wanting to join his three sons who were serving – happily, all three survived the war.

You had to be between 18 and 38 to join the army (17 for the Territorials).  This limit was extended to 45 for men who had previously served in the Regular Army and passed the physical tests.  As things became more desperate conscription was introduced in January 1916 for single men aged 18 to 41 - many of those conscripted at this time first saw battle on the Somme later that year.  Conscription was extended in the May of that year to married men.  In 1918 the age limit was raised to 51, and lasted until 1920.

On a different topic, the average size of a British soldier was about five feet six inches tall, weighing around 9st 9lbs.  In 2010 the ONS stated the average British male to be five feet nine inches tall and weigh 13st 2lbs.
The men who fought in the trenches were much smaller than today, on average at least.  German soldiers were of similar size to the British - the French were two inches shorter, while the Americans, Canadians and Australians were all taller by about 2 inches.
People were generally in much poorer health than they are today.  Teeth were a particular problem – many were rejected for service for dental reasons.

It is worrying to think that before 1921 anyone could practice as a dentist and it is probably for that reason that 70% of recruits were in need of dental treatment.  It's scary enough going to the dentist when they know what they are doing!

The First World War stories will continue in the next entry.

Monday, 3 February 2014

William Frederick Victor Wells

William Frederick Victor WELLS

William was born in Colchester, Essex, in 1896.  His parents were William Wells, a boiler-maker, and Mary Ransby.  Although William was born in Colchester, he grew up in Harwich and spent his childhood living on Pepys Street, Bathside.

He was christened at St. Nicholas Church in 1903, when he was six.  At this time Harwich was a busy port, with a fleet of fishing vessels, a Royal Navy presence and an almost constant stream of ships from abroad coming in.  An exciting place for a child to grow up, witnessing the comings and goings along with his younger brother Arthur and two younger sisters, Alexandra and Norah.

A life at sea was not the direction young William took – whether he wanted to we will never know.  The year he turned 18, the First World War broke out.  Unfortunately, due to the destruction of most of the records of the men who fought in the First World War, we cannot tell when William signed up – but sign up he did.  Because of the battalion he joined we can assume he volunteered in the initial fervour at the outbreak of war in August, 1914.

He joined the 10th battalion of the Essex Regiment, which had been formed in September, 1914.  William served in England until the battalion was sent to France, landing at Boulogne on 26th July, 1915.

William and the 10th Essex were to be stationed on the Somme, entering the front line for the first time on 4th August, 1915.  The 10th Essex then spent the next eleven months in the sector, gaining experience in trench warfare and becoming an effective fighting force.  It was during this time that William was promoted to Lance Corporal.

We now reach the morning of the 1st July, 1916 – a date etched in the minds of many and one that, sadly, we will return to again.  The first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The 10th Essex were part of the 18th Division of the British Army, and would be attacking from the south of the village of Mametz.

Unlike the British soldiers further north that relied on British artillery, most of the bombardment in this sector was carried out by the more experienced French artillery.  Their guns were a heavier calibre, better able to destroy the deep German positions and instead of stopping the bombardment sometime before the attack, giving the Germans time to man the machine guns, the French provided a ‘creeping barrage’ just ahead of the advancing soldiers.

The 10th Essex captured Pommiers Redoubt that morning and then spent the remainder of the day supporting other areas of the battlefield, often sending bombers to turn the tide by clearing trenches with grenades.  The casualties they suffered were comparatively light that day, yet 28 men lost their lives.  It is with sorrow I discovered that William was one of those that fell.  He was 20 years old.

It is small consolation that one of the few successes of the day occurred here and that the men of the 10th Essex were instrumental in that success.

William is remembered forever on the Thiepval Memorial. 

I discovered William’s story when I began researching the photo below.  I still think he looks far too young to be a soldier.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Remembering those we forget

One hundred years has passed since the outbreak of the First World War.  The terrible events that took place all those years ago have now moved from living memory to the pages of the history books with the passing of the last veterans like Harry Patch and Erich K√§stner.  However, it is still possible to discover the stories of the unsung heroes in our own families.
Many of the men who were killed during this terrible conflict had no children, and as such no descendants to remember them.  This has always struck me as an enormously sad situation.  They would have left grieving mothers and families, people who would have been devastated when the telegram delivering the tragic news arrived. 

Yet today, merely through the passing of time, many of them have been forgotten – yes, their names appear on the War Memorials which you will find in every corner of Britain, but the men themselves have become lost and distant to us.

The First World War was dirty, it was bloody and it was a waste of human life on a horrific scale.  Yet we must not let this stop us from looking into the individual stories of those who were caught up in the mess.

Over the next few months I will be writing about those members of my family who were involved in the war.  Not all the stories will be full of death and tragedy, although it is inevitable that many of them will be.

This is my personal tribute to those men.

Orlando James LLOYD

Orlando was born in 1886 in the small village of Burstall, in Suffolk.  His parents were William and Esther.  He had an older sister, Lily, and a younger brother, Harold. 

In 1901 Orlando was 14 years old and already working, described on the census as a ‘lad on the farm.’

Whether it was growing up in such a quiet setting or the prospect of a life of dull farm work, something gave Orlando the desire to seek adventure and on 28th October, 1903, he joined the Suffolk Regiment. 

He was 17 years old at this time and stood at 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighing just 7 stone 6 pounds.  His record describes him as having a dark complexion, grey eyes and dark brown hair.  It is hard to imagine such a small lad signing up to join the army, timidly taking the King's Shilling from the Colour Sergeant Major before leaving the Suffolk countryside behind him.

During his pre-war years with the 2nd Battalion he served in Malta and Egypt, although not in combat. 

In 1913 he was stationed in England, and it was during this time he married his sweetheart, Sarah Green, from the neighbouring village of Hintlesham.  It was also this year that his mother, Esther, died. 

When war broke out on 4th August, 1914, Orlando and the Suffolk regiment were quickly mobilized – arriving in France just 13 days later as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). 

It was reported at the time that the German Kaiser called the BEF ‘a contemptible little army.’  True to the British soldiers’ indomitable sense of humour they took on this moniker and laughingly referred to themselves as the ‘old contemptibles.’ 

At first the BEF was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the German forces in Belgium and so began the ‘Retreat from Mons.’  With the British Army in disarray it was decided to set up a defensive position at La Cateau to try and slow the German advance.

The 2nd Battalion carried out a rear guard action as part of this battle, but were both out-manned and out-gunned.  After eight hours of relentless fighting the battalion began to be surrounded, but still would not yield.  The Germans implored them to surrender, knowing that nothing but utter annihilation faced the men.  At one stage the German buglers were ordered to sound the British Cease Fire in an attempt to stop the men fighting a hopeless battle.

Yet they had been ordered to ‘stand and fight’ and this is what the men did.  After nine hours of fighting, 720 men had been killed, wounded or captured – only 111 men and two officers escaped. 

The battle had been lost, but it was never the British aim to win – merely to buy time for the rest of the BEF to retreat to a more secure position.

It was during this engagement that Orlando lost his life, at the age of 28.  Because of the chaos of battle it is not known whether he was killed in the first or last minute.

The retreat meant that the British dead were left were they lay.  The aftermath would have been a terrible sight – an ominous portent for those men who survived that day.

Orlando is remembered at La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial, in Seine-et-Marne, France.  He is also named on the Hintlesham war memorial.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Research Example

I’ll only be tackling a small part of my tree – in fact only one person – but it will give you an idea of the work that goes into finding out more about the life of an ancestor.

The marriage certificate finally arrived. My excitement while tearing into the envelope was soon replaced with disappointment. The details of Mary Ann Curteis’ father are best described as vague.

William Edward Curteis. Occupation: Trade.

Trade. That could more or less mean anything. On the positive side, I have a full name with a fairly unusual surname. Albeit one that often was written as Curtis.  (Or Curties, Curtiss, Curtice...)

That is the extent of my knowledge of my great (x5) grandfather. Or is it?

Let's look at that marriage certificate in more detail.

Who were the witnesses? James Canning and Elizabeth Curteis. Another clue. It isn’t obvious who Elizabeth Curteis is right now – the bride’s sister, mother, grandmother, etc – but the information is sure to be useful eventually. James Canning? Well, that’s another story for another blog.

That was all the marriage certificate of his daughter, Mary Ann Curteis, openly tells me. But the obvious details need to recognised and acknowledged.

William Edward Curteis had one daughter at least – Mary Ann. I’ve already researched her on various censuses, so I know* she had been born in Clapham, Surrey, around 1823. Also, she signed her own name on the marriage certificate – not a major detail, but it tells us the families involved had some education.

* I say ‘know’ with a heavy heart. The census asked people to say how old they were and where they were born. Seasoned researchers know that people often had only a vague idea of their birthplace (after all, they were very young at the time). Ages seem to vary up and down a few years.

Officially I know his name, his daughter’s name and that he had a trade. Knowing his daughter was born in Clapham around 1823 gives me a starting point to search for her baptism. Luckily these records for Clapham are online at Ancestry. A quick search later – I keep the search details to a minimum at first – Mary Curteis, born in 1823. If I had too many results I’d narrow it down by adding a middle name or location.

Fortunately, I don’t have too many results to choose from. In fact only one gives a very good match.

Mary Ann Curteis, parents William & Elizabeth Curteis. Baptised on 11 May 1823, in Streatham. Not Clapham, but close. I take a look at the image of the register for more details. Fantastic!

Every now and then you’ll come across a parish that keeps wonderful records. This is a prime example. Not only do we get her baptism date, we also have her date of birth. Added to this, they have noted that Mary Ann is William & Elizabeth’s second daughter. On top of this they give her mother’s maiden name (Cooper – again, another story) and her father’s occupation – Baker. That’s certainly a trade!

Finally it reveals where they were living. It says Lambeth – but! – they had started to fill out ‘Clap’ and then crossed it out.

I check a few of the other baptism records, just to make sure I’m not overlooking something else – but nothing fits better.

Next step is to find a possible marriage for William Edward Curteis. Once you know when they were married you can start looking for all their children. This is not a rule, many families had children before marriage, but it is a good guideline.

I keep my search concise:

Name: William Curteis Date: 1820 (guesswork)

The first result looks like a winner. 1 May 1820, in Lambeth. Now, before 1837 marriage records were, shall we say not very detailed. We learn from this document that William Curteis & Elizabeth Cooper both lived in the parish of Lambeth, and they have not been married previously. There are no parent details, but the two witnesses are Benjamin & Charlotte Cooper. Worth noting for Cooper research, but no further details for William Curteis, Esq.

What do I know about William Edward Curteis now?

He was married in 1820 in Lambeth. He was a baker. He had at least two children.

I can also deduce that he was most likely born between 1790 and 1800. He may have been older – but this is unlikely. A search for his baptism would be best done between those years. However, we have no certainty of where he was born. We can use the census now to see what that yields.

The 1841 census is my first port of call. It is the earliest census worth working with for UK researchers. But I find nothing. I try various tricks – search for William Curt*, born 1795 -/+5 year. I even try searching for his wife and daughter. Nothing conclusive.

A dead end. Which is rather apt as further research leads me to discover that his wife remarried in January 1850. A search of the burial records for the Lambeth and Clapham area quickly explains why he doesn’t appear on the 1841 census. William Curteis died in his house on Acre Lane, Clapham during November 1837, aged 40.

If this age is accurate (and trust me, they aren’t always) he would have been born between Nov 1796 and Oct 1797. I take a guess that he was born in Surrey, the county he married, lived and died in.

And I soon find him. (I used the IGI website, FamilySearch) William Edward Curteis, born 19 November 1796 in Beddington, Surrey. His parents were Charles & Ann Curteis.

And so an ancestor goes from being a name on a marriage certificate to being a more rounded character.

This is the end of the blog but not the end of the research. I still need to know if he had any more children. Can I find his death certificate? What happened to his children? What did his father do? Did he have any brothers and sisters?

There are always more questions…

(I know doing research in person and seeing the actual documents is the best way, but for some it is impossible. Seeing the records online is a very close second-best option, especially when the originals are scanned in. Always double check your facts and be on the look out for new details that may prove your research - or disprove it!)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

War Heroes

Every family has War Heroes.  Every family, in every nation, everywhere.

I don't think there are any exceptions.  If you don't think you have, it's because you haven't found them yet.

War Hero In My Family is a new programme on Channel 5 here in the UK.  It is on Tuesday nights at 8pm.  I haven't seen last nights episode, so this is not a review, but it seems like a good idea.  The focus is on the Second World War.

Not a video to watch, but a good soundtrack for this blog, by the excellent John Tams.

If you are looking at discovering the War Heroes in your family, from almost any time period, the internet can be of use.  Ancestry, in the UK and on its Worldwide sites, has many records relating to military service.  An example of what the UK site has to offer:

  • First World War Service and Pension Records - these are incomplete, sadly, due to bombing during the Second World War.
  • Battle of Waterloo Medal Roll - lists those who fought in the 100 day campaign.
  • Army Roll of Honour - First & Second World War casualties.
Find My Past has even more on offer:

  • British Army service records 1760-1915 - this is a truly massive resource.
  • Napoleonic War records.
  • Regimental records for Manchester City, Paddington Rifles, Royal Fusiliers, Royal Artillery.
  • Royal Marine medal roll, 1914-1920.
  • Royal Naval Division records, 1914-1919.
  • Military Nurses, 1856-1940. - Not all heroes are male!
This is just a snippet of what is available.  Ancestry and Find My Past cost money, either a subscription or pay-per-view.  There are some free websites:

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
This is a free site you can search for anyone who died in active service and receive details of their place of burial or remembrance. There are normally extra details, such as regiment or ship served on, rank and next of kin.

The Soldier in Later Medieval England
If you are looking further back in time, this database covers the 14th & 15th centuries.

Canadian Great War Project
Excellent resource for those with Canadian ancestry - as the title suggests this relates to the First World War.

National Archives of Australia
You can order hard copies of documents, but many are already scanned in online.  Second World War service records are on this site, free to view.

And if you can't find what you need, try google.  There's a whole host of websites dedicated to specific regiments, ships, wars and battles.  Get in touch with people and ask for help.

As an idea of what you may find, here are a few War Heroes from my own family:

Laurie Arthur Mealing - pre-war soldier who served at Gallipoli and in France with the Border Regiment. Died on the 1st July, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme.

Gabriel Finch - served with the Royal Artillery through Portugal and Spain with Wellington, chasing Napoleon back to France.  Survived and died at home in Kent at the grand age of 84 in 1855.

Orlando James Lloyd - pre-war soldier who served with the Suffolk regiment in France.  Died at the infamous, and crucial, Battle of La Cateau on 26 August 1914. 

Sidney John Douglas Thompson - signed up for the Royal Navy as a boy in 1933 and travelled the world.  Spent the war on HMS Kent - torpedoed in the Mediterranean near Libya.  The Kent was then transferred to Arctic Convoy duty for two years, arguably one of the harshest environments of the war. 

Prince Frederick Finch - yes, his name really was Prince, although he preferred Fred.  Served in the Rifle Brigade in the Crimea.

I could go on all day listing names, but giving such brief mentions to them seems wrong.  The point to take from this is you will find heroes.  And they won't all be perfect - you'll read about them, warts and all, in their service records.  The thing that unites them all is that they were there at the events that shaped our nation, for better or worse.  They were witnesses to things many of us cannot possibly imagine.

And once you find those heroes you will find you remember them often, sometimes unexpectedly.  I spoke to one fellow researcher who thought of his great-grandfather everyday, despite never knowing him.  He drew such inspiration from him.