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Soldiers' Stories - How To Search for Relatives

Frank and Herbert Bindoff from The Royal Sussex Regiment Photo: ITV Meridian

The missing men of The Somme are too many to mention but several names caught my eye back in April when I reported on the opening of an exhibition in France on ‘’The Missing’’.

Private Fred Hallett from the Royal West Surreys, who threw himself on a German bomb to save his comrades. Reverend Rupert Inglis, a Chaplain from Kent in his 50s, blown up while working as a stretcher-bearer. Arthur Bale, a juggler known as the ‘’Bognor Clown’’, mown down during an attack on a German trench.

Judith Stanger with photos of her relatives Credit: ITV Meridian

The names and photographs were in specially-crafted booklets lining the exhibition room. There were just 100 men chosen to represent the tens of thousands whose bodies were lost or never found following some of the fiercest fighting of the First World War.

One of the booklets in particular stopped me in my tracks. Next to it was a copy of a newspaper cutting from The Daily Mirror from October 1916 - ‘’Twin Brothers Die Side By Side.’’

The article was about Frank and Herbert Bindoff from Brighton, who had joined the Royal Sussex Regiment. Aged 21, they died instantly when a shell landed next to them during fighting at Delville Wood - a place which claimed so many lives the British Tommies renamed it ‘’Devil’s Wood.’’

The saddest thing - the thing that made me stop and read on - was that the boys’ mother had written a heartfelt letter to the Army asking why one brother had been buried in a marked grave while the other was classified as ‘’missing.’’

There were dozens of relatives at the first night of the exhibition at the First World War Historial museum in the town of Péronne but no-one from the Bindoff’s family.

Staff told me that they had tried to contact them via newsletters and regimental associations but couldn’t find any family members.

I asked curator Frederick Hadley if there really could be heroes from the Great War unknown to their descendants?

‘’Yes unfortunately that is true,’’ he said. ‘’Families lost the traces of their men and that is very often the case. These men were buried where they fell overseas, families were grief-stricken already and it was too expensive to visit. And then people of the next generation wanted to forget about the grief, forget about how sad they felt and try to move on.’’

This was hard to believe. It felt wrong to me and camerawoman Siobhan Hart that the twins lay in a foreign field somewhere without their relatives knowing anything about them.

There and then we entered upon a plan: We would find them and tell them.

Bindoff memorabilia including a journal, photos and letters Credit: ITV Meridian

Like many plans things did not work out quite as intended. But the story we ended up with was far fuller and richer than we could have imagined.

Back home and an internet search confirmed the few details gleaned from the newspaper. Franks’s remains were buried at Delville Wood Cemetery. Herbert’s name was carved onto the massive memorial to the missing at Thiepval, about seven miles away.**

**Assuming the living link was lost there was no point placing an advert for relatives to come forward. That hadn’t worked for the museum and anyway sharing the same surname does make you a direct descendant.

So we asked genealogist Paul McNeill to trace the family tree.

‘’I started by finding the brothers on the 1911 census,’’ he said. ‘’Their names were there, and the fact that they were both clerks in the same publishing company.’’

‘’So we knew they were from Brighton and that they had no children themselves. Their two sisters did but they died childless so we had to jump across via uncles and aunts and follow another line of the family down. That’s where names changed and it got more complicated.’’**

**

Derek Johnson and Siobhan Hart at the cemetery where Frank is buried Credit: ITV Meridian

While Paul was hard at work Shioban and I returned to the Somme in June to film excavation work being carried out at La Boisselle, a village which had straddled the German and Allied trenches and where fields are still littered with craters.

It was an opportunity to speak to the British historians on the project about trench warfare in 1916, when bombs and shells were exploding with sickening regularity.

‘’I’m afraid there are many thousands and thousands of cases of the parents just not understanding the realities of war’’, said Jeremy Banning from La Boisselle Study Group.

‘’They wanted to think their loved one their dear boy had perhaps been shot through the heart or had died peacefully, and the harsh reality of warfare - and this was artillery warfare - meant that many men literally just ceased to exist, terrible disgusting wounds just blown to pieces and how can you understand that until you have been out here?''**

**In the lead-up to the commemoration of the start of World War One there is bound to be renewed interest in tracing relatives connected to the conflict. They may be soldiers who found along the Western Front or elsewhere, nurses who worked in field hospitals or anyone connected in some way to the war effort.

Below are some websites that can help your search. You can alo go to genealogists such as Paul McNeil who can trace your family tree for you.

COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION

http://www.cwgc.org/

MUSEUM OF THE GREAT WAR

http://www.somme-battlefields.com/battlefields/museums/historialdelagrandeguerre

THE GREAT WAR SOCIETY

http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/gen_faq.htm1911

1911 CENSUS

http://www.1911census.co.uk/