How Findmypast’s military records told the story of seven First World War brothers
Most of us have military ancestors, but telling their tale is another story. Findmypast’s Ellie took to family history records to uncover what happened to seven serving Overthrow brothers.
Many people had their lives cut short by war. But for others, war is only a part of their story. My family tree discoveries have changed how I view my military ancestors and made me feel immensely grateful for their bravery and sacrifice. Knowing my paternal grandfather served with Monty’s Eighth Army during the Second World War fills me with pride.
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My maternal great-grandfather, Ralph Overthrow, enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1916 aged 20 while working as a chemist for Elliott’s Metal Company. His medical record describes his ‘poor physical development’. He was transferred to the Army Reserve, and was later discharged in 1919.
Though somewhat delighted (after all, if he had perished in the war, I would not be here today), I wondered if any other Overthrows in my family tree might have served. A simple search of Findmypast’s military records gave me around 30 Overthrows who had surviving details from this time, and to my surprise, seven of them were brothers from Gloucester.
I knew immediately that I had to find out what happened to them. Their stories deserved to be remembered. I am also grateful to Findmypast expert Paul Nixon for helping me with this research.
A family of soldiers
Thomas William Overthrow was born in 1859 and was a first cousin of my 2x-great-grandfather, Lewis Frank Overthrow. Census records told me he was married to Harriet Ann Hopkins, and they had the following children:
- Charles Leonard, 1882
- Sidney Ernest, 1883
- Frederick William, 1885
- Harold Walter, 1888
- Percy Reginald 1889
- Lionel Francis, 1891
- Albert Joseph, 1897
- Doris Winifred Anne, 1904
He was a cab driver, which seemed to run in the family – in the 1911 Census his son Harold was a chauffeur, and later his son Lionel was a cab driver. The release of the 1921 Census on Findmypast in January 2022 may reveal they were working for the same company, as I’ll be able to find clues about their employers.
I spotted this small article in our historical newspapers, which stated that Thomas and Harriet had five sons serving by 1915. I can’t imagine the anxiety they must have experienced, knowing most of their children faced danger and death as soldiers on the Western Front.
From there, I made it my quest to tell their stories.
The eldest son Charles Leonard Overthrow was born in Gloucester in 1882. I discovered that he received a Silver War Badge on 23 October 1917, which gave me his service number of 15658 and his enlistment date of 3 September 1914 in the 6th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment. I also learned that he served overseas and that he was discharged on 25 April 1917 due to wounds.
Charles appeared in a casualty list published by The Times on 28 July 1916. Paul says Charles might have been injured on 3 July 1916, when the 19th Division (of which the 10th Worcestershire Regiment was part) attacked La Boiselle. This was the third day of the Battle of the Somme.
It’s hard to get my head around that my relative was present at one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Paul informed me that Charles received a gunshot wound to his thigh, which later led to his discharge from the army in 1916.
Charles had married Alice McKee just before he enlisted in 1914. In the 1939 Register he was listed as an aircraft painter and sprayer. Even then, he was still determined to do his bit for the war effort. Though I imagine Charles carried his experiences with him, I’m pleased he strove for happiness. He died in 1964, aged 82. I wonder if he ever shared his story with his children and grandchildren.
Sidney Ernest Overthrow was born in 1883, and he married Ethel Lilley Mann in 1906. They had several children; I have no doubt that their son Lionel was named after Sidney’s brother. Sidney enlisted towards the end of the war on 2 July 1918 in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was a tramcar driver at the time. However, he was quickly discharged on 8 August due to sickness.
By 1927, Sidney was working as a cleaner at the Corporation Tramway Depot. Our newspapers report that in February 1927, he suffered a concussion at work.
Sidney died in 1937, and Ethel appears as a widow on the 1939 Register with children Peggy and Ivor. Tragically, Sidney and Ethel’s son Maurice was killed in action in Normandy during the Second World War. He was just 19 years old.
I can’t imagine the pain Ethel must have experienced, to witness the troubling times of the First World War, only to lose her son to the Second World War.
Winifred had been born prior to the marriage and was likely Frederick’s child. It really struck me how poorly Rose was treated during the inquest. According to the report, Rose had continued to breastfeed with an infection, and the coroner had said there was ‘a display of monstrous ignorance on the part of the mother.’
On 5 June 1915, Frederick volunteered to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was posted to the 92nd Field Ambulance, but was soon discharged on 30 June, under Paragraph 392. Paul said this probably meant that he was unlikely to become an efficient soldier.
The electoral register of 1921 tells me he and Rose were living at 20 Richmond Street, Gloucester. By 1939, Frederick was working at a ‘mental hospital’. He died in 1958, aged 74.
I wonder what clues the 1921 Census of England and Wales will uncover about Frederick’s life.
Harold Walter’s story is similar to that of his brother Sidney. He served originally in the Dragoons of the Line in 1906, and later enlisted in the 2/5th Gloucestershire Regiment on 29 September 1914. He was discharged by November on medical grounds.
Percy Reginald Overthrow was born in 1890. In 1910 he married Edith Emily Baker, and from there several children were born. On 29 August 1916, Percy was conscripted into the Army Service Corps.
According to his service record, he served overseas in Salonika. There’s a note in his papers from 24 July 1917, which states that the ship he was on was torpedoed. He returned to Britain the following day and was declared no longer physically fit for service on 11 January 1918. We’ve been unable to identify the name of the ship in question.
Paul informs me that a single surviving pension card states Percy claimed a pension on the grounds of neurasthenia myalgia, aggravated by war service. This could include high blood pressure, anxiety, and heart palpitations. So many soldiers experienced the horrors of war, and Percy was just one of them.
I spotted him on the 1921 electoral register with Edith, and by 1922 he was working as a chauffeur for Colwell. According to a newspaper report from 1949, he caught a chill, went to work, and was taken to hospital where he died.
Lionel’s story is perhaps the most tragic. He was born in 1891 and attested for the Army Service Corps on 25 May 1915. Prior to this, he was a taxi driver for Mr W Colwell, and I also found him being injured by a runaway horse in 1911 while an ironmonger’s apprentice in our newspaper collection. At some point in late 1915 Lionel was in Malta and suffered after some sort of gas attack. He was transported back to England and hospitalised in Manchester with a gastric ulcer. On 14 January 1916, Lionel died after surgery.
According to the above report, Harriet received a message of condolence from the King and Queen, and it states she now has:
‘three sons on active duty at the Front, and another is awaiting discharge from the Army, having been twice wounded and in hospital since May last.’
William and Harriet’s youngest son was born in 1897. By 1915, he was in hospital fearing the loss of his left hand. I can’t even imagine what he might have faced, and this wasn’t even the first time he’d been wounded.
He received the Silver War Badge in 1916 when he was discharged due to his wounds. The same record also told me he enlisted on 30 August 1913. He would have been around 17 years old.
Thomas and Harriet’s youngest child and only daughter was Doris, born in 1902. She will have watched her brothers work, enlist and head off to war. At some point she changed her name to Dorothy, married postman Joseph John Hardy in 1918 and they had at least nine children.
The end of the story?
The First World War undoubtedly had an impact on this family, but for many, their stories don’t end with the war. Resources like the 1921 Census will unlock further discoveries for us, and I can’t wait to see what else I’ll find on 6 January 2022. Who will tell the stories of your ancestors on Remembrance Day?
And a final note: if any descendants of Thomas, Harriet and their children happen to read this, I would love to hear from you. Please drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org