We have teamed up with the Oxfordshire Family History Society to discover the military past of the county’s great and good. Here we help Wantage MP Ed Vaizey and Blackbird Leys Parish Council chairman Gordon Roper explore their family histories. Pete Hughes and Mark McKay report
GORDON, John and Terry Roper all served in the armed forces.
But until last week, they knew almost nothing about their grandfather Harry’s deeds in Greece in the First World War.
Like so many soldiers who fought in both world wars, he refused to talk about his service, despite seeing his three grandsons following in his footsteps.
Now, thanks to the Oxford Mail and Oxfordshire Family History Society researcher Simon Purtell, they have had a compelling glimpse into his military life.
Terry, 65, a retired Major, served in the Royal Green Jackets and The Rifles from 1970 to 2012 in Germany, Cyprus, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gordon, 75, now chairman of Blackbird Leys Parish Council, served his two years’ national service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was posted to Cyprus to help supress fighters battling for independence from Turkey, but said he did not see combat.
Unlike his brothers, 77-year-old John Roper joined the Royal Air Force for his national service from 1954. He never once left the ground.
On discovering his grandfather’s history, Terry refelcted: “It has put me in touch with my ancestors and when you relate it to the present day you realise just how different life was back then. It has really whetted my appetite and I want to know more.”
The brothers’ maternal grandfather, christened Henry Miller, served as a regular soldier in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry.
He walked into a recruiting office at Newport on the Isle of Wight aged 14 in 1895. His father was a prison warder there.
Promoted to Lance Corporal in May, 1900, he was discharged 10 months later because of a heart problem.
He was sent to Headington to work as a tailor, close to his brother Walter living in Cowley Barracks.
He married war widow Elizabeth Whall in 1900.
The 1911 census shows Harry living with Elizabeth at 6 Caroline Street, St Clement’s, working as a road sweeper.
They had four children together – Alice, 11, Lizzie, eight, Albert, five, and Lillian, two – as well as Alfred, a child from Elizabeth’s first marriage.
Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, and Cpl Miller answered his country’s call, to serve once more with the Ox and Bucks.
By early September news of the British Army’s bloody skirmishes at Mons and Le Cateau had begun to filter back home.
News of the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat to the River Marne stirred up patriotic fever and pressure was put on the nation’s men to do their bit for King and country.
Within two months of enlisting on September 8, he had been promoted to Sergeant and by September 21, 1915, was serving with the 7th OBLI. He saw service in France with the regiment’s 3rd battalion.
The unit was also part of the little-known British Salonika Force fighting “Johnny Bulgar” – the Bulgarian army – in the mountainous terrain of northern Greece.
His records show that after the war Harry claimed he suffered from “valvular disease of the heart, exposure and strain”.
Family researcher Mr Purtell, discovered all of this story by poring over medal cards, pension documents and service records.
The 57-year-old from Abingdon now expects more people find out about their family’s wartime past due to the Great War’s centenary commemorations.
He said: “There are a lot of people who had grandfathers who fought in the war but they never really spoke about it. A lot of people are interested in finding out more.”
Heartened and amazed by findings from research
- Ed Vaizey MP looks over his family tree with Bill Seary at the Didcot War Memorial
WANTAGE MP Ed Vaizey had always thought no one in his family fought in the First World War.
That was until the Oxford Mail and the Oxfordshire Family History Society (OFHS) helped him discover four of his grandfather’s cousins fought in the war.
- Medal records for Harry Vaizey, above, a medal citation
Details were scant for three of the four brothers, but Mr Vaizey was fascinated by the exploits of Harry, a decorated officer.
Mr Vaizey’s grandfather, Ernest, was never called up to fight because his job as a barge builder in South London was a “reserve occupation”, needed at home.
His younger brother, George, was too young to serve. Mr Vaizey, 46, said: “I was worried that no Vaizey had served in the First World War.”
That was until OFHS researcher Bill Seary discovered a branch of the Vaizey family about which the MP knew nothing. His grandfather’s cousin, Harry Vaizey, served with distinction, rising from a private to a second lieutenant in the 20th London Regiment of Fusiliers.
While serving with the 17th Battalion, he was mentioned in dispatches in the Edinburgh Gazette on December 4, 1918 for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” leading his men under fire from shell fire.
- Ed Vaizey holding a photograph of his grandfather’s cousin
The Military Cross was instituted on December 31, 1914, to recognise distinguished service in battle.
Mr Vaizey, who lives in Sparsholt near Wantage, said: “I was delighted the Oxford Mail should carry out this research, and fascinated by what I learnt.
“I thought the research was fantastic so I’m very grateful to the Oxfordshire Family History Society. I knew a bit about my family history anyway because my father was interested in some bits, but I did not know anything about what was discovered about their involvement in the First World War.”
Lt Harry Vaizey and his three brothers all came home alive from the conflict.
They returned to the family barge-building business after which Vaizey’s Wharf in Greenwich is named.
He added: “It was heartening to find that a relative of mine served with such distinction and I was amazed that they went to war and came back safely.
“When someone does this kind of work you realise why people are interested in it because it gives you some element of a personal connection and I’m now hoping to build on the research.”
WHY IT'S SO IMPORTANT TO DO SOME RESEARCH
ANYONE wanting to research an ancestor who fought in the First World War should find out as much basic information as possible, Oxfordshire Family History Society’s Alex McGahey advises.
This should include their full name, date of birth, date of death, a photograph, and regiment and service number.
The Oxfordshire Family History Society researcher said: “Find out as much information as you can before you start looking for more.
“A photograph can show their uniform, their cap badge or rank.
“Once you have these then you have a start and then you can go and look for more.”
Mr McGahey then advised people to head online to a genealogy website like ancestry.co.uk to find out more.
Those who don’t have internet access at home should visit their local library where the site can usually be accessed for free, he said.
Mr McGahey said he first searches for the serviceman’s medal record cards, which can give their name, rank, service number, where they served and what medals they received.
The 68-year-old said people could then search for service records that say where the person enlisted, their postings and if they served abroad.
But Mr McGahey said these records were incomplete after more than half were destroyed during an air raid on London during the Blitz in the Second World War.
Pension records will say whether the serviceman received a pension, if they were wounded, what their wounds were and where they were injured.
Mr McGahey added that wounded soldiers who were discharged would be included in Silver War Badge Records. Discharged troops were given Silver Badge medals so they were not handed white feathers, which were seen as a symbol of cowardice.
If people want to research a relative who died in the war then they should visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website cwgc.org This can reveal where they are buried and holds some information on the soldier’s family.
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