The Wildgoose Chase

I met Chelsea Pensioner Walter Wildgoose in 1977 when he was 87 and I was 26. Through a series of letters written over the last year of his life, he passed along his life story - the workhouse children's home, a life in the British Army witnessing the opening battles of World War I and life in India, a remarkable family surviving the bombs of World War II London. This blog will document my research and progress on the novel I'm writing about this amazing man.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Living through the Great War

Much of my research on Walter's story so far has focused on the First World War, primarily because so much information is available. (The workhouse children's home, training ship Clio, merchant ship Oropesa, and British military operations in the 1920s are proving more difficult areas of research.)

Walter was regular army, having joined the 2nd Bn (H Cy) Royal Lincolnshire regiment on 3 March 1908 in Aldershot. By the time war was declared on 4 August 1914, he had 6 years and a tour of duty to Aden under his belt. His regiment embarked from Southampton the evening of 13 August 1914, arriving in Le Havre 14 August. The men already serving with the colours were the first to confront warfare of new technologies like machine guns, tanks, airplanes, trench warfare and gas. Mons, Le Cateau (where Walter was injured the first time), Aisne, 1st and 2nd Ypres - good soldier Walter was there. A foot injury in April 1915 at 2nd Ypres was good enough to send him back to England. Once recovered, he was tapped to be an instructor for the newly-formed Machine Gun Corps (pictured above, center). That's an abbreviated look at Walter's Great War experience - more, of course, to come.

In order to properly research World War I, you have to go to England (and to the battlefields in France and Belgium, I suppose - but that's for later). We Americans arrived late in the game, though our participation was crucial and helped end the ghastly thing, so we don't have the trove of resources available here. If you mention WWI to Americans, their eyes glaze over - someone might mutter "doughboys" or sing a line or two of "Over There," but there's not much beyond that.

So, to England. In addition to the Imperial War Museum (see yesterday's post), the National Archives is a great place to do some digging into individual services records, etc. Though some of the files can be ordered online and sent electronically, the archives contains a lot more information that requires your physical presence. It's big and confusing, and while I did find several very helpful documents, next time I'm over I think I'll hire someone who is familiar with the files and workings of the place. Like the IWM, the NA lets you book materials and research bays via the internet. You will need to get your reading room card (good for a year) at the reception desk before proceeding to the research area. But unlike IWM, you CAN take digital pictures of the documents if you register your camera (this only takes a minute or two). I hope IWM starts allowing this - it's a huge help to snap off digitals (no flash, of course) of documents.

The best surprise for research purposes, however, was the National Army Museum, situated next to dear Walter's Royal Chelsea Hopital. I just happened upon the place and since I hadn't booked ahead for reading room time, I had to make the application and wait a few days for the research card. It was worth the wait. The staff, as at IWM, were knowledgeable and helpful. Again, there was access to power for the laptop - this makes everything so easy. And like IWM, the National Army Museum warranted two visits - too much stuff to take in at one sitting.

Lots of online treasures - but you don't get to go to England :-( . The University of Birmingham's Centre for First World War Studies has a helpful "Can Anybody Help?" section, where researchers and readers provide answers to difficult questions or point you in the right resource direction. Hooking up with other WWI buffs always leads to terrific information, and I haven't found better than the Great War Forum, an off-shoot of the wonderful website Long, Long Trail. I return time and again to these sites, though I have many, many more bookmarked WWI sites. I'm always looking for more - all suggestions welcome.
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posted by MaryB @ 10:41 AM  


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