February is an interesting month for anniversaries, whether those of personal or global importance. For family historians, anniversaries are often useful pegs on which to hang a family narrative or to fill in those awkward gaps where, according to public records, the ancestor doesn’t appear to have done anything at all for five, or even ten, years. Whatever else he was doing, he is likely to have read the newspapers and perhaps been affected by the national or international events reported.
On 11 February 1905 two Frenchmen made aeronautical history by landing in a hot-air balloon at Crystal Palace, London, after crossing the English Channel.
On the same day in 1913 the Daily Telegraph, London, announced ‘the most tragic story in the annals of Polar exploration’, referring to news received of the death of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and other members of his party. After reaching the South Pole on January 18, 1912, they were overwhelmed in a blizzard on their return journey; all perished. Scott’s companions were: Dr E A Wilson, Lieut H R Bowers, Capt L E G Oates and Petty Officer E Evans. Eleven months before the Scott tragedy, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole – he reached it on 14 December 1911 - had made the headlines.
In 1915 on 4 February, the UK announced 104 000 casualties of World War I – so far – and on 18 February the planned Berlin 1916 Olympic Games were cancelled. Closer to home and a month earlier, South African troops had occupied Swakopmund in German South West Africa.
A new book by Edward Paice, Tip & Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa is a must-read for this period. In his introduction the author mentions that ‘far from being the rapid and immediately profitable pushover envisaged by British imperialists, the conflict cost … over 200 million pounds (about 2 billion in today’s money), involved the mobilization of more than 400,000 British and Colonial troops and left South Africa in ruins … The bill was fully ten times the value of the output of the Transvaal gold mines for 1899; British casualties exceeded even those of the Crimean War half a century earlier and the toll wrought on Afrikaner and African alike was immense.’
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917. Its duties are to mark and maintain the graves of the Commonwealth forces who died during two world wars, to build and maintain memorials to the dead whose graves are unknown and to keep records and registers. The cost is shared by partner governments – Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and UK – proportionately according to the numbers of their graves.
The Debt of Honour Register, a database searchable by surname, was launched in November 1998 via the Commission’s web site (URL shown above). The database provides known details of the casualty as well as the name of the cemetery or memorial, directions on how to find it, and the exact row, plot, grave or memorial panel reference to locate the burial or commemoration place.