'The Fallen: rediscovering a lost generation'

Ian Blair

In August 2018 I wrote a short post ‘The Fallen: remembering a lost generation’ which detailed a journey I made to a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at St Amand in France, to mark the 100th anniversary of the death in World War One of my Great Uncle George William Alfred Blair.

On his grave I left one of the ceramic poppies from the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ art installation that in 2014 filled the moat of the Tower of London.

The final resting place of George William Alfred Blair: St Amand British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France The final resting place of George William Alfred Blair: St Amand British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France

In the piece I wrote: ‘The last address I have for George was Marian Street in Bethnal Green, a small street off the Hackney Road (now foreshortened and with all the terrace houses long gone) lying in the shadow of the Marian Place gasholders on the Regent’s Canal. Two of these iconic structures still survive, and my thoughts always turn to him whenever I pass them on my daily travels, and I contemplate our both having known them albeit a hundred years apart. I find that tangible connection and continuity with the past and to an ancestor who I have never known, or even seen a photograph of, strangely reassuring’.

Having given up the day job in March 2020, just as Covid 19 took hold and a nationwide lockdown began, I found myself with time on my hands, so once more picked up on my family tree. It struck me that I needed to collect the comparatively small collection of old family photos together. In doing this, I found that at some earlier date I had been given a USB memory stick containing scanned images, and on reviewing these I realised that there were several old photographs that I had never seen and was unaware of.

One of the images showed my grandfather Joseph Blair, who was in the 4th (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), stood at the side of his seated mother Louisa Mary Anne Blair.

Joseph Blair at the side of his mother Louisa Mary Anne Blair. Had the photo been in colour, it would be evident   that he was dressed in a uniform known as the ‘Convalescent Blues’ worn by soldiers in military hospitals. The   uniforms were made of blue flannel lined with white, worn with a white shirt and red tie. They were loose and ill-  fitting, and many patients had to turn up or cuff the trouser legs.Joseph Blair at the side of his mother Louisa Mary Anne Blair. Had the photo been in colour, it would be evident that he was dressed in a uniform known as the ‘Convalescent Blues’ worn by soldiers in military hospitals. The uniforms were made of blue flannel lined with white, worn with a white shirt and red tie. They were loose and ill- fitting, and many patients had to turn up or cuff the trouser legs.
The photo clearly taken on his return from France where he had been seriously wounded, as reported in the Daily Casualty List published on 20th September 1917. The walking stick bears testament to the injury to his leg that he nearly lost, and with a head wound that left him with a metal plate attached to his skull for the rest of his life.

Certificate given to Private J Blair on behalf of the ‘City of London’ to the ‘Men of the City of London Regiments’   on July 5th 1919Certificate given to Private J Blair on behalf of the ‘City of London’ to the ‘Men of the City of London Regiments’ on July 5th 1919
My sister subsequently gave me another item that I had never seen before, which had been cut from a small studio postcard photograph, and which immediately caught my attention. It showed two soldiers in World War One military uniform, one seated, and both with cigarettes in their hands.

Unravelling the mystery: two soldiers from World War One, but who were they?Unravelling the mystery: two soldiers from World War One, but who were they?

The undoubted significance and importance of this image was immense, as my grandfather had carefully preserved and kept it for over sixty years until his death in 1979. But would it be possible to find clues hidden in the photograph that would help identify the men, and could one of them be my great uncle George William Alfred Blair, and if so which one, and who was the other soldier?

Having scanned the photograph to make it easier to enlarge and focus in on any detail that may not have been immediately apparent, there remained obvious limitations ahead given the very small size of the image.

One thing that was immediately evident, was that both men were wearing caps bearing the distinctive cap badge of the Duke of Cambridge's Own (Middlesex) Regiment, and I knew that my great uncle had enlisted in the 20th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which was raised in Shoreditch in 1915, and embarked for France in early June 1916. The most obvious feature on either of the uniforms, is that the seated soldier had three inverted chevrons on the lower right-hand sleeve of his jacket, but what did these represent?


Detail of the inverted ‘service chevrons’ on the lower right-hand sleeve of the seated soldierDetail of the inverted ‘service chevrons’ on the lower right-hand sleeve of the seated soldier


Some on-line research showed that the chevron was first authorised under Army Order 4 of 1918, which was published on 20 December 1917: “His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of chevrons to denote service overseas undertaken since 4th August 1914”. As the order for their use did not come until the end of 1917, it is logical to assume that the photo must have been taken some time in 1918. The seated soldier has three overseas service stripes, one for each year served abroad, and probably served in the territorial force from 1916-1918.

Another small easy to miss detail in the photo was that both men had very narrow vertical stripes visible on the lower left sleeve of their jackets.

Detail of the ‘wound stripes’ on the lower left-hand sleeves of both soldiersDetail of the ‘wound stripes’ on the lower left-hand sleeves of both soldiers


It transpired that these are 'wound stripes' composed of strips of gold Russia braid, a distinction of dress bestowed on soldiers wounded in combat, typically worn on the left sleeve of military uniform jackets, and first authorised under Army Order 204 of 6 July 1916. The Army Order was followed by Army Council Instruction No. 1637 of 22 August 1916:

“…. it is notified for information, that the term ‘wounded’ refers only to those officers and soldiers whose names have appeared, or may hereafter appear, in the Casualty Lists as ‘wounded’. The braid will be supplied to officers and soldiers under regimental arrangements, and Commanding Officers will ensure that it is not worn by those who are not entitled to it. Sufficient for two jackets will be supplied to each man.”

The last and perhaps the most important detail that can by wrung from the photo, is that the seated soldier has two shoulder badges partially visible on his jacket. Although these are difficult to discern given the partial oblique view of them, they appear to be diamond shaped with dark sides and a lighter vertical stripe within.


Oblique detail of the ‘shoulder badges’ on the seated soldierOblique detail of the ‘shoulder badges’ on the seated soldier

Comparable colour image of the 20th battalion Middlesex Regiment shoulder badge from 1917Comparable colour image of the 20th battalion Middlesex Regiment shoulder badge from 1917

Reviewing the regimental shoulder badges used by the Middlesex Regiment in World War One, has shown that this would be consistent with the 20th battalion, which George William Alfred Blair served with, and I now have no doubt that the seated figure is my great uncle, transcending time and gazing out at me.

So, who might the other standing soldier be? It is thought to be William Mark Blair born in 1899 and the younger brother of George and Joseph Blair, who by all accounts lied about his age to join the territorial force, and the third brother to have served in World War One.

Perhaps it was because I had become so focused on studying the scans of the image cut from a postcard photo, that I paid less attention to the apparently blank rear of the card. Subsequently, whilst having a closer look at it in raking light, I noticed the faintest of writing on the back of it and made the most evocative and poignant discovery of all. Written in pencil but now much faded over time, could just be made out the following: ‘To Joe from George’, so I assume the card was given to his younger brother Joseph in 1918 whilst my grandfather was convalescing from his injuries.

Epilogue

‘There is a saying that you die twice, once when you breathe your last, the second time when people that knew you no longer talk about you or speak your name’.

The chance discovery of a small photograph cut from a postcard, and the ability to unravel the subtle clues contained within and identify my great uncle over a century later, means that his memory lives on, and I cannot begin to express just how happy I am, in the knowledge that he has in a way finally come home.

George William Alfred Blair was born in Bethnal Green, London in 1893 and killed in action in France on 14th August 1918 age 25: today 20th May is his birthday

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