HERITAGE: In search of grandad – a soldier from Great War

Harry Kirby
Harry Kirby

It all started when my wife Diane and I sat watching Who Do You Think you are featuring Chris Moyles.

The programme took him to the Somme where his great grandad had been fighting in the first world war.

Chris hadn’t even known his grandad. Having five grandchildren of my own I turned to Diane and said fancy not knowing your grandad and she said, ‘well did you know yours’?

That set me thinking I didn’t have a grandad on my dad’s side he had left my granny and gone to live in Scarborough and had never met my grandad on my mum’s side he had died quite young. I had two grandmas, Nellie, my dad’s mum, and Edna, but had never talked to them about their fathers, my great grandfathers.

I was talking to my youngest son Mark about this and he started to do some genealogy on both sides of the family and did well going back many generations on my Mums side but drawing a blank on my father’s side. Nellie, his mum, was one of five children surname Kirby they lived in West Melton near Wath on Dearne. Her mum, my great grandma, who I did meet was called Hawley why was that? Mark searched the records further for a Kirby who had died. Not knowing his Christian name was a problem but he persevered and found Harry Kirby married to Jane Elizabeth of Elsecar Road, West Melton, that was him, my great grandfather was found. Mark’s youngest son is called Harry but surely that is just a coincidence.

The big question remained what happened to him we had no information because people didn’t talk about it and like many others of that time Harry seemed to have been forgotten, all would become clearer. Further searches revealed that Harry had served in the First World War and like many others had left their families and villages to fight on the front Harry left his wife and five children in 1915 to join up and was killed on the 1st day of July 1916 going over the top, that was the worst day of the first world war when thousands of men lost their lives it was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, was this another coincidence that Chris Moyles’s great grandfather was also on the Somme and that that programme had encouraged the search.

Mark searched war memorials and found Harry was one of the men who on that first day were buried and whose bodies were never found they were remembered on the Thiepval Memorial 72,000 names adorn this structure. I had never heard of this memorial, why would I? Then things started to happen. I was watching TV and there it was it’s a magnificent structure that was now fixed in my thoughts next, I was sat in the dentist and picked up a magazine flicking through came across an article on first world war graves.

I was in the Caravan Club at the time and received a monthly magazine, you guessed it, there it was again, camp sites in Northern France near to WW1 war graves and the Memorial took centre stage.

Then Antiques Roadshow screened a special one off from the memorial.

Harry was calling so I had to go. So on a holiday to France we called at the Thiepval on the way back home it was a sobering experience all the names the piece and quiet surrounding the site the books containing all the names of the Fallen, I found Harry. He was an old soldier at 39.

An inscription plaque on the memorial commemorates 72,000 men who fell on the Somme from 1st of July 16th to 20th March 1918 and who have no known graves and that on the first day alone 60,000 were killed wounded and missing.

I am not doing the history in this story it’s all about finding grandad and I will leave the history to my grandson Kieran, local junior historian, but it’s impossible to get your head round those numbers. Twickenham England v Wales game holds 72,000 fans who disappear never to be seen again. That’s a lot of soldiers.

We found Harry on Pier 11 and had a moment with him I felt he appreciated being remembered and being found after nearly 100 years. We said our goodbyes and journeyed home, but the story doesn’t end there.

A few years ago I joined Forces War Records and from time to time they will send an update illustrating a new record has been added Harry Kirby, there are hundreds, but never the right one.

It was a Saturday in February that the latest update came through from FWR I clicked on and it was Harry, I couldn’t believe it.

The final piece to the puzzle came when I found a grainy picture pof my grandad in the obituary section of my local newspaper.

We will remember him and be very proud of him.

I sm sure he will be pleased mission accomplished.