There are millions of First World War medals, there would be, millions took part and they all got at least one medal. For the collector and historian this abundance of supply makes for endless opportunities for research. With the ever growing access to archives this not only gets easier but becomes more and more rewarding.
To illustrate the stories that can so readily be uncovered by the most unassuming medals this post will tell the history that lies behind two medals that I recently purchased. The post will take you through my process and might help you do the same with the medals you have. I hope so.
These are the medals … A 1914-15 Star and a Victory Medal. Being Great War medals they have a name around the edge, or on the back, allowing them to be so much more than bits of metal, they represent someone and their war. In this case they represent “EA1478 N. A. Cowell E.R.A. R.N.R.”. This gives us a good place to start, a name, a number, he was in the Royal Navy Reserve and E.R.A. is his rank, in this case this stands for Engine Room Artificer, one of the men who was in charge of maintaining the engines probably under an Engineer Officer, so a skilled man doing a crucial job on his ship. It is also clear that this is not his complete entitlement as the British War Medal should be with these, the Victory Medal was never issued alone being issued to all those who had been awarded a 1914 or 1914/15 Star and the War Medal.
An easy place to start is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, easy to use this will tell us if he survived the war or was killed and if so it will tell us where he is buried or commemorated. It turns out he didn’t survive, he died on the 3rd of May 1918 whilst serving on H.M.S. Bombala and is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton. No individual grave, but that is not uncommon on ships, lost at sea covers all too many of them.
The Hollybrook memorial is an interesting one, it was created to commemorate the ‘Forgotten Wrecks of the 1st World War’ and those lost at sea from land and air forces and those of no known grave. So not a Naval Memorial as such, there are 1,852 Officers and men commemorated here who have no known grave, over 100 panels listing people from hospital ships, merchant men and those lost on troop ships.
Created in 1930 and located in Southampton as this was the most often used embarkation point for troops leaving the country to serve abroad. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have always tried to commemorate people near their home, or at least in a thoughtful way, and Southampton represents the last bit of Britain touched by many of the over seven million troops who passed through Southampton between 1914 and the end of 1918.
This quickly leads us to an excellent booklet that you can download created by the Maritime Archaeology Trust which tells us all about the memorial and the ships commemorated. H.M.S. Bombala is in the book and it tells us that there are 10 people from H.M.S. Bombala commemorated on the memorial, that it was a Royal Navy Reserve vessel sunk on 24th of April 1918 with the loss of 58 lives, and that it was a ‘Q’ (decoy) ship.
A couple of things from this …. it sank on 24th April and our man has a date of death of 3rd of May, so he didn’t go down with the ship, perhaps he died of wounds received. Secondly it was a Q Ship, these are fascinating, they were Merchant ships fitted with guns, but the guns were hidden and they would tempt submarines to the surface and then reveal their guns and try and sink the submarines.
Once a Q-Ship. had lured a U-boat to the surface they would pretend to evacuate a civilian crew, reveal their guns and engage the U-boat in combat. Until Convoys were adopted as the safest way of protecting Merchant shipping they were effective in hampering the German submarine threat. Sometimes filled with buoyant materials such as cork or balsa wood they were designed to fight against surfaced U-boats to the end, often sacrificing themselves in their attempts to save others from the threat of the U-Boats. Consequently the men who manned them were particularly brave being all too aware that deliberately tempting U-Boats to a fight was a dangerous game.
The Bombala, built in 1892 by Bartram and Haswell shipbuilders in Sunderland for the Nautilus Steam Ship Company, was requisitioned in January 1917. She was converted to a Collier Q-Ship and sailed under a number of names to confuse the enemy. On the 25th of April she was carrying stores between Gibraltar and Sierra Leone when she engaged two submarines and after a two and a half hour battle she was sunk off West Africa by U-153 and U-154. The battle left 13 dead, the remainder escaped the sinking burning vessel in two lifeboats. After two days the lifeboats became detached, the boat with the Master and 21 other crew were never seen again, these have a date of death of 26th April … so our man is not amongst them, he must have been in the other lifeboat under the command of Leading Seaman J. Leadley, amongst these 25 men twelve had become so desperate they drank seawater and died, the remaining thirteen made land on the coast of Mauritania. The two strongest of these went to find water but when they returned the other eleven had died. They were buried on the beach on the 3rd of May, the records giving exhaustion as the cause of death. The two survivors, one of whom was Leadley, were aided by local Arabs who helped them to reach Dakar and safety.
So two simple medals lead us to a story of a group of men shipwrecked for nine days, half becoming so desperate they drank sea water something they knew would send them to madness and their death, the rest made it to land but all but two died where they fell ashore. Desperate appalling deaths.
Further research with the National Archive website, a huge if a little confusing resource, uncovers some great records. We find that Cowell’s war record survives. This gives us his date of birth as 27th February 1883, he was Norman Arthur Cowell, I always like to get a first name, makes them more human, he was 5’ 8” with blue eyes and fair complexion and with a tattoo on his left forearm. He was born in Charlton. Looking to the online resource Ancestry we can look at the census and see where he lived, that he was an apprentice electrical engineer before the war, he lived in Greenwich with his widowed mother who ran a lodging house. His medals were issued to his mother, alongside the two above there will have been a memorial plaque, memorial scroll and a War Medal which are now missing.
Normal Cowell from 55 St John’s Park in Greenwich a young apprentice engineer was just one of 885,138 members of the armed forces to be killed during the First World War. Each medal from this conflict will have a tale to tell. They will not all be as awful as Norman’s but they are all worth discovering.
Good luck with your own research and get in touch through the Comments tab if you would like.