By Sandra McHugh
As we all know, genealogical research is never-ending. Facts need to be checked and re-checked. Leads must be followed. New research beckons. Research on-line can also quickly add up to quite a lot of money. So whenever a site offers free access, I try to take advantage of it as much as possible.
Last year, I found out that my great-grandfather, John Hunter, enlisted in World War I In November 1914 when he was in his late forties. I was actually looking for him as potentially serving in the Boer War because I could not find him in the 1901 census of Scotland. So it was quite a surprise to learn that he had enlisted in World War I. I also learned that he was honourably discharged in March 1915 as he was then unfit for service. It would appear that he was injured.1 This year, when Find My Past offered free access to military records during the Remembrance Day weekend, another surprise was in store. John Hunter reappeared in the military records in 1917. He had another service number, but it was cross-referenced to his old number.
This is a long introduction to explain why I find my great-grandfather’s service record so interesting. It is because he was a Sapper. He came from a long line of miners in Scotland that can be traced back to the 1600s. In World War I, he was part of the Royal Engineers. Their military history is long and honourable. Royal Engineers can claim over 900 years of service to the Crown, dating back to the era of William the Conqueror.2 As a Sapper in the Royal Engineers, his duties would have included “bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences and general construction, as well as road and airfield construction and repair.”3 In civilian life, he was a coal miner, so it is a safe assumption that he was a tunneller. “Royal Engineer tunnelling companies were specialist units of the Corps of Royal Engineers within the British Army, formed to dig attacking tunnels under enemy lines during the First World War.”4 Mining and tunnelling were so important to the British offensive positions that they enlisted experienced coal miners, even those who would not normally have been recruited. “The desperate need for skilled men saw notices requesting volunteer tunnellers posted in collieries, mineral mines and quarries across … Scotland.”5 This policy explains why John Hunter, working in a coal mine in Scotland, and already in his late forties, would have volunteered.
When John Hunter returned to active service in 1917, he was part of the newly formed 326th Quarrying Company.6 As part of this Quarrying Company, he would have received his training at Buxton and then sent to France, to work in the quarries around Marquise, near Calais.7
1 John Hunter: Enlistment, Medal Card, Attestation for Short Service, Dependents, Territorial Force for Pension
6 John Hunter: British Army Service Records 1914-1920 Transcription