Family history reveals drama and tragedy of First World War

Troops 'going over the top' at the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 during a training exercise behind the lines
Troops 'going over the top' at the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 during a training exercise behind the lines

Dramatic tales of military heroism and family life through several major conflicts continue to be uncovered by the research of local man David Jenkins into his family history.

The Sentinel has already told the stories of six brothers who fought bravely in the First World War, and another of a man from the Waterside who served alongside a famous general in the Crimean War decades before - all based on the research by David Jenkins from Londonderry.

Now, his research has reconnected two families who had become estranged over the years but who have been rejoined by a shared military heritage.

After making an appeal through this newspaper to anyone who could help Mr Jenkins reconnect with his long-lost relatives, he has been able to track down distant family members and piece together yet more fascinating details.

He has learned of the daring trench-raids carried out by his great-uncle Albert Ellis - a man who was originally deemed unfit to be an efficient soldier. One example of his valour is recorded in an account of a Christmas Day raid on German lines.

He said: “I had two great responses from the last article, about the exploits of my great-great-grandfather John Ellis during the Crimean War (Londonderry Sentinel, April 30, 2014). In the article I had appealed for the two surviving sons of John Ellis, John and James, or any other information regarding the Ellis family.

“I had two great responses. One was from a lady who was also related to the Ellis family and had a large number of World War One postcards that had been sent from France by Samuel Ellis to his family at 45 Clooney Terrace whilst he was serving with the Royal Tank Regiment. Samuel survived the war.

“The other response came from a medal collector here in the city who had in his possession a Long Service / Good Conduct Medal that had belonged to my Great Uncle John Ellis. He had served with the East Yorkshire Regiment from 1883 and then transferred to the Fifth Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (also known as the Donegal Militia) in 1898. He was awarded the medal at Ballyshannon Barracks in 1904.

“I continued with my own investigation using the numerous online genealogy websites and I eventually came across the death records of my great uncle Robert Lyons Ellis and his wife Josephine who had been living in London for some time.

“On Josephine’s death certificate was the name and address of her niece. So, after a letter and a phone call, I had finally made contact with my Ellis relatives - Jack, Jim, Mary and Patsy - who were the grandchildren of Crimean War hero John Ellis and whose father was William Alexander Ellis.

“Jim and Jack had also been researching their family history and were amazed with what I had uncovered about their great grandfather’s time in the Crimean War, along with the new information regarding their grandfather. I had purchased their grandfathers medal from the collector and presented it to the family who were delighted to have it, once again, back in their family after its 100 year absence. The family have a picture of their grandfather wearing the medal, taken in 1904 along side their grandmother Catherine and their father William Alexander Ellis.

“What the Ellis family also had in their possession was a picture of my great uncle Albert Jenkins. My family had never seen a picture of Albert until that point. He is pictured with his cousins William Alexander Ellis, and Robert Lyons Ellis, taken - we think - in 1915, just before he left for France with the Second Battalion Royal Irish Regiment.

“Albert was born at Ebrington Barracks Hospital in 1889. In 1908 he joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery Reserve based in Londonderry. After one years’ service he left to join the Leinster Regiment but was discharged after three months. His Service Record states that he was not likely to become an efficient soldier’.

“At the outbreak of World War One he enlisted with the Hussars in Greenock, Scotland. For whatever reason he left the Hussars to join the Second Battalion Royal Irish Regiment. Albert’s war began when he landed in France on the 14th of June, 1915.

“During his time with the Regiment, Albert was to become a Trench Raider, crossing no-man’s land on many daring missions to attack German positions. His heroics are recorded in the Regiment’s War Diaries. “He was congratulated by the Brigadier of 11th Infantry Brigade, for his actions on Christmas Day 1915. It is reported that at 6.30pm, patrol under Lieutenant Forster and Grant, with 16 men, endeavoured to enter enemy lines at point Q10 067. They found its first line of enemy wire cut by our artillery. Lieut. Forster and six men entered gaps. The remainder forming covering party carrying bombs, (grenades). About 8.15pm an alarm was given in the German lines and fire was opened up. Our party remained still for some time but as the enemy appeared to be reinforced, we decided to bomb their trenches, then about 20 yds distance away.’

“By 1916 Albert had become a Lance Corporal. But his luck, as a trench raider, was to run out on the night of the 11th June 1916. His Battalion were in trenches at Morlancourt (The Somme). At 10.30pm his patrol went out to check enemy positions. When reaching a position 90 yards out from their wire they were ambushed by the Germans who opened up with heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Albert and three of his patrol were seriously wounded.

“Albert was carried back to their lines by Albert Sheppard, who was later recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions under enemy fire. Albert died later that night from his wounds. Albert was one of six Jenkins brothers who fought with courage and bravery during this time of World conflict.”