23 July 2014

Brick Wall: Herbert Renshaw ..... war hero (Pt 1)

My paternal great grandfather, Herbert RENSHAW, is one of the many brick walls in my family history research.

According to Herbert’s World War 1 records, he was born in Portadown, Armagh, Ireland (now Northern Ireland) in May 1885. He was the son of Mark RENSHAW (a joiner) and Mary Jane (nee RENSHAW). Despite a lot of searching I have not yet been able to locate this mystery couple; the only reason I know that these were their names is that they appear on Herbert’s marriage certificate.

My grandmother Elizabeth ENGLISH nee RENSHAW (Herbert’s daughter) told me that his parent’s died when he was just a young boy. He then went to live with his aunt and uncle David and Mary (nee McMullan) RENSHAW, who lived in Bothwellhaugh, Scotland. I believe the uncle David RENSHAW to be the brother of Herbert’s mother Mary Jane but this is yet to be confirmed.

Herbert had one sister, Bella, and after their parent’s died Herbert never saw her again. I do not know whether she was older or younger than Herbert, but my grandmother told me that Bella died young when she was still just a teenager and still living in Ireland. Who she was living with is another mystery yet to be solved.

I am not sure when or how Herbert moved to Scotland but the first real proof I have found of him being there is the 1901 Census which shows him at age 15 living at 43 Clyde Place, Bothwellhaugh with his aunt and uncle, David and Mary RENSHAW, and their children William (age 8), James (age 6) and David (age 3). Herbert is listed as a miner, working in the Hamilton Palace Colliery. 

1901 Scottish Census showing Herbert living with his aunt and uncle in Bothwellhaugh

Below are the four cousins that Herbert grew up with in Scotland and that he considered to be his brothers and sister. Herbert's daughter (my grandmother) grew up knowing these four siblings as her aunt and uncles.

William RENSHAW was born on 26 Nov 1892, James on 28 Feb 1895, David on 19 May 1897 and Edith in 1904. There was also another brother, Robert who died age 8 months of age in Feb 1900. His cause of death is listed as infantile convulsions and acute bronchitis.

I have not found too much information yet on William and David, other than a few facts told to me by my grandmother. According to her, William married Agnes HUNTER and had a daughter named Chrissie. William and David both served in France during World War 1.

James RENSHAW served during WW1 with the 18th Btn. Highland Light Infantry (Queen’s Own Glasgow Yeomanry) which arrived in France in May 1915. He spent almost three years fighting in France and was killed on 25 March 1918 (age 23 years) during the First Battle of Bapaume (part of the Second Battle of the Somme). His body was never found and he is commemorated on the Pozieres British Memorial, situated approx 6km from the small town of Albert in France. 

According to my grandmother, Edith RENSHAW was very intelligent young woman and was in training to become a teacher when she became very ill and died on 25 Aug 1923, age 19 years. Her cause of death is listed as toxemia and exhaustion of acute confusional insanity, and hypostatic pneumonia (13 days duration).

Below is the marriage registration of Herbert RENSHAW and his wife Elizabeth Speirs (nee LINDSAY). They were married at the Parish Church in Bothwell, Lanarkshire Scotland on 9 Sept 1910. Although the registration lists their ages as 22 for Herbert and 17 for Elizabeth (known as Bessie), Herbert was actually 25 when he was married.

Below is the 1911 Census (taken on 2 April 1911) showing Herbert and Bessie living together at 23 Avon Place Bothwellhaugh. Herbert is listed as being 26 years old, Bessie as 18 years old. This census was taken only two months before the birth of their first child, David (known as Davy) on 16 June 1911.

The tiny mining village of Bothwellhaugh in Lanarkshire, Scotland was the place that Herbert and his family called home. He worked for at least 25 years at the Hamilton Palace Colliery which had built the entire town to house it’s workers. The town was abandoned in the early 1960’s after the mine closed in 1959. The village was subsequently drowned when the Strathclyde Loch was created in the early 1970’s as part of the development of the Strathclyde Regional Park. 

The west end of Bothwellhaugh, date unknown  **
Hamilton Palace Colliery, Bothwellhaugh  **

In May 1908 Herbert enlisted as a volunteer with the territorial force and began life as a part-time soldier, still working in the mines but receiving military training during days off.  When war broke out in 1914 the territorial forces were amongst the first volunteers to be set to France, arriving there in Nov 1914 as part of Kitcheners Army, reinforcements for the British Expeditionary Forces. The British Expeditionary Forces were the full-time soldiers who were the first to head to France in August 1914 and who suffered massive losses in the first couple of months of the war. Herbert was part of the 5th / 6th Btn. Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) which during the course of the war lost over 37,400 men from their division.

I have no idea when the photo below was taken but I tend to think it was before the war when Herbert’s unit was still part of the territorial forces. Herbert is in the back row on the very right.

I have no idea when or where this photo was taken either, all I know is that my grandmother thought it was taken at the end of the war. Herbert is in the middle of the front row in his dress uniform of tartan trousers and button up tunic.

My grandmother told me that the lady in the back row third from the right was Herbert’s aunt who brought him up (Mary nee McMullen RENSHAW) and the rest of the people were “relations from Canada”. I have never found any information on any branches of the family that went to Canada so it is something that I am yet to spend more time on and hopefully discover more about.

During Herbert’s time in the Scottish Rifles his unit was involved in many of the famous battles of the first world war including:
* The Battle of Albert and the attacks on High and Deville Woods (all were phases of the Battle of the Somme in 1916)
* The First and Second Battles of the Scarpe and the Battle of Menin Ridge (phases of the Arras Offensive of 1917)
* The Battle of Polygon Wood (a phase of the Third Battles of Ypres 1917) which saw them encounter mustard gas for the first time, Herbert’s unit suffering 2,905 casualties in one day. This also included heavy fighting around Passchendaele in Nov of 1917.

Herbert’s unit and division were still in Flanders when the Germans launched their spring offensive of 1918. His unit spent much of 1918 on the front line and was heavily engaged in the Battles at Epehy, St Quentin Canal, Beaurevoir Line and Cambrai (phases of the Battles of the Hindenburg Line). They were part of the Advance to Victory and their final action was the Battle of Selle in late October. After the Armistice in November of 1918 the division stayed in France and was finally de-mobilized in Feb 1919.

In early November 1917 Herbert was “Mentioned in Despatches”. This is not the award of a medal but is a commendation of an act of extreme gallantry by an individual (though a medal of some kind may also be issued for the same act). A “Despatch” is an official report written by the senior commander of an army in the field recognising these individuals. All “Despatches” were published in the London Gazette in full or in part after the event. In 1919 it was decided that all those “Mentioned in Despatches” would receive a certificate honoring their achievement, all individually signed by Winston Churchill. 

This is Herbert’s certificate, now almost 100 years old and showing the
effects of time (and having gone through the Mataura flood in 1978).

Below is the London Gazette published on 18 December 1917 showing Herbert’s name “Mentioned in Despatches”. At this time his unit was fighting near Passchendaele in Belguim. Six months later in June 1918 Herbert was awarded the “Meritorious Service Medal” which is awarded for “meritorious service in the field by non-commissioned officers”. Whether this medal relates to this same time period in late 1917 or something completely separate I have not yet been able to find out.  Medals were often not awarded until many months later so hopefully one day I will be able to find this out and also find out exactly what he did to receive these recognitions.

During the later stages of the war Herbert was involved with saving a French family, the Fabres, from being captured and killed by the Germans. So far I have been unable to find out any further details about this family or the events surrounding them, but I do have in my possession this photo of their family that they sent to Herbert after the war.

After the Armistice in November 1918 while Herbert was still in France he was able to go back to the area where the Fabre's lived and go to visit them. Sadly, when he arrived there they were not there and he never got the chance to see them again. Not long after this he received this letter from them. It is a bit hard to read so I have written a transcript of it below. Herbert sent it home to his wife Bessie in Scotland and wrote the piece on it in pencil. Almost one hundred years later and I have this letter in my possession and it is a very treasured part of my family archives.

"My dear friend,
I am very content that you are good health and I was very sad the last day
when I knew that you came to see me and I was not there.
If you come again be kind enough send me a postcard so I shall stay
at home and wait for you.
My mother sends you her best regards.
Both of us reminds you every night in our prayers, so that
God keep you in good health and take you safely back to your family.
I would be very pleased to give my best respects to your wife and
your children whom I hope are enjoying good health.

I remain your grateful and faithful friend,
Gabrielle Fabre
Rue du Paradis, (?) "

"Perhaps you can't make out her name very well it is
Gabrielle Fabre. 
Show it to my aunt and uncle."


(Please note; the two photos marked ** are not mine and were found online during
the course of my research into Bothwellhaugh and the Hamilton Palace Colliery)

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