24 July 2014

Brick Wall: Herbert Renshaw ..... war hero (Pt 2)

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

Herbert survived almost five years in the trenches of France and Belgium during the Great War and thankfully returned home safely to his family in Bothwellhaugh, Scotland in late February 1919. Over 9,000,000 British soldiers served overseas during the first world war, of which over 1,000,000 were killed and remain forever in foreign lands. Another 4,000,000 were badly wounded or crippled and came home to a new life and a new world much changed from that they had left.

After the war Herbert, along with millions of other British soldiers, received medals for their efforts in the war. These three medals immediately below were amongst six that Herbert received, with most soldiers receiving these three WW1 campaign medals, commonly and affectionately known as “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”.

Herbert’s 1914 - 1915 Star , also known in the military world as “Pip”. It was issued in 1918 to any soldier who served in Germany between 5th Aug 1914 and 31st Dec 1915. It was not issued alone though, and the recipient had to have received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal also. An estimated 2.4 million of these medals were issued.

Herbert’s British War Medal, also known in the military world as “Squeak”. This medal was awarded to officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who served overseas between 5th Aug 1915 and 11th Nov 1918. Approximately 6.4 million of these medals were issued, each with the recipient’s service number, rank, name and unit engraved on the rim.

Herbert’s Allied Victory Medal, also known in the military world as “Wilfred”. Approximately 5.7 million Victory Medals were issued. Interestingly, eligibility for this medal was more restrictive and not everyone who received the British War Medal (Squeak) also received the Victory Medal (Wilfred). However, in general, all recipients of “Wilfred” also received “Squeak'”and all recipients of “Pip” also received both “Squeak” and “Wilfred”. 

Herbert also received three other medals that are very special to our family. They are the Territorial Force Efficiency Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Medaille Militaire.

Herbert’s Territorial Force Efficiency Medal. It was a medal of the United Kingdom, awarded for long service in the Territorial Forces. The criteria was a minimum of 12 years service, with war service counting as double. Herbert’s service was calculated at 16 years; six years prior to the outbreak of war, and then five years in active service overseas (being counted as double).

Herbert’s Meritorious Service Medal, which was awarded to recognise meritorious service in the field by non-commissioned officers. Recipients were also granted an annuity, the amount being based on rank. Herbert was awarded this medal in June 1918.

Below is Herbert’s most special award, the Medaille Militaire. This is a French medal, an award for extreme valour and France’s second highest medal (ranking immediately after the prestigious Legion of Honor). It is awarded for distinguished acts of bravery in action against enemy forces and was awarded to Herbert by the French government after the war, for putting his life on the line and saving the Fabre family (that I mentioned previously). Exactly what Herbert did I have never been able to find out. My grandmother told me that Herbert (her father), like many soldiers who lived through the great war, would never talk about what had happened to him during this time. They came home from the war and just wanted to try to forget the horrendous conditions they had lived through and the horrors they had seen. 

According to my grandmother, the French government offered Herbert the opportunity to go and live in France after the war and offered to educate his children in the best French schools. But Herbert didn’t want to head back to France ever again, it held too many bad memories for him and he wanted to settle down to a quiet life again in Scotland.

The Medaille Militaire is a very high ranking medal, is reasonably rare and not readily found in many British or Commonwealth groups of medals. I am very, very proud of Herbert for receiving this award; I only wish I could find out more about what he did to earn it.

A very precious document from my family archives; Herbert’s 1919 demobilization papers.

As a child I was always fascinated by Herbert’s war medals and loved to take them out and hold them and look at them. They were left to my older brother by my grandmother when she died in 2000, so unfortunately I never get to see them now. But they will always be very special to me, even more so now that I have finally been able to find out a bit more about what Herbert did during the war and what he lived through.

Right from when Herbert received his medals, he always kept them in this special tin, where they still live to this day. This is a 1914 Christmas tin, sent to the troops fighting at the front line in France for Christmas 1914. The idea was the initiative of Princess Mary, the 17 year old daughter of King George V. Each tin contained a gift for the soldiers and included such things as tobacco or cigarettes, shaving brushes and combs, pencils and notepaper, sweets or chocolates, and a small christmas card.

Another interesting piece of information I very recently learned about Herbert was that his unit was one of many that took part in the now-famous “Christmas Truce” of 1914, where the war stopped for one day and both german and allied soldiers spent the day “fraternizing with the enemy”; singing carols, having a drink together, exchanging small gifts with each other and even playing football. 

Herbert with his wife Bessie (Elizabeth Speirs nee LINDSAY) and family, not long after his return home from war.  The small girl is my grandmother, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Speirs RENSHAW (later ENGLISH), with her older brother Davy. Herbert and Bessie later had another two sons, Herbert (Bert), born in Dec 1920 and Bryan, born and died in Nov 1934.

By early 1926 the Scottish mining industry was in turmoil. The war had seriously depleted many coal seams and exports were falling drastically. Mine owners tried to compensate for lost income by lowering wages of miner workers and increasing hours. In March it was suggested that mine workers should receive a 13.5% decrease in pay to try to improve the industry as a whole. Mine owners threatened to lock out the workers if they did not accept these new terms by May 1st. Workers rejected these new terms and true to their word, mine owners locked out over one million mine workers. Because of this the National Trade Unions called for a general strike to begin on May 3rd in support of the miners. The magnitude of the strike astounded both the union and the government, with more then three million industrial workers going out in support of the mine workers. However, after ten days when things began to turn violent the trade union decided to call off the general strike. Miners remained stoic for a few more months before being forced by their own economic needs to accept the new conditions and return to the mines.

Herbert and Bessie would have been a part of this turmoil and this must have influenced their decision to try to find a better life for themselves. Their eldest son Davy had just turned 15 years old at this time and Herbert had always maintained that “no son of mine will ever  go down the mines”.

Below is the reference that Herbert received from the Bent Colliery Company in late May 1926. This was just after the general strike had finished but the miners had still not returned to work. After 25 years in the mine Herbert had spent many years underground but had now progressed to a more senior role and was a safety inspector and fireman with the mine. I am only guessing but this may have meant he was still working and was not a part of the strike. This is a fine reference, which I very much doubt would have been given to someone still on strike.

"S.S. Ruapehu"  **
In mid August 1926 Herbert and Bessie and their three children packed up all of their belongings and left Scotland behind in search of a new and better life. They made their way to Southampton and on Aug 26th they boarded the New Zealand Shipping Company steam ship “Ruapehu” for a journey that would take them to the other side of the world, to a land very, very different to that from which they had come.

To the right is part of the passenger manuscript for their ship, “S.S.Ruapehu”, that sailed for New Zealand carrying 230 adults and 61 children as passengers. Their names are shown two-thirds of the way down the page. Herbert is listed as a miner but interestingly, Davy is listed as farming, not something he had done yet but obviously what his intentions were when he got to New Zealand.

The decision to leave Scotland and make a voyage to the unknown on the other side of the world must have been a very difficult decision to make. Herbert left behind his aunt and uncle who had raised him but poor Bessie left behind so much more. She had to say goodbye, knowing it was probably forever, to her father, her grandfather, her three brothers and their wives, nieces and nephews, and numerous other close relations who all lived nearby.

Herbert, Bessie and Davy would never see their beloved Scotland again and it was almost fifty years later before Lizzie and Bert made their way back there again for a visit.

Their voyage to New Zealand was quite rough at times and I can remember my grandmother telling me that many of their precious possessions they brought with them were broken on the journey, possibly when being loaded or unloaded by rough deckhands and ships crew. Things such as special items of crockery that had belonged to Bessie’s family, although well packed, were all smashed. When they were finally able to unpack in their new home town of Mataura, Bessie just sat and cried and cried when she discovered what had happened. 

The family settled well into life in New Zealand. Herbert gained employment in the paper mill, one of two large factories in their new hometown of Mataura. He worked there for many years, right up until he reached retirement age. Although Herbert and Bessie eventually came to love their new country, my grandmother told me it was always her mothers greatest wish “to go back home”, ... back to Scotland. But sadly she never, ever got the chance.

Below is one of the last photos ever taken of Herbert RENSHAW, taken with his family in the mid 1950’s. Herbert is sitting on the step on the left with his wife Bessie standing directly behind him. Standing on the other side is their daughter Lizzie (my grandmother), with her husband Bob ENGLISH also sitting on the step. Lizzie and Bob’s two sons Evan and Ron are also there. I believe this photo was taken on a family holiday they had together at Riverton.

Herbert died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Bristol Street, Mataura on 15th December 1957, aged 72. The photo below shows Herbert’s wife Bessie and daughter Lizzie sitting by his graveside at the Mataura Cemetery. 

The grave of Herbert RENSHAW, and also his wife
Bessie and their two sons Davy and Bryan. This
grave is located in the Mataura Cemetery and is
one of the many graves of my ancestors that
I maintain and visit regularly. 
My great grandfather Herbert RENSHAW is a man that I would love to have known. Although he looks so serious in the few photos that I have of him, from what I gathered from my grandmother, he was a very quiet, gentle, kind and loving man. I would love to have been able to sit and have a chat with him to really get to know him, but sadly he died 14 years before I was born. His life was obviously not easy and I am very proud of him for overcoming all the obstacles he faced.

I would love to know what happened to his parents in Ireland and also his family in Bothwellhaugh. I am also very keen to know what happened to him during the war and find out more about the Fabre family. So with those goals in mind I will keep searching and searching in the hope that someday I will have the answers that I seek.

Thank you Herbert for your bravery and for your service to your country. Thank you also for bringing your family from the other side of the world to settle in New Zealand. I am very, very proud that you are my great grandfather.


(Please note; the photo marked ** is not mine and was found online during my research)

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