World War 1 Sewell Records
by Ian Sewell
This article was originally published in the December 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
The WO363 and WO364 records at the national Archives in Kew, commonly called the ‘Burnt’ records, are what remain of the army records for other ranks during the First World War.
The difference in numbering arises from the source of the records, the WO364 records came from the pensions department of the War Office and as such dealt more with pension applications for wounded soldiers and those who did not make the requisite requirements for enlistment whether by age, health or other reasons. Some men are in both sets of records, but for the most part an individual is in either one set or the other.
They are called the ‘Burnt’ as many of the records were damaged during an air raid during the Second World War In fact it is said that only 60% of the records survived. Many of these are damaged and many of the others have felt the ravages of time leaving very little information to be found. For instance many of them were written in pencil, making them very hard to read and some show signs of fire and water damage. Nevertheless they provide a fascinating insight to the war and society as a whole at this time.
In total there are 346 records in WO363 and 189 records in WO364 for Sewell and variants (in fact Saywell is the only variant that I found). Of these 45 records are for soldiers who were killed in action, all in WO363. Its is interesting to note that there are 149 Sewell’s of other ranks recorded as killed in the GRO records, thus the WO363 records only contains some 30% of the records of those that died. In addition they are 20 records for soldiers who were discharged prior to 1913, who should thus be in the WO97 records but are not.
As can be expected post industrial revolution the county regiments that the Sewell’s served in covers the whole country. In fact apart from the ‘Pal’ battalions that were raised, many men joined or were transferred into county regiments that they had no connection with. Often they were rebuilding a unit that had previously been destroyed on the Western Front. Having said that the Borderer’s (16), Durham Light Infantry (17), Norfolk (7), Suffolk (7) and Essex (7) regiments are well represented
The importance of Artillery in this war become apparent when you see how many men served with the Corps of Artillery; in its Field, Horse and Garrison units some 82 men. Also supply become apparent with 50 men serving in the Army Service Corps, as does engineering with 51 men serving in the Royal Engineers. New technology also gets a mention with 2 men in the Royal Flying Corps and 3 men in the Tank corps. There are in addition some more esoteric units such as the Post Office Corps (1), the Non-combatant corps (2) and the Kent Cyclist Battalion (1). The Labour Corps, which was formed late in the war in response to the civilian economy’s difficulty in keeping food production to required levels, had 14 entrants but many more men were transferred to it who had specialist farm knowledge or had been wounded and thus unfit for combat.
The casualties noted were spread throughout all the units showing the large scale losses that the army served. The most significant losses though were in the Rifle Corps (Kings Own Rifles and Rifle Brigade) where 7 out of the 10 men who served were killed in action, the remaining three either completing their service before the war or failed to qualify. The Borderer’s also lost 5 of their 17 entrants.
Many men failed to qualify for service for medical reasons, though in some cases they were placed into the reserves and called up years later when the need for manpower was greater. Reason for failure included flat feet, imbecility, deafness, varicose veins and quite commonly heart defects due to rheumatic fever as a child. The required two inches chest expansion was also given once. Old soldiers often attempted to rejoin the army and many served as NCO’s and Labour Corps. However many also failed because of health reasons. Also 9 ‘men’ were also discharged when their age was found out to be below the requisite 17 ˝ years. I can only assume that many others joined and were not found out.
The men mostly served on the Home or Western Fronts, although the Egyptian, Persian, Salonika, and Indian fronts are also present. Many men who served prior to 1913 served in South Africa. Some of the more ‘interesting’ locations include Sierra Leone, Palestine, Aden, China and Siberia (as part of aid to the White Russians during the Russian Revolution).
Most of the men mentioned in the WO363 records were awarded the British War and Victory Medals which were awarded to all allied troops who fought in the war. Though interestingly, some men who I would have considered to have earned the award were not given it. Also the 1914 and 1915 Star is well represented. Henry Sewell was awarded the Military Medal and the Croix Militaire and Leonard Saywell, Joseph Sewell and William Sewell were also awarded the Military medal, but unfortunately there is no way to find out the reason why they gained these awards apart from possible further investigation at their regimental museums.
There is also some more personal information to be found in these records, John Sewell of the Royal Engineers died in France when the lorry he was travelling in was hit by a train on a level crossing. The court of inquiry concluded that the lorry driver had not taken sufficient care. Maurice Sewell was killed by a colleague who accidentally let off his rifle whilst on the march. James Arthur Sewell was discharge from the service due to the damage he sustained in his knee whilst playing football. Walter Thomas Sewell survived when his ship was torpedoed leaving Marseilles harbour enroute for the Middle East. Robert Sewell was convicted by court martial for failing to comply with orders to load a truck with ammunition, though he could say he had reason as he was in the Non-combatant corps. Frederick George Sewell spent two years as a POW in Germany. James William Sewell was discharged so that he could emigrate to New Zealand.
Finally I would say that it is well worth any member looking though these records to see if any relative is present even if you do not think they will be. I speak from experience as it came as a great shock to me and my family when I discovered the records of one Henry Sewell, my Grandfather. Nobody knew that he served in the war, unlike my other grandfather whose record is well known, and it made me very happy to provide my father some information about his family that he did not know.
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