Memories of a Richmond WW1 soldier

As nations around the world commemorate the sacrifices of the First World War, it can seem difficult to find the relevance of a war that ended 100 years ago.  But of course the story of the war did not end in 1918: The ripples of the conflict spread across the 20th century and can still be seen, for example, behind the politics of the modern Middle East.

On a personal level, although the last veterans have all died, there are still many men and women who remember the affects the war had on the lives of their fathers and grandfathers.

The story of a local boy

Peter Trow was born in Kingston and grew up in Ham.  His grandfather, William Milem, was born in 1874 and lived all his life in Richmond.  Peter recalls how his grandfather would walk from Richmond to visit him and they would spend time together:


Peter was 15 when his grandfather died in the 1950s.  William had worked for Richmond Borough Council for 45 years and was well known in the area.  Peter remembers how many locals stopped and removed their hats in respect as his grandfather’s funeral passed.  However it was only many years later that Peter discovered the story of his grandfather’s service in the First World War:

Sepia photo of William Milem in WWI uniform

William Milem

For those whose ancestors died, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is often the first stage on the journey to find their family’s First World War story.  Every serviceman who was killed is recorded on a gravestone or memorial maintained by the CWGC, which also keeps details about the men.  It can actually be more difficult to uncover the stories of those who served and survived.  One reason is that two-thirds of the British military service records were destroyed in bombing during the Second World War.

Peter was lucky and was able to find his grandfather’s records.  He discovered that William had volunteered in 1915, joining the Middlesex Regiment.  His papers identify him as being a ‘carman’ in civilian life; a delivery driver with a horse and cart.  Skill with horses was needed in the army, which explains why a man of 42 might have been encouraged to enlist.  William’s military records place him in the Labour Corps, which provided vital support bringing food, ammunition to the front lines and, often, wounded men to safety.

As Peter discovered when he visited the National Archives at Kew to research his grandfather’s story, William was invalided out of the army in 1916, suffering from bronchitis:

Details of William's treatment for bronchitis

William’s casualty certificate

The cold, damp conditions of the trenches and the use of chemical gases meant that many men who returned from the trenches suffered from lifelong illnesses, especially respiratory problems.  After time in hospital recovering, William returned to active service.  He served until 1919 when he finally returned home to his wife Emma.

Like many men who’d lived through it, William didn’t talk about his experiences during the war.  Some men were traumatised, some wanted to forget the terrible things they’d seen, others simply wanted to rebuild their lives and their relationships with families they’d been separated from.  Peter’s mother, the youngest of William’s two daughters, was a young girl when her father went to war:

William and Emma were married for over 50 years and she treasured a locket that William had given her when he went to France.  The locket was passed down through the family and Peter donated it to the Museum of Richmond, where it features in the school learning resources.  The resources encourage pupils to reflect on issues of separation, loss, and remembrance.  Here Peter reflects on what discovering his grandfather’s story meant to him:

If you are feeling inspired to research your own family First World War story, the Great War site has good advice on how to get started.

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