Exploring a WWI family mystery

On a gorgeous day this week, I returned to the imposing Thiepval memorial which commemorates the 73,000 British and South African soldiers killed in the Somme during World War I who have no known grave. I wanted to pay my respects to William Penketh, and the other young people who died in the carnage of the Somme battlefield, to mark the centenary of the Armistice in my own way. It’s always poignant to find the inscription on the memorial to Private William Penketh, who joined the “Liverpool Pals” to serve with the King’s Liverpool Regiment at a time of patriotic fervour, and who was killed at the age of 18 on July 30th 1916.

   It’s terribly moving to visit the small, well-tended cemeteries of the Somme. My favourite is Lonsdale cemetery, from where you can see the Thiepval monument across a field of flowering rapeseed. The rows of white Portland stone mark the resting place of so many British soldiers killed in the carnage of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916. It’s hard to hold back tears from the cumulative effect of seeing that date replicated on the headstones of soldiers as young as 18, 19 and 20.  The British army on the Somme sustained a staggering 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths, on that date.

   So what about William Penketh? Was he a great uncle? Alas no! He was from the Seaforth branch of the Penkeths, whereas my branch comes from St Helens in Merseyside, all of 14 miles away. According to his service records, he was posted to the front on November 7th 1915, but that’s all we know. My research since returning from the Somme this week has pulled up two other Penkeths, William and Ernest, who were also killed in World War I. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that they both hailed from the same Thatto Heath area of St Helens where my great grandfather Francis Edward Penketh lived with his family. But after checking with with an uncle who has looked into our family history, we drew a blank again.

On my mother’s side of the family, we have a wartime hero, whose name is inscribed on the Tower Hill memorial which commemorates the merchant seamen who lost their lives at sea. Captain William Henry Bullock went down with his ship, the SS Canadian, after it was hit by a German torpedo outside Liverpool on April 4th 1917. He made sure that everyone on board was evacuated, but then made the tragic mistake of going back to his cabin for the ship’s papers.

And yet it’s not the heroic and bemedalled Captain Bullock who’s in my thoughts on this Armistice weekend. It’s 18 year old William Penketh, the relative I never had.

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