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  • Wendy Percival

Mystery and death

Sometimes during family history research you make assumptions – not unreasonable assumptions – but, as we all know, what we discover isn't always as expected.


While trying to identify the soldier in a photograph (see blog post From One Mystery to More), I noticed that two brothers of Herbert Booth, the husband of my gran’s cousin, had died during WWI. I set about finding out more, but as I researched, I learned nothing was quite as it seemed…


Herbert's younger brother Charles became a seaman before the First World War. He was born in Crewe and joined the Merchant Navy, probably in his late teens.


He was awarded his Second Mate certificate in 1910, aged 20, and his First Mate certificate two years later.



Requisitioned by the Admiralty


So it wasn't unexpected to find he'd served with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary during WWI. His rank had been temporarily raised to Lieutenant for the duration of the war and his ship, HMS “Hazel”, had been requisitioned by the Admiralty in November 1914, as an “Armed Boarding Steamer and Stores Carrier”.


I came across an excellent website Historic RFA which has a wealth of information on Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, including HMS “Hazel” and the ship's log shows it was engaged in ferrying supplies in and around the Greek coast.


Charles died in 1918 and was buried in a Commonwealth War Grave, in Mudros Military Cemetery, on the island of Lemnos, Greece. I'd assumed that something had happened to his ship during hostilities which had been the cause of his death, but it appears this wasn't the case.



Tragic death


To begin with, his death occurred after Armistice Day – on 13th December 1918. Nothing on his military records gives any information about his death, only that he died. I did spot a handwritten note on his record saying he’d been on sick leave. Two dates are mentioned – February and April 1917. Was this relevant, I wondered?


But it seems Charles was not the only soul onboard HMS "Hazel" to die around this time. The ship's log records the deaths of five crew members in the month between 28th November and 29th December 1918, including Charles. Four of them are recorded as suffering from illness but no mention is made of Charles being ill. Did that mean he didn’t die from the same condition as the others? Was his death connected with his sick leave the previous year?


Given there were a number of deaths in such a short time, I wondered if the devastating Spanish flu of 1918 had played a part. How could I find out? A member of a genealogy Facebook group I follow responded to my query and tracked down a memorial, confirming that my hunch was right.


Memorial


In the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Wistaston, near Crewe – Charles’s home town – is a war memorial. One of those remembered is Charles Booth.


The dedication reads: Lieutenant Charles BOOTH. Royal Naval Reserve of HMS Hazel. Died of influenza at Mudros in Salonika on 13th December 1918 aged 28.


This scenario must have been repeated around the world - military personnel surviving the fighting only to be struck down by the flu pandemic which followed.


As I mentioned previously, I was already aware that Charles wasn’t the only brother to die during WWI so I wasn’t surprised to read another Booth listed on the memorial. But that wasn’t all. It seems that, tragically, Charles’s parents, Edwin Charles Booth and his wife Florence, lost not two sons but three.


I'm now on the case to learn more about the WWI stories of Herbert's other brothers, Frank & Edwin. Watch this space…




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