David Tattersfield, Development Trustee of the WFA, talks about Operation Alias, a project by the WFA to identify men who fell in the Great War and served under an alias or ‘false’ name.
Dr. Tom Thorpe [TT] Welcome to ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ the podcast and the Western Front association with me. Dr. Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest Great War History Society. We are dedicated to furthering understanding of the first world war and have over 60 branches worldwide. For more information visit our website at www.westernfrontassocation.com.
It is the 6th of July 2020 and this is Episode 168.
On this week's ‘Dispatches Podcast’, David Tattersfield, the Development Trustee from the Western Front Association, talks about ‘Operation Alias’. This is a project by the WFA to identify men who were killed in the Great War and served under an assumed name. I spoke to David over the interweb from his home in York.
David, welcome back to the Dispatches Podcast for the third time. Could you start by giving us a brief overview of yourself and how you became interested in the Great War?
David Tattersfield [DT]: That one's straightforward enough - I became interested in the Great War simply by reading Martin Middlebrook’s ‘First Day on the Somme’ back in 1990. I think quite a lot of people are interested in the First World War came from the same source: Martin's ‘First Day on the Somme’ book. The following year I went out with my brother to visit the battlefields and I’ve been going ever since.
TT: And what's your role in the WFA?
DT: I joined the WFA initially - and then was invited to become Treasurer of the Yorkshire Branch - and then joined the National Committee as Development Trustee to be and I'm now the Vice-Chairman of the Western Front Association.
TT: Now, we're going to talk about ‘Operation Alias’. Could you tell us what that is?
DT: ‘Project Alias’ is what we are doing in this period of lockdown - with the Coronavirus. It’s keeping people - WFA members engaged - not going bored out of their minds hopefully. What we are looking to do is to examine all aliases on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and compare those details to the Western Front associations pension records. And then do the same in the opposite direction - go through all the WFA pension records looking for the men who are supposedly serving under a pseudonym. What we are finding is two things:
First of all, the CWGC records are very thin on the ground in terms of UK aliases - they seem to be fairly thorough for the Dominion aliases. So, what we are finding is that the UK government - or not the government necessarily but the Imperial War Graves commission possibly - did not collect the alias information particularly accurately. So by doing this we are finding lots - and I mean thousands - of men - who served in the British Army under an alias for the very first time. So this therefore means that relatives can find their Grandad, Great-Grandad more easily now - even if great-granddad served under a pseudonym
TT: So essentially you're saying that people enlisted as David Tattersfield in the 10th Blankshire regiment and they gave Tom Thorpe as their name served under that assumed name even though that was obviously their real identity.
DT: Correct. There are shades of gray here with a leases because for some men it was a genuine Alias on the pension records, but equally we've got a lot of examples, where - is it really an alias? it's possibly a slight variation of the spelling. Perhaps they didn’t know how to spell their name on one level. There's other examples where we are looking at cards and seeing an aunt named but it's not necessarily an alias as there's a massive range. It's not just black and white - there is a massive range of different scenarios that we are coming across which is perhaps why we are now up to 9,000 lines of data and by the time the project finishes in a few days time - certainly the project for the research stage, we might be knocking on for 10,000 lines of data that doesn't mean 10,000 aliases because what we find is Thorpe serves as Tattersfield is on one, and Tattersfield served as Thorpe on another line. So we're going to have to do a lot of data manipulation to find these pairs of aliases where there are pairs and link them together in order to come to a final table if you like of men who served under a pseudonym.
TT: So obviously, you're looking at men who served under season and were killed and therefore registered by the Commonwealth War Graves commission.
DT: Yes, this is only men who were killed - to try and scale this up that all men who'll serve would be just too large - just be too large to be manageable. So you're looking essentially at people who serve under a different name for a separate patient. How many men did serve under a different name?
DT: That's a very good question. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has on their database 3,500 lines of aliases of men who served as an alien under an alias. The data that we are collecting at the moment is at 8,500 lines of data. We're not finished. So let's say we get to 9,000 lines of data. Let's also assume that each of those lines can be paired off with another line. So we've got Thorpe served as Tattersfield, Tattersfield served as Thorpe - as two lines - so we've got to possibly have the 9,500 lines down to 4,000. It's going to be more than 4,500 I’m pretty sure - so I would suggest tentatively that we might be looking at somewhere between 5,000 and possibly 6,000 to 7,000 aliases. We’re still at the data gathering stage. You may not at the data manipulations did but certainly we might be looking at - we might even be looking at twice as many men who served under an alias and died - than previously thought by the CWGC.
TT: So the question is how the data text to these aliases and why did men assume aliases.
DT: Says wow, that's a deep question. Well there's many - a number of answers to that one. Basically bad marriage - they wanted to get away from the Mrs - they could have served in the Army previously and blocked the copybook - and wants to rejoin when the war started but not be identified as the bad character that they previously were - previous criminal record in civvy street, so they needed to change your blur their identity there. There are a lot of the men in these gray areas for the men who aren't really aliases might be within this data set. So it might be just a lot of these might be a variation on the surname- not deliberate but it's been recorded as an alias which we need to somehow try to identify and filter out. So there are gray areas here as well where this will be a tremendous exercise for us to invite a University PHD or MA student to analyze - why the particular question build a question here, of course is regional variations. We seem to be getting an awful lot more aliases in the island of Ireland than elsewhere - and that is interesting.
TT: So if Thorpe was serving as Tattersfield in the area in the Army and I served I joined up as Tattersfield and I was killed how does the Commonwealth War Graves Commission know that I'm casters field and not Thorpe. So how do they detect these are Aliases?
DT: That's an interesting question Tom. What we are finding is because the Dominion soldiers are more thoroughly recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves commission. It seems that the Dominion governments may have had a better handle on this and fed the data into the Imperial War Graves commission - as it was at the time. The fact that we are finding so many new men who served as an alias from the UK is very suggestive that the data was not correctly obtained - or given to the Imperial War Graves Commission immediately after the war.
TT: What type of safeguards did the military authorities take to check that a certain person joining up under the name they gave was indeed that individual.
DT: That's somewhat beyond the scope of the project that we are trying to run but my intuition says that there were no checks whatsoever - unlike in today's world where you take a long a passport and two forms of ID including a utility bill - that wasn't going to happen in the First World War. You went along to the recruitment office and said your name was John Smith, and I'm and I'm 19, but your name's Fred Brown and you're 16. I don't think there's any control and check going on. So you're in the Army under the name that you tell them is your name.
TT: And recruiting sergeants all had targets to meet and probably turned a blind eye as the records show in many cases.
TT: What is the benefit of Alias Project
DT: First of all just, on one level if you are trying to find great Grandad and he served as an alias you're going to be in bother unless you know the alias. On the macro level, we're getting a bigger idea of the entirety of the men who served as an alias. Previously the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as I say, had about 3,500 individuals - we're going to go away with beyond that and so we'll have a much bigger pool of men into which we can hopefully get some academic interest to get an understanding of why these men did this, where they came from and if there's any particular trends that can be extracted from this data.
TT: And what's the time scale of the project? We're currently recording this on the 25th of April 2020, and this has been broadcast in July when the summer is I am sure with us.
DR: The context is that we're at right now in the middle of the coronavirus, obviously, we don't know how on the 20th of April this is going to pan out hopefully things will improve rapidly - but for the last month, we've been in that period of lockdown and as a result what I imagine would take six months to do the research for is literally - we’re 95% of the way through in literally six weeks. It's been an absolutely incredible journey with over 150 Western Front Association volunteers have taken part at various stages in the project being split into two phases at this stage. Each phase one was done very rapidly Phase 2 is a slow process. But if anybody listening to this wishes to take part in terms of project alias it's probably going to be too late, but we do have another project which is now just starting which is ‘Project Hometown’, which is where we are trying to look at the pension record cards and improve the findability of these by using the man's home address. Quite often this is not adequately recorded on the card not necessarily through Ancestry’s fault. They have collected the data with a degree of accuracy that I estimate at about 90%. There’s just about 10% of these cards which I think we can improve on - and project Hometown - if WFA members which to get involved and is the current project which will be going on for some time now or will be going on for some time from now onwards and I invite the WFA members who wish to have get involved with this to contact me directly.
TT: Tell me what the outcome of the project is aspiration with.
DT: What we're going to do is collect all the data which were very close to having complete and now manipulate it in order to identify the pairs of aliases and do what we can to eradicate any lines we have data which are not really aliases at all - get this into some kind of spreadsheet and publish it on the Western Front association website for people to access. This is in the future. Although by the time this is published we might be there but at this stage - aspirationally the idea is very much for this data - the information from this project - to be shared with the wider world on the Western Front association website.
TT: David, where can people get more information about Project Alias?
DT: Look on the Western Front association website. There are a few articles there more will come along in weeks to come as the project develops. But at this stage there are at least three or four articles on the Western Front association website, which explain where we've got to at each stage.
TT: David, thank you very much for your time.
DT: Thanks very much. Tom.
TT: You have been listening to the ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ podcast from the Western Front association with me Tom Thorpe. Thank you to all my guests for appearing on this addition. The theme music for this podcast was George Butterworth’s ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. It was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conducted by Chris Russman and produced by BIS records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by the Western Front Association. This is available from all good records stores under the record code BIS195.
Until next time.