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Sunday, 8 September 2013

The wartime will of Private John Howard

As soon as I heard that the wills of 230,000 WW1 soldiers have been made available online for the first time by Her Majesty's Court & Tribunal Service (HMCTS), there was one I knew I needed to search for - Private John Howard of the 23rd Batallion of The Royal Fusiliers (City of London regiment).

John Howard was the older brother of my great nan, Daisy Payne (nee Howard) and like many thousands of others, he went to fight on the front line during WW1 and never returned.

I remember my great nan telling me when I was little that one of her brothers had died in the great war when she was a little girl and when I started to research my family tree a few years ago, it was one of the first stories I set about investigating. 

I discovered that John was killed in France & Flanders in 1918 as the brutal war came to an end, and he is commemorated on the Arras war memorial in France, which I hope to one day visit.  He was 22, and his family were devastated to receive news of his death. My great Nan was just seven when her brother died, and a few years later her mum died too (another story for another day).

So, as soon as the wills became available, I searched his name and hoped that he was there. As the site had only just gone live, there were some teething problems and for the first few days I was unable to order John's will from the HMCTS website, but eventually it worked!

For £6.00, you can order a digital copy to be sent to you. The website emails you when the will is available to view and warns you that this can take up to ten days. Luckily for impatient old me, I only had to wait two days - but it still felt like a long wait! Once available you can download the document s much as you like for 31 days.

Many of the wills released have had letters attached - a last message for family that was never passed on due to security concerns. I really wanted John's paperwork to have a letter enclosed but unfortunately there was just a will when I downloaded it.

As he was so young with no real belongings, the will is short and just says that he leaves all of his property and belongings to his mother ("Mrs Howard of Priory Park Road, Kilburn"). But there is still something very poignant about seeing that written on an official document and imagining it being read to his mother.

As we approach the 100th anniversary next year of the outbreak of WW1, it is as important as ever to remember the sacrifices made my so many like John Howard and the wills make them that little more "real" as ancestors. The digitisation is a fab project and I would recommend anyone with WW1 soldiers in their tree search the available wills here.

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