While I was taking advantage of free access to Ancestry this week, I decided to look for the medal index card of Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, the famous poet. I couldn’t find it. These medal index cards show entitlement to campaign medals for British soldiers who fought in the First World War. Since Sassoon served on the Western Front as an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, he would definitely have been eligible for campaign medals. Although campaign medals were issued automatically to Other Ranks (or their next of kin if they were dead), officers had to apply for their medals and it isn’t certain that all of them did. If they didn’t then there probably wouldn’t be an index card for them. Sassoon is famous for becoming an opponent of the war and throwing away the ribbon of his Military Cross, so maybe he didn’t claim his campaign medals. But he changed his mind about the war more than once, and went back to the front after his protest, so maybe he did claim them. I already know whether he did or didn’t have a medal card but I’m saving that for later. First, here’s some background about campaign medals and related documents.
There were several campaign medals which were issued for taking part in the war, with different criteria for each one. The most common were the British War Medal, for anyone who served overseas, and the Victory Medal, for anyone who served in a theatre of war. Those who served in the early years of the war could qualify for the 1914 Star or the 1914-15 Star (more details and pictures). The Army Medal Office recorded entitlement to these medals on medal rolls. Despite being called rolls, these are actually books, containing lists of eligible soldiers arranged by regiment. The War and Victory medals are recorded together in the same rolls, and there are separate rolls for each of the stars. These rolls are now held by the UK National Archives in class WO 329, and are not available online. The Medal Office also created a card index to pull together details of each soldier from the different rolls. Every eligible soldier should have at least one medal index card showing name, rank, regiment, service number (except for officers, who didn’t have numbers), campaign medal entitlement and references to the relevant medal rolls. Some soldiers have more than one card, especially if they also won a gallantry medal (although cards for some kinds of gallantry medal are recorded elsewhere and not included in this collection; Sassoon’s Military Cross award card wouldn’t be here as these are in a different class and can only be seen on microfilm at TNA) or qualified for a Silver War Badge by being discharged as unfit for duty. These medal index cards were also transferred from the Medal Office to the Public Records Office (now the UK National Archives) and put into class WO 372. They were arranged as follows:
- WO 372/1 to WO 372/22: British Army campaign medals A-Z
- WO 372/23: Women’s Services, Distinguished Conduct Medals and Military Medals
- WO 372/24: Mentions in Despatches, Meritorious Service Medals and Territorial Force Efficiency Medals
- WO 372/25 to WO 372/29: Indian Army campaign medals
The cards were microfilmed and the originals put into storage. The microfilm was in black and white, and only the fronts of the cards were filmed. It’s usually reckoned that about 5% of the cards have something written on the back. This information became completely inaccessible. At some point (I think in the early 2000s) the microfilm was digitized and PDF files of the cards were made available for download through TNA’s DocumentsOnline service. These low resolution scans of black and white microfilm were not easy to read, and the information on the back was still inaccessible. The collection was indexed so that individual cards can be found by searching for name, rank, number or regiment. There are some transcription errors, so the index isn’t completely reliable. For example, the card for Arthur Evans shows that he was in the Lincolnshire Regiment, but the DocumentsOnline index wrongly gives this as 32nd London Regiment.
Thanks to DocumentsOnline we can see that Siegfried Sassoon did have a medal card, which can be downloaded here (ref WO 372/17, image 27085). The Medal Office had incorrectly written his name as Siefried Lorraine Sassoon, but as a captain in the 3rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers with a Military Cross, it’s got to be him. There’s even a note saying that his MC was cited in the London Gazette on 27 July 1916 (view page as PDF; the Gazette also incorrectly spells his middle name as Lorraine). The card shows that he was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914-15 Star. Although there is a note saying he was eligible on 20 February 1919, the medals don’t appear to have been issued until July 1985. This is nearly 20 years after Sassoon died, so it looks like he didn’t claim his medals himself and that they were claimed later by his family (no more claims for First World War campaign medals are possible now, and all unclaimed medals have been destroyed). The card is in a form usually used for Silver War Badge awards rather than the normal campaign medal styles. The box for date of discharge is blank, but “11/3/19” is written at the top of the card, which ties in with Sassoon resigning his commission through ill health (the London Gazette gives 12 March 1919). The most frustrating thing is that there’s a “PTO” at the bottom of the card, but we can’t turn it over and see what’s on the back.
In 2005 it was announced that the original cards would be destroyed to save storage space, but they were saved at the last minute. The Imperial War Museum took the women’s cards, and the Western Front Association took the rest (you can follow the story on this thread at the Great War Forum; there’s also a report at Your Family Tree magazine). For a while the WFA offered a service where they’d copy both sides of a card in return for a donation. Then they agreed to let Ancestry scan the cards and make them available online to subscribers. Ancestry scanned both sides of the cards in colour, making them much more legible than the TNA versions and making the backs available for the first time since the cards were microfilmed. But Ancestry’s indexing is notoriously bad. The Great War Forum has a whole thread dedicated to showing up the worst examples. It looks very much like Ancestry has done the transcription on the cheap by outsourcing it to people whose first language isn’t English and who know very little about British history and geography. There doesn’t even seem to have been a checklist of regiment or county names, or very much quality control. For example, T. E. Sandall, commanding officer and historian of the 1/5th Lincolnshire Regiment is shown on Ancestry’s medal card index as belonging to “1/5th Essex Tegt” [sic]. Ancestry has about 4.8 million medal cards compared to 5,482,260 on DocumentsOnline, but this seems to be accounted for by the fact that Ancestry hasn’t scanned the women’s cards from the IWM (WO 372/23), or the Indian Army cards (WO 372/25 to WO 372/29).
I can’t find Siegfried Sassoon’s medal card on Ancestry. Given their bad indexing it’s possible that the card is there but can’t be found because the name is completely wrong. But I’ve tried lots of different variants, and Ancestry has a fuzzy search which picks up similar names, and still I can’t find it. Maybe they haven’t scanned it, but it should be with the cards that they have scanned. Fortunately, there’s a way we can check this in more detail. When the cards were microfilmed, they were photographed in batches of six, arranged in two columns and three rows on the same image. When you download a card from DocumentsOnline, you get a whole page showing all six cards. These are the ones which come with Sasson’s, shown in the order that they appear:
|Reginald Ellice Sassoon, Capt., Irish Guards||Sassoon Joseph Sassoon? [full name not clear], Capt., Inniskilling Dragoons|
|Ronald Edward David Sassoon, Lt., KRRC||Suleman Sassoon, Railway Dept|
|Siefried Lorraine Sassoon [sic], Capt., Royal Welsh Fusiliers [ie the poet]||B Sassounian, Interpreter, XXI Army Corps|
Knowing this, I searched for the other five men on Ancestry. Their cards are all there, and their names are all spelt correctly.
|Name on MIC||TNA record||Ancestry record|
|Reginald Ellice Sassoon||Present and correct||Present and correct|
|S. J. Sassoon||Present as Joseph Sassoon||Present and correct (gives possible variants)|
|Ronald Edward David Sassoon||Present and correct||Present and correct|
|Suleman Sassoon||Present as Sassoon Suleman||Present and correct|
|Siefried Lorraine Sassoon||Present as S Lorraine Sassoon||Can’t find|
|B Sassounian||Present and correct||Present and correct|
Siegfried Sassoon is the only one of the six whose card can’t be found on Ancestry. This tends to suggest that this isn’t down to Ancestry not scanning the card. They clearly have scanned the batch where it should be. It would need to have moved a long way in the filing system to end up among the cards that haven’t been scanned, and it’s hard to see how that could have happened by accident. That leaves two possibilities:
- Sassoon’s medal card has been scanned by Ancestry but so badly mis-transcribed that it can’t be found
- The original card was removed some time between TNA’s microfilming and Ancestry’s scanning
Either would be quite embarrassing for all the organizations involved. This post has been a cautionary tale about some of the problems with digitization of historical records. There’s a real danger that archives can use digitization as an excuse to destroy original documents, even when the digital copies aren’t adequate substitutes. When private companies digitize records for profit their cost-cutting can result in poor quality transcription, paradoxically making records harder to find. Keeping public records behind pay walls is also elitist. In Ancestry’s case this is pure economics: if you can afford the subscription you’re in, if you can’t you’re out (although they do offer free trial periods). Early English Books Online takes elitism to a whole new level: they only deal with libraries and won’t even sell you an individual subscription. Meanwhile, if anyone does find Sassoon’s medal card, please let me know.