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The History Detectives

By Ann Rogers

Last spring Esther Sharp and her husband, John, paid a visit to the Ladysmith Archives looking for information about John’s grandfather.

“We knew Grampa Sharp was a striking coal miner with seven kids. He joined up and was killed fighting in France, and he’s on the cenotaph,” Esther told TAKE 5. “We wanted to know more.”

The Sharps’ interest led them to join the small army of Ladysmith & District Historical Society volunteers searching for the stories behind the names of local men who fought in World War One. At times, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“We’ve spent 80 to 90 hours looking for Major Flemming, or maybe he’s Captain Fleming, or maybe there are two of him,” Esther says. “We’re still not sure who he is.”

While the Canadian government has put thousands of military records online, often the only clue is a surname, spelled different ways. And by John’s estimates, as many as a third of the birthdates on the records he checks are incorrect. “They lied if they were too young or too old to join up, or sometimes the official just wrote it down wrong.”

Another problem establishing who was who is that in 1914, Ladysmith was in the middle of a bitter miners’ strike. The men who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force may have been townspeople, incoming strike-breakers, or members of the militia sent in to police the dispute.

So most searches begin by running the soldier’s name past Archives volunteer Isabelle Ouelette, who is faster than Google at sifting through the town’s history. When she recognizes a name, she puts a call out to her network to bring in any information they have, carefully keeping track of the mounting stacks of files.

Terry Carson, another volunteer, uses his knowledge of genealogy websites to put soldiers together with their families. The Archives’ own records, including town tax assessments and census data, along with births, marriages and deaths registers, fill in important gaps. Author Brian Bornhold contributed research that included 43 letters he found published in local papers, eyewitness accounts written by Ladysmith men serving on the Western front.

When the conventional research paths failed, Esther began reading back issues of Ladysmith newspapers, which has turned up new names as well as new insights. “We started with about 167 men from Ladysmith, but now we’re close to 400,” Esther says.

But the identities of many “Ladysmith boys” remain elusive.

“Of the 41 cenotaph names, we still can’t find Tait and McCrae,” says Esther. “But they must have been important to someone here. And as many as seven local men who were killed in action were left off.” She turns back to her computer to continue the search.

If you have any information about Ladysmith’s WWI soldiers or would like to volunteer, call (250-245-0100) or drop by the Archives, under Tim Horton’s, open 9 am– 2 pm, Monday through Friday.

About the author: Angie

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