Taken from original research and text by Alan Wright, Surrey Heritage volunteer
Many Gypsies and Travellers are known to have served in the armed forces during the First World War. The absence of any references to ethnic minority or background in military records and a reluctance to identify their origins in the face of popular prejudice, however, can make it difficult to trace individuals. The destruction of the majority of service records by German bombing in the Second World War has compounded the problem.
The search for one Gypsy soldier, Lance-Corporal Sidney Harris, who fought with the Royal Berkshire Regiment in the First World War, illustrates both the challenges and the opportunities of researching Surrey’s Gypsy servicemen. Sidney was born in Knaphill, near Woking, in 1894, the son of George Harris, a labourer, and Keziah Gregory (died in 1898 and George re-married in 1900).
He first entered the war on 6 November 1914 at a time when his battalion were replacing the losses inflicted at Mons and subsequent battles as the British Expeditionary Force strove to stem the early German advances. Sidney’s number on the regimental roll and his early deployment to France as a trained soldier suggests that he was at the very least an early volunteer for military service and may possibly already have been a regular soldier. His battalion were heavily engaged in some of the bloodiest actions on the Western Front, including Ypres, Loos, the Somme, Arras and Cambrai. Sidney would have been in the front line on many occasions over this period and was recorded as having been wounded at least twice (The Times 12 April 1915, wounded in March, and on 14 October 1916). He died in action on 25 March 1918, a temporary Lance-Corporal, aged only 24.
Sidney is included on the Esher War Memorial, Esher Green, and on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Roll of Honour. He is also recorded on the Arras Memorial, Bay 7 http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/82700/ARRAS%20MEMORIAL.
Although the precise details of Sidney’s war service remain unknown, the story that we can piece together may well mirror that of many men from Surrey and indeed the country’s GRT community who responded to their country’s call. See the full story and research story ‘Finding Sidney Harris’ here (pdf document).
- National census records, 1851-1911 (online and at The National Archives and Surrey History Centre (SHC))
- Surrey parish records at Surrey History Centre (SHC refs WOKJ/1/2; ADD/1/4; 2383/4/3; 2633/1/5)
- British Army World War One Medals Index Card – Sidney Harris 9687: National Archives Catalogue ref WO372/9, Image Ref 57927/9421
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission – the Memorial at Arras, Casualty details: Sidney Harris 9687
- Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929 (National Army Museum)
- War Diary of the 1st Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment (The National Archives)
- Informal will of Lance Corporal Sidney Harris (National Probate records (Ref WO No: 551656/1, Record No: 411/690411/18/19))
- The Times, 12 April 1915 and 14 October 1916