How did my great uncle die in the First World War?

Phil Tomaselli helps a reader solve the mystery of his great uncle's scandalous death

John Davidson

My great uncle, John Davidson, was born at Craigcannochie Farm in South Ayrshire on 5 July 1885. He went to university and later, in August 1915, enlisted as a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He became corporal, and on 29 May 1917 2nd lieutenant 8th Border Regiment. The War Diary of La Bassée, Guinevey, Canal Sector, Treucher, says he was “found 
shot while on course” on 
15 October 1917. He’s buried in Neufchâtel-Hardelot.

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From graduation to enlistment there is no record of him except for an undated photograph showing him with a man/servant with “DA Ahudja, Under Patronage of HE The Commander-in-Chief of India, HH The Lieut Govnr of Burma and 47 Sule Pagoda Road, Rangoon” on the frame. What was he doing between 1906 and 1915, and what were the exact circumstances of his death?
Ken Davidson

All files relating to First World War officers’ services were burnt in the same 1940 fire that destroyed the bulk of ordinary soldiers’ files. Scouring other records, Army clerks pulled together some kind of a file on most, drawn mainly from legal and medical department papers. These are at The National Archives in WO339 (Regular Army) and WO374 (Territorial Force) series, but aren’t online.

John’s commission was as a temporary regular officer, and his file is WO339/83416. The unusual circumstances of his death means it contains rather more than normal. His original attestation form shows that he enlisted on 25 August 1915 in Edinburgh, was 30 years old, a journalist, and declared six months’ service in the Rangoon Volunteer Rifles. A later document says he was assistant editor of the Rangoon Gazette. This no doubt explains the photograph you have.

John served in France with the 14th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from 6 June 1916, including in the fighting on the Somme. In November 1916 he was recommended for a commission and, after training, was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, the Border Regiment, on 29 May 1917 (ordinary soldiers were rarely commissioned into their old regiment) and posted to the 8th Battalion. Evidence given by his servant later says that he joined the battalion in mid-July and had been involved in heavy fighting in the Passchendaele offensive at the end 
of that month.

In October 1917, John attended a course at First Army Central School of Instruction. As the subsequent court of enquiry reported, he was found by his servant “lying on the bed with his right arm hanging over the edge… holding a revolver”. The servant noticed that he was bleeding from the head, and called for help. The medical officer inspected the body, noting only one round had been fired, adding: “Death in my opinion was caused by a revolver bullet and from the position of the revolver and the arm, the wound could have been self-inflicted.”

The adjutant explained that, the same morning, John had been interviewed by the commandant and placed under open arrest for enquiries to be made following an accusation of irregular conduct with the Guard on the night of 13/14 October. When John left the orderly room, he appeared to be quite normal.

A sentry and the sergeant of the Guard gave evidence that John, when challenged three times, had answered “What has that got to do with you?” and then fallen over. He had treated the sergeant in the same manner. Both men said that he seemed drunk. The sergeant had reported the incident.

Three officers that John had been playing bridge with in the mess confirmed that he’d had some drinks, but said that it had not affected his game and none thought him to be drunk, although he was slightly more animated and argumentative than usual. John’s course instructor described him as “thoroughly reliable, keen, conscientious and steady; 
quiet and retiring”.

A great deal of thought went into the verdict. It was suicide, but “being supersensitive… the feeling of being under open arrest may have unhinged his mind, for he certainly seems to have lost his normal mental balance”.

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Phil Tomaselli is a military family history expert and author of Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors