The strange case of Aaron Charles Warren

1901 census

I found this news clipping when searching for some details of my own family history. My grandparents lived at the back of 33, Ashley Street in Birmingham. The article, from the “Birmingham Mail” on 26 November 1918, reports some good if rather surprising news:

“Birmingham Mail”, 26 November 1918

Just out of curiosity I looked for Private Aaron C. Warren in the prisoner of war records held by the International Committee of the Red Cross, hoping to find more about his captivity and his eventual return home. This soon located two index cards:

ICRC index card 1

ICRC index card 2

While not terribly informative, the cards confirm that Aaron was declared as missing on 7 November 1914 (a terrible day for the 1st Battalion when it sustained very heavy casualties in an attack at Armagh Wood during the First Battle of Ypres). He was serving with the battalion’s “A” Company as Private 8707. There seems to have been no information about him being a POW and a negative reply to enquiry was sent on 14 March 1916. Now I really was curious: how could there be no information about a man apparently in captivity for four years?

Next stop: casualty information. Aaron was named as “missing in action” in the official list that appeared in newspapers on 25 February 1915, but his family had already been advised of it:

“Birmingham Mail” 16 February 1915

Later that year, something happened that changed his official status to “killed in action”. This was not just a presumption. It would appear that some information had come from either a battalion comrade who knew of his death, or some other source that did not come through the Red Cross:

“Birmingham Mail” 2 December 1915

The confirmation of his death triggered payment of outstanding financial effects, and later a war gratuity, to his next of kin in accordance with his will. This most useful record reveals that he was one of a large family.

Part of Aaron’s entry in the financial effects register, showing first payment on 14 March 1916.

So next step: who is this man? Sadly there appears to be no trace of his army service record. His birth was registered in 1891 but after the census was taken in that year.

The 1901 census lists Aaron as a 9 year old inmate at the “Cottage Homes” in Marston Green, Warwickshire, “for children removed by Birmingham Board of Guardians from their Birmingham Workhouse“. We can infer that his family were going through hard times, but his family was living at 12 Court, 1 House, Rea Street in Birmingham. His mother was widowed.

Part of 1901 census

Aaron’s number 8707 traces to enlistment into the regular army in December 1909.

The 1911 census shows some of the members of the family now living at 4 Goodwill Place, Ashley Street.

Part of 1911 census

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission include a report of Aaron’s exhumation and reburial in 1924. he had been found in Koelberg Forest German Military Cemetery (which confirms that he died while in German hands) and was re-interred at Harlebeke New British Cemetery (in Plot 18, row B, grave 4).

Part of the reburial report

Although his grave at Koelberg Forest had been marked by a cross it appears to have indicated only an unknown British soldier. His remains were identified after exhumation from his regiment and number having been stamped on his boot.

The German cemetery was at Koelenberg on the Menin Road, east of Ypres and near to Kruisecke which saw much fighting during the battle. Harlebeke is much further east and took Aaron well away from his battalion comrades who lie in the Ypres area.

The red flag marks the position of the German cemetery where Aaron was originally buried

His family were contacted and at a later date they added a personal inscription to his grave headstone: “Sleep on dear brother and take thy rest They miss you most who loved you best“.

Part of headstone details report

So a fairly clear cut if sad ending: but what about that postcard that was received so hopefully from Germany in November 1918? A mystery (certainly without seeing the card) that may never be solved.

Update 8 March 2019

As if the connection between Aaron and my own grandfather wasn’t enough, I simply could not believe my eyes this morning when I visited Lodge Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. I was visiting to try to find the grave of my grandfather’s brother, who died as the result of an accident in February 1914. I found the plot easily enough but it is quite large, overgrown and a jumble of graves large and small of the 1911-1914 period. On making my way along a row, I had a double take: there was the name of Aaron Charles Warren, on his mother Elizabeth Martha Warren’s gravestone. It gives all the right details and even says that he lies at Harlebeke. The stone also mentions his brothers Wiliam and Frederick, who had served with the Coldstream Guards and Wiltshire Regiment respectively. My grandfather’s brother’s grave turned out to be a matter of yards away. Extraordinary.

Sources

British Newspaper Archive

International Committee of the Red Cross POW archive

Ancestry (Financial Effects Register)

Findmypast (censuses)

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Map of Koelenberg area courtesy of Great War Digital

Links

South Staffordshire Regiment

First Battle of Ypres

Special Reserve