Steve Harris: My relation to Lawrence of Arabia
PUBLISHED: 16:56 21 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:18 23 September 2016
Researching your family tree can reveal fascinating ancestors and, in this particular case, it located a relative lost on a battlefield in northern France in 1916
It’s a bright spring morning in 2015. I’m standing by the side of the road near Bovington Camp, surrounded by pre-war motorcycles and bereted and booted military personnel. It is the 80th anniversary of the death of T.E. Lawrence, who was fatally injured when he came off his Brough Superior, not far from this spot. He was swerving to avoid hitting two boys on their bicycles, hidden from view by a dip in the road.
I’ve come to this commemoration service for work purposes. Microphone in hand, I record interviews with Lawrence aficionados and representatives of the Royal Tank Regiment. But what they don’t know is I also have a personal reason to be here. I’m related to the man famously referred to as Lawrence of Arabia.
It is, I admit, a distant relationship: my great great grandfather’s wife was the sister of Lawrence’s great grandfather. But, in an otherwise unremarkable family tree, it is a rare eye-catching blossom.
What’s almost as interesting as the connection itself, is how my family came to know about it. Genealogy is a brilliant example of shared workloads; if you can connect yourself to research that has already been done, you’ll have access to a pre-fabricated branch of ancestry. Five years ago, someone much closer to Lawrence, contacted my family trying to find out more about a Harris buried in the graveyard of a church in south Wales. We explained how we were related, and the researcher shared the work he’d already done on the family tree by way of thanks.
I sometimes feel guilty about how straightforward that experience was, especially when I see people poring over ancient documents in the Dorset History Centre; or more recently, when I visited Richard Dibben at his home in Marnhull.
Richard had spent years investigating his family and trying to find out what happened to one particular relation - his great uncle Harry. Harry’s half brother had told Richard that he’d been killed in the First World War, but the fact that his name didn’t appear on the war memorial at Buckland Newton, where Harry came from, fired up his interest.
Documents were eventually found that showed Harry, who’d emigrated from Dorset to Australia, had volunteered to fight in 1915. He died in the Battle of Fromelles in northern France a year later. Fromelles was the bloodiest day in Australian military history, 5000 soldiers lost their lives in 24 hours. Hundreds of men were buried in mass graves, and it took the Germans months to inform the British Red Cross of their identities.
It’s the work of another man that makes this story truly remarkable. In the 1990s, Lambis Inglezos, an Australian art teacher, noticed the discrepancy between the known number of dead and those accounted for in burial sites and on memorials. He studied aerial photos, recognised a potential site for the mass grave, and after initial investigations, found the remains of some 250 soldiers. Richard Dibben gave a DNA sample to help identify his great uncle and six years ago Harry was given the burial he deserved.
Last month commemorations were held in Fromelles to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle. Richard was there, he saw it as an opportunity to “put everything to rest”. That opportunity, and Harry’s proper burial, would not have been possible without the shared workload of inquiring minds. It just goes to show that you never know where researching your family tree might take you.
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