The United States observes November 11 as Veterans Day. When I was young, many people of my grandparents’ generation still referred to it as Armistice Day, its original name. For them it would always mark a momentous event in their lives: the cessation of hostilities in the “Great War” of 1914 – 1918.
In many Commonwealth countries, it is known as Remembrance Day, a name which speaks to the central purpose of my family tree research: to remember those who have gone before and to honor their lives.
November is months away, but today I want to remember Victor Robert QUESNELL, who was nearly lost to his family’s collective memory. Although he was their father’s oldest brother, my husband and his brothers had never heard their uncle’s name before I started to research their family tree.
Victor’s Death Notice shows that he died on 23 October 1918 while “on active service in France.” Sadly, he died just three weeks before the Armistice took effect.
However, Joseph Robert QUESNELL did not register his son’s death until nine months later on 23 July 1919 in Cape Town.
Does this lag represent the time required for the military authorities to contact Victor’s parents? Might he have been considered missing in action for a time? Or did his father find himself unable to face what must have been a painful task when he first received the notification?
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website lists Victor’s burial place in the Roisel Community Cemetery Extension, one of the 23,000 cemeteries and memorials around the world maintained by the CWGC. The site confirms his death date and gives his age as 20. Victor was a private in the 1st Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, Service Number 16320. The site also lists the names of his parents and their address at 171 Buitengracht Street, Cape Town.
The small town of Roisel is located in the Somme Department in the Picardy region of France between the towns of Cambrai and Saint-Quentin. Those names will be meaningful for persons versed in the history of World War I. When I receive Victor’s service record, it should detail where he was killed. In the meantime, I have been able to estimate the probable battle area from the information provided on the superb site “The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War.” Victor’s regiment was moved to join the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division in mid-September 1918. This division took part in the Battle of the Selle from 17-25 October 1918 as part of the final push to break through the Hindenburg Line. Several Casualty Clearing Stations were operating at Roisel from 18 October to 18 November. Victor most likely died either on a nearby battlefield or later at one of the casualty stations.
Thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers at The South Africa War Graves Project, a photograph of Victor’s grave arrived by e-mail just three days after I submitted a request.
The CWGC marks individual graves with uniform headstones, differentiated only by their inscriptions. At the top of Victor’s stone is the emblem of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade: A springbok encircled by the motto (in English and Dutch) “UNION IS STRENGTH/EENDRACHT MAAKT MACHT.” From what I can glean from the CWGC’s site, the final two lines of the inscription may have been chosen by his parents, Joseph Robert QUESNELL and Alice WURGES. The words serve to remind us to remember their oldest son.
“THOUGH LOST TO SIGHT / TO MEMORY EVER DEAR”
Victor’s name was discovered by my husband’s brother, who as a new genealogist liked the sleuthing aspect of the endeavor so much that he nicknamed himself Agent Q, our “man on the ground” in South Africa. He first visited the Johannesburg Family History Center where the librarian searched NAAIRS, the online index to the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa. Since the surname QUESNELL with two L’s is unique to my husband’s family in South Africa, any records found under that surname will pertain to someone of interest for our research.
Victor’s Estate Papers of 1919 were listed in the index. Agent Q forwarded the Death Notice as copied by the National Archives; two excerpts are shown above. A South African Death Notice is not the same as a Death Certificate. The former is a registration submitted by a family member or close friend, while the latter is completed by a doctor. The cause of death is not requested when registering a death. But the circumstances of Victor’s death do point to its cause, if not the specific place or the wounds from which he died.
Victor’s Death Notice lists his age as 21 while his gravestone gives an age of 20; it was not obvious which was correct. However, I often have the sensation that our ancestors “help” us to find them. Shortly after discovering Victor and his burial place, the South African genealogy site Ancestry24 published records for St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in the small out-of-the-way town of Port Nolloth, South Africa, surely a serendipitous selection for my research. The baptism records show that Victor Robert QUESNELL was born 7 March 1898 and was baptized 3 April 1898 by the Reverend Victor LEWIS. Since the given name Victor does not run in the family, he was probably named after the priest.
1) Obtain Victor’s service record from the South African Defence Force Archives in Pretoria, South Africa (this may require a personal visit by Agent Q since the archives does not appear to have a dedicated website), and
2) Locate a copy of The History of the South African Forces in France by John Buchan (1920) at WorldCat and borrow it via inter-library loan.