By Euan Loarridge, PhD Candidate, Department of History, University of Glasgow.
Amongst the National Archives’ vast collection of documents relating to the First World War are boxes WO_339 and WO_374, which together constitute a series of files related to the service records of individual officers of the British Army who served in that conflict. Unlike the service records for ordinary ranks, which are available to view and search online, digital copies of officers service records are not currently available and so can only be accessed in hard copy, in person, at the National Archives in London.
Nevertheless, these documents contain a great deal of information about individuals whose names are listed on the University of Glasgow’s roll of honour. Almost 80% of losses sustained by the University community held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant or higher at the time of their death. Most, if not all, of these people have a unique file held in either WO_339 or WO_374. While the exact contents of each file can vary, the service record of 2nd Lieutenant James Matheson, contained in WO 339/43349, is a good example of a typical record for a member of the University community.
Applying for a Commission:
One type of document which regularly appears in officer’s service records are applications for commissions. University students and officer training corps (O.T.C.) cadets applied using the pink Army Form M.T.392 which was submitted directly to the University itself. Within these application forms is contained a wealth of detail about the individual. James Matheson for example, answered questions like: could he ride a horse? (he could not) or, perhaps more shockingly to modern eyes, was he “of pure European descent?”.
One key piece of information gained from his application was the fact that James was a member of the University of Glasgow O.T.C., having joined on October 24th 1914. This proved that James was a member of the University community, even though his name was not present on the memorial panels in the University Memorial Chapel. James Matheson is currently one of the 19 individuals whose names are to be added to the University roll of honour in the Chapel, partly because he was positively identified using his service record in the National Archives.
The application form also gives an insight into relations within the University community itself. When James submitted his application form on March 3rd 1915, he was a second year medical student taking classes in Anatomy and Physiology. His application was then reviewed and accepted 10 days later by James Hendry who was not only adjutant of the University O.T.C. but also one of the instructors in the Physiology course. The First World War impacted academic life by overlaying the student-teacher relationship with that of the Officer-Subordinate relationship.
Twenty days after he submitted his application, the London Gazette announced that James Matheson would be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, dated to March 23rd 1915. Nine months later, James was sent to the Western Front and on December 11th 1915, he joined the 10th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders near Outersteene in France. He was at the front only three months, before he disappeared during a bombing raid and was reported missing on the 26th of March 1916, just over a year to the day after he was commissioned.
Confirmation of Death:
If an officer was killed, the majority of their file is often concerned with letters and correspondence establishing that they were in fact dead and therefore what money was owed to the next-of-kin. In the case of James Matheson, who was posted missing, there was no positive confirmation that he had been killed and so an inquest was launched in order to confirm the circumstances of his disappearance. Between May and July 1916 the Army interviewed over a dozen men from James’ platoon, questioning them on what they remembered of his disappearance. Their depositions are contained in Jame’s service record and provide a wealth of source material on what happened on the night of March 26th 1916.
All individuals interviewed agreed that James had been wounded by German shellfire while crossing no-man’s land. Two suggested that he had lost an arm, while another stated that he “was wounded in the right leg and right arm.” A number of men from James’ platoon had been wounded and several witnesses agreed that James insisted on these men being evacuated before him. Sergeant Simpson, the bombing sergeant, is then said to have covered James with a coat and left him in the apparent safety of a shell-hole before attending to the other wounded.
Simpson was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for rescuing eight wounded men from no-man’s land that night. However, when he finally returned to the shell-hole, James was nowhere to be found. Over the next two days, the men kept a look out for James, but he was never found. Eventually, it was assumed by all that he had accidentally crawled into the German trenches and been captured. Hope was held out that perhaps James had survived his wounds and was now in captivity in Germany but, with no word by December, James’ father wrote that “I fear very much that he has made the final sacrifice.”
What exactly happened to James remains uncertain. While the men of his battalion were convinced he was taken prisoner, when his family contacted the Red Cross, there was no trace of him. It is possible that he was captured, but died his wounds shortly afterwards and so was never properly recorded as a prisoner. James was finally declared dead on 27th of December 1916, having died on or since March 26th that year. His body was never recovered and to this day he has no known grave. He is instead commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium.
James Matheson’s service record and the records of 139,913 other individuals can be accessed from box number WO_339 in the National Archives. Another 77,833 individual records can be accessed from box number WO_374.
The whole collection of Officers’ Service Records are searchable on the National Archives’ Discovery website.
James’s biography on the University of Glasgow’s online roll of honour can be read here.