Today’s post is written by Kath Shawcross, based on research completed by one of our volunteers Tony. It is just one example of how important the correct transcription of names from the original envelopes can be. Originally, this name was mistranscribed as Mershim. Tony spent a lot of time working on this individual, coming up with some interesting theories about who he could have been before another individual took a second look at the envelope and suggested an alternative reading of the name. Instantly, this investigation took a different turn and revealed a whole different and more likely story. It is not uncommon for this to happen, so difficult to read is the handwriting on the envelopes. In recent weeks we have had ‘Havelock’ mistaken for ‘Hancock’ and ‘Wileman’ for ‘Williams’. This is obviously something we have to be careful of, as we could easily pass over someone thinking no information is available if the name is not correctly transcribed. Encountering these problems over a period of time however has ensured that we do now double check this information. Two pairs of eyes now verify that the names and dates from the original envelopes has been transcribed as accurately as possible at the point of cleaning and rehousing the plates. This is not to say that mistakes will not still be made of course but hopefully, the margin of error will be significantly reduced.
This is Germain Adolphus Merheim, born c1891 in Paris to Frederick William Merheim, a bank cashier and, we believe, Marie A C Merheim. At some point the family moved to London where his mother died (c1896). His father, who was born in Milan, Italy, remarried the next year to Augusta Göbbler.
In 1911 we find the family – Frederic, Augusta, Germain and Bertha (his younger sister) living at Oxshott, Carshalton Park Road, Carshalton. Germain, age 19, is described as a science student. The 1915 Journal of the Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland lists Fellows and Students serving with the colours including Germain who is with the 2nd Battalion, Public Schools and University Brigade. We know from research into other soldiers, photographed by Knights-Whittome, that this Battalion was based at Woodcote near Epsom until May 1915.
Germain’s medal index card provides the following information:
- Royal Fusliers, Private, regimental number 667
- Royal Engineers, Corporal, regimental number 102465
- Royal Engineers, CQMS (Company Quarter Master Sergeant), same regimental number
It also tells us that he first went to France on the 21 May 1915 and was awarded the Victory, British War and 1915 Star and was discharged on the 14 Dec 1918.
His service records, which fortunately survive, provide even more details. Germain attested on the 16 September 1914 at Westminster, just short of his 23rd birthday. He was passed fit for service two days later and was posted to the 19th Service Battalion Royal Fusiliers. While at Clipstone Camp, Nottinghamshire (May 1915) he applied to transfer to the Royal Engineers (RE) at Chatham for the purpose of serving abroad (special duties). He was posted to the RE Depot Special Companies at the same time being promoted to Pioneer Corporal. The following year he was promoted to Sergeant and then Quartermaster Sergeant.
But what were these special duties and Special Companies? There are clues, two of which have already been mentioned – the 1911 census where he is described as a science student and the 1915 Journal of the Institute of Chemistry. A document from his service records describing his character indicates that he had a special aptitude for chemistry and was an associate of the Royal College of Science.
“In May, 1915, in consequence of the employment of poisonous gases by the enemy as a weapon of offence, there was a sudden demand for “men with a knowledge of chemistry” which was largely met through the agency of the Institute.”
The Proceedings of the Institute of Chemistry Proceedings, 1919, Part 1
By the end of the summer, 1916, Germain was with No. 2 Battalion, Special Brigade RE and returning to England. On 12 September 1916 he was transferred to Class W** Army Reserve for employment under Major Alexander DSO, Explosives Supply Stores, Ministry of Munitions and by 1917 based in Lancashire with the Special Brigade RE.
Chemical Warfare in WW1 and the Special Brigade RE
It’s most likely that Germain Merheim was involved in chemical warfare while he was in France and back home in England. Chemical warfare was used for the first time during WW1 and the special companies of the RE were formed to develop a British response to the German chlorine attack against the French in the Ypres Salient in 1915. What precisely Germain was doing we don’t know at this time – he may have been working on developing poison gas to use against the enemy or defensive measures to support the British army.
In 1916 the Special Companies of the RE were expanded into a more substantial force which was designated the Special Brigade and consisted of:
- Four Special Battalions, each of four Companies, to handle gas discharge from cylinders and smoke from candles;
- Four Special Companies to handle gas shells fired from 4-inch Stokes mortars. Each Company to have 48 such weapons;
- Four Special Sections to handle flame projectors (throwers);
- plus a Headquarters and Depot, making all all an establishment of 208 officers and 5306 men.
As mentioned above Germain was discharged from the army in December 1918. We don’t know what employment he took up but he continued to live locally: in 1923 he is living at 12 Manor Road, Wallington with this father (now a widower) and continues to live there until c1927 when he moves briefly to Frensham Heights, Farnham, returning to Wallington in 1929 to live with his father and his father’s third wife Ada. He remains there until the early 1930s. By 1935 Germain is living in Tatsfield where he remains for the rest of his life, dying on the 21 January 1970.
** Class W Reserve was introduced in June 1916. It was ‘for all those soldiers whose services are deemed to be more valuable to the country in civil rather than military employment’. Men in these classes were to receive no emoluments from army funds and were not to wear uniform. They were liable at any time to be recalled to the colours. From the time a man was transferred to Class W, until being recalled to the Colours, he was not subject to military discipline.
Army service records: Find My Past and Ancestry
Army Medal Card: Ancestry
Census returns: Ancestry
Surrey Electoral Registers: Ancestry
Birth, Marriage & Death records: Free BMD
Death record for Germain: The Gazette