Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

Joseph Fraser - Corporal 81993

This page is dedicated to the memory of Joseph Fraser who died on 22nd March 1918 in France.

Joseph Fraser was born in 1888 in Aberdeenshire and he died on 22nd March 1918 in France, one of the many millions of men who lost their lives in World War 1. It seemed sad for him to have died and all but these bare facts remembered, so I've tried to find out at least a little about his life until his untimely death aged just 29.

Joseph Fraser was born on 27th May 1888 at Corskellie (or Corskelly) Farm in Lonmay. He was the youngest of 9 children born in Scotland, to Alexander (Sandy) Fraser and his wife Margaret Rennie. Alexander Fraser was a shepherd who had moved to Aberdeenshire in the 1870s from his native Invernesshire; he had married local girl Margaret Rennie in 1875 in Longside. The 1881 census shows the family living at Corskelly and they stayed there at least until Joseph's birth in 1888.

Many years ago I was given a copy of the story of Alexander & Margaret's family that had been written by one of their grandchildren Roy Fraser. I hope his family don't mind me using some of the information detailed in it here. Roy described how Alexander Fraser was a good shepherd, but that he had limited prospects in Aberdeenshire. So he decided to try his luck in South America and the whole family (apart from oldest son William, but including baby Joseph Fraser) left for Chile around 1888. Unfortunately life was no easier in Chile. Margaret had a final child, which sadly lived only a few weeks. Margaret herself then succumbed to blood poisoning and died around 1892, leaving Alexander alone with 8 children. Not surprisingly he decided to return home to Scotland.

On returning to Scotland the family were split up, presumably because Alexander couldn't look after them all while he was working. Joseph Fraser (or Joe as he was called) and his brother George (being the youngest two) initially stayed with their aunt and uncle Anne & Joseph Todd near Edinburgh. Alexander Fraser settled back in the Aberdour area and George & Joe rejoined him. In 1893 Alexander married his housekeeper Elizabeth Scott. The family settled at a farm called Towie and Alexander and Elizabeth had 4 more children.

Several of the older children went to live with William & Susan Cadger (Susan being the sister of Alexander's first wife Margaret Rennie) near New Pitsligo. By 1901 Joseph Fraser and his brother William had moved up to Invernesshire and were staying with their cousin Isabella Fraser in Boleskine. Isabella had a grocery shop, where William was helping out; Joseph was still at school - presumably the village school in Boleskine.

Over the next few years several of Joseph's siblings emigrated - either to Canada, South Africa or Australia. For whatever reason Joseph Fraser decided to remain in Scotland. The 1911 census shows Joseph still living with his cousin Isabella and brother William in Boleskine. Isabella was still a grocer, but Joseph & William were now employed as labourers by the British Aluminium Company. The company smelted aluminium in nearby Foyers using the abundant water supply to provide hydroelectricity - quite innovative for the time.

When Joseph married Annie MacKenzie in 1912 he was said to be a furnaceman, so was probably still working at the aluminium smelting factory. Joseph & Annie had two girls, one born before the war and one during the war. It is so sad to think that neither got the chance to know their father.

Joseph's service records show he joined up on 22nd December 1915. This was before conscription was extended to married men, so he must have had to think long and hard before making the choice to leave his wife and 2 young children and sign up. When he signed up his occupation was given as rabbit trapper, which can't have been the most lucrative of jobs, so perhaps he thought the army was a better option. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website revealed that he was a Corporal in the 40th Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps, his service number was 81993 and that he was commemorated at Arras Memorial in France. I can't reproduce the CWGC photo of the cemetery, but to see his page please click here

You can now look at the Medal Roll cards from the first world war online. These show a soldier's name, rank and what medals they were entitled to. Due to copyright issues, I don't think I can reproduce the image of the medal card, so instead I've transcribed it:

NameCorpsRankRegtl No.
VICTORYMGC/101 B524490 
Theatre of War first served in  
Date of entry therein  

As is so often the case with these medal cards, not all of the information has been filled in, but it does indicate that he would have been entitled to two medals. The British Medal was awarded to servicemen who served in a theatre of war between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918. The Victory Medal (Allied Victory Medal) was awarded for service in any operational theatre over the same time frame. Luckily Joseph's service records survive to give us more information about his time in the army. Much of the British Army World War One Service Records were destroyed when the War Office was bombed in London in 1940. Joseph's service record is one of a relatively small proportion that survived. There is even a brief physical description of him; he was said to be 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a 40 inch chest and a mole on his right shoulder.

Joseph's service records give so much information that can be found nowhere else. He signed up at Errogie on 22nd December 1915 but wasn't mobilised until the beginning of June 1916. This meant he had 6 months at home before he joined the army properly. He was initially enlisted as a private in the Royal Scots before being transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in December 1916. In March 1917 his battalion joined the British Expeditionary Force and he was posted to France. At the end of January 1918 he got a week or so leave back to the UK - hopefully he had time to make it up to Errogie to see his family. By 9th February he was back in France. On 12th March 1918 he was appointed Acting Corporal. Sadly just 10 days later he was reported wounded and missing. I wonder if he even had time to write home and tell them about his promotion.

It is not clear when his status was changed from "wounded and missing" to "Death Accepted on or since 22nd March 1918". His widow Annie had to list all his surviving family and their whereabouts. With most of his family living overseas, she only knew the address of his eldest brother William Fraser. The rest she had to put down as "others abroad. Address not known to widow". His father Alexander had also died by this time.

His service records don't go into any detail about how he died, only that he was reported wounded and missing. However, you can now look at the War Diaries for a given regiment, so I've looked at the War Diaries for the 40th Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps. War Diaries were kept as a daily record of operations, intelligence reports and anything else that was going on for a given battalion. I've transcribed the relevant war diary for the days around Joseph's death below, to give a feel for what Joseph must have been doing in his final days.

40th Battalion Machine Gun Corps



March - 1918

PlaceDateHourSummary of Events and Information
Lens 11.
March 17th 

Instructions received from 40th Division for move of Brigade Groups to positions of Assembly in the event of an attack taking place on the VI and XVII Corps fronts.

 March 18th 

Amendment to Order No 5 issued detailing moves to positions of Assembly. Situation normal - no enemy attack

 March 19th Received 40th Division Order forecasting relief of 3rd Division on the Left Sector of the VI Corps front by this Division.
 March 20th Issued provisional relief Order No 8 to relieve 3rd Battalion Machine Gun Corps. Orders received for the Battalion to hold itself in readiness to move at an hours notice.
 March 21st5a.m.Very heavy bombardment on the whole of the front opened at 5a.m. Received message from 40th Division at 6a.m. to take precautionary measures - message received from 40th Division at 10a.m. - "No Infantry attack yet reported"
  6.30a.m."B" and "D" Companies report ready to move
  noon40th Division report BULLECOURT taken. Enemy threatening right flank of 59th Division. The following moves to take place at once. 120th. Brigade to move to the 3rd System, 121st Brigade to move from BLAIREVILLE to HAMLINCOURT. At 5p.m. Battalion Headquarters moved to HAMLINCOURT where Divisional Headquarters were now located, "A" and "C" Companies ordered to move to HENIN with the 119th. Brigade
  11.30p.m.119th Brigade ordered to withdraw from HENIN and occupy the SENSEE Switch. "A" Company to remain on HENIN HILL and come under the orders of G.O.C. 101th Brigade. "C" Company to moved with the 119th. Brigade, "B" and "D" Companys ordered to take up positions in the 3rd System to support the 120th and 121st Brigades.
HAMELINCOURTMarch 22nd6.50a.m.O/C "A" Company reports hostile bombardment commenced about 6.20.a.m. on HENIN HILL, he also reports he has been ordered to send down a Section to the Southern exits of CROISELLES.
  3p.m.Battalion Headquarters moved to AYETTE, Commanding Officer with the 40th Divisional Headquarters moved to BUCQUOY from HAMELINCOURT about 8p.m. Commanding Officer went round line in the morning (10a.m.) to ascertain the situation and co-ordinated the Machine Gun Defence of the line.
About 2p.m. information received from O/C "A" Company that at 11a.m. his guns were all in action on HENIN HILL and that the Infantry had apparently retired on both flanks. Later message states "I have been up to find out the situation, I have 9 guns left. They are all in action. No Infantry anywhere near them and our own Artillery are shelling them". These guns remained in action till dark, when with the exception of 4 guns on the extreme left they were rushed by the enemy. Three guns with the remnants of their teams succeeded in rejoining Company Headquarters during the night.
AYETTEMarch 23rd At 4a.m. O/C "A" Company ordered to report by G.O.C 101st Brigade to Battalion Headquarters. Message of Congratulation on the splendid defence by the Division, received from Corps Commander. At about 3p.m. orders for a withdrawal of our right flank to confirm with the line of the Right Division were received. Commanding Officer at Headquarters of 119th and 120th Infantry Brigade during night 23/24th March.

Joseph Fraser was in A. Company, so according to the war diaries above, would have been on Henin Hill on 22nd March. The hill was attacked by the Germans and captured by the end of the day. According to "The British Campaign in France & Flanders" by Arthur Conan Doyle, "The possession of the hill, was however, contested most strongly by the Fortieth Division machine-gun company and by the 11th Suffolks, who by their valiant resistance prevented the enemy from gaining the whole crest". Henin Hill was a strategic point, so both sides would have fought hard to have control of it. Given the heavy shelling and the scale of the offensive, it is not surprising that it was not clear initially whether Joseph had been captured or killed. He was of course not mentioned by name in the War Diary. When I first started reading War Diaries I thought it was very sad that other ranks were so seldom mentioned by name. But this seems to have been standard procedure and the officers recording the events probably had neither the time nor the information to record any more detail.

I've not managed to find any local newspaper reports yet from 1918 stating that Joseph Fraser was missing, but presumably his wife was informed. It must have then had an agonising wait for her. Even as late as March 1919 she was still hoping he might be found, as can be seen by this advertisment she placed in a Dundee newspaper. Image D.C. Thomson & Co. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (

Joseph is commemorated at the Arras Memorial (Bay 10) in France. Arras is a memorial to 35000 soldiers with no known grave. So this must mean that Joseph's body was never found. He is also commemorated back home on the Stratherrick War Memorial. If anyone can let me have photos of either memorial to add here, I would love to hear from them.

The final piece of documentation I could find for Joseph Fraser was his entry in the Army Register of Soldiers' Effects. It lists the amout of money in his account at the time of his death and the amount, including the War Gratuity, that was eventually paid to his next of kin - in this case to his wife Annie. For Joseph the total amount came to just 17 11s 7d - not much to show for the ultimate sacrifice.

So that's all I've managed to find about the life of Joseph Fraser. If anyone can add to it, I would love to hear from them. What I would most like to find is a photograph of Joseph - if anyone has one, please feel free to E-mail me.

In researching Joseph's final days, several sites have been invaluable, so I've included links to some of them here.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a great site to start with to give you the basic details you would need to then start digging deeper:

The National Archives at Kew now hold a huge number of records, many of which are available online, but it is well worth a visit down there if you can make it:

The official Government source of genealogical data for Scotland:

The British Newspaper Archive holds digitised images of newspapers from all over Britain. New pages are added weekly and it can be a great way of adding to your research:

If any of the above is of further interest, please feel free to contact me at:

Nicky Rowberry 2018

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Peasants to Puddles - My Family History. By Nicky Rowberry