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David Jenkins: My quest to trace one of seven siblings who fought in the First World War

David Jenkins, from Londonderry, is on a mission to trace a long-lost relative who he believes was one of seven siblings who fought heroically in the First World War. He tells Ivan Little how he hopes the public can help him solve the 100-year-old mystery

Published 09/03/2016

Missing link: David Jenkins searches for his relative who he believes was a brave war hero.
Missing link: David Jenkins searches for his relative who he believes was a brave war hero.
Thomas, Samuel and William Jenkins who all fought in the First World War
John James Jenkins (far left) who served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers

A Londonderry man has appealed for help from the public in a bid to fill in a major gap in the remarkable story of his family's military heroism, which saw seven brothers fighting in the First World War.

David Jenkins (52) from the Waterside, is convinced an eighth brother may have been in the Army, but eight years of exhaustive research have failed to produce any firm information.

That missing link in the chain is George Jenkins, who was born in Dublin on November 4, 1898, one of 16 children - 11 boys and five girls - in the family of a Claudy-born man who was a prison warder in the Republic of Ireland.

George was sent to a children's home in Belfast after his father died, but David has been unable to find any records of him.

He recalls: "I have found a marriage certificate from June 14, 1921 for the wedding of George Jenkins from Rainey Street, Belfast to Mary Duncan from Cosgrave Street in St Mary Magdelene Church in Donegall Pass. And it would sound from the dates involved that he might be my ancestor. I am hoping that someone might be able to confirm if I have got the right man and what happened to him."

Seven of George's brothers saw service with the Army and Merchant Navy during the Great War.

All but one of them survived the conflict, though two of them were incarcerated in German prisoner of war camps for lengthy periods.

At the start of his research into his family tree, David Jenkins never imagined that his journey would be so tortuous or that it would take him all over Ireland, working from a list of his great grandfather's 16 children with their dates of birth.

David's own grandfather, Samuel, who had lived through the First World War, died in an accident during the Second World War. "So there was very little of the family background passed down to my father. All I had was that sheet of paper with the names on it and I found out that three of the 16 children had died young."

David's great-grandfather, William Alexander Jenkins, had been a warder in the Prison Service and moved from Claudy to serve all over Ireland before taking ill and returning to live in Derry, where he died in 1907.

His widow Maria wasn't able to support all her children and her sons Thomas and George were sent to a Belfast children's home called the Balmoral Industrial School for Protestant Boys.

David was able to track down information on Thomas, but not George. He explains: "George is recorded as an inmate of the home in the 1911 census for Ireland.

"However, the Public Records Office haven't got the admission records for the period in question." David admits he has been frustrated by being unable to complete his family jigsaw.

"I have come so close to the finishing line, but I just can't resolve the mystery over George Jenkins. It's very possible that he did join the Army, but some of the military records are missing, so that's why I am hoping that someone in Belfast might recognise George from the date of his birth and from the fact that he was in the Balmoral home," adds David, whose research into his family has had unexpected results in other areas.

"I've found out a lot of stories about the history of Irish prisons along the way, thanks to my great-grandfather, who served in Mullingar, in Mountjoy in Dublin and then in Mayborough prison, which is now Portlaoise.

"But he was also a pioneer of one of the world's first open prisons, at Lusk, north Dublin.

"Basically, it was a farm and there were no prison walls as such. My great grandfather was there from its opening in 1882 until it closed in 1886 and he was the last man to close the gate behind him."

David's revelations about the open prison have intrigued members of a heritage society in Lusk and there's talk of a book based on his findings. He has also unearthed family links to the Londonderry Borough Police, which operated in the city in the 1800s as forerunners to the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Borough Police were nicknamed the H**** D**** because of the bone reinforcements in their top hats.

"There's a book in there, too," adds David, whose research time is limited because of his full-time care for his Down's Syndrome son.

"But I spend as much time as I can trying to uncover fresh clues about my family. It's a fascinating story and piecing it all together has been an emotional and rewarding experience."

A life of service... the magnificent seven

Albert Jenkins was the only brother who was killed in combat. He was with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment where he was a trench raider who would go across no-man’s land to attack the German positions.

One of his most audacious raids was carried out on Christmas Day 1915, a year after the famous ‘truce’ football match between German and British soldiers — and it’s thought that the authorities ordered the soldiers into action because they wanted to underline their disapproval of what had happened 12 months earlier. Albert died in June 1916 at the Somme and he’s buried at La Neuville cemetery in Corbie.

Austin Jenkins was a soldier with the Queen’s Own Hussars in Dublin during the Easter Rising in 1916. He also served in France but David isn’t clear if he was sent there before or after the Rising. He later married and lived in Carlow Street in the Shankill area of Belfast.

John James Jenkins served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers and was captured in 1914. He saw out the war in Limburg POW camp in Germany where Roger Casement was to recruit Irishmen to fight as part of the rebellion in Ireland with the tacit approval of the Germans. John James stayed where he was and David said he was harshly treated.

Samuel Jenkins, who was David’s grandfather was a soldier with the 6th Battalion, the Royal Inniskillings. He was injured in Gallipoli and was transported back to Bray Hospital in Co Wicklow. Three years later he joined the Labour Corps and was sent to France. He re-joined the Army to fight in the Second World War when he was rescued from Dunkirk, but he fell down a flight of stairs and died.

Thomas Jenkins joined the Royal Marines in 1912 after working in Harland and Wolff where it’s thought he was involved in the building of the ill-fated Titanic. Thomas was also a musician with the Royal Marines band and served in France.

William Robert Jenkins served with the 1st Battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in China in 1911 during the Boxer Revolution before going to India and Gallipoli and then to France where he was injured by a German shell which had exploded as soldiers were having tea in a mudhole.

A colleague who died in the attack at the Battle of Passchendaele was the poet Francis Ledwidge from Co Meath.

David is hoping to have some of Ledwidge’s poetry recited at a special ceremony in the old Ebrington Barracks.

William Andrew Jenkins was in the Merchant Navy firstly working on the ferry service between Fishguard and Rosslare where the ships repeatedly came under attack from German submarines. He later transported supplies to the White Army during the Russian Revolution.

Belfast Telegraph

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