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Site to track Great War relatives

As commemorations for the centenary of the First World With begin, many people are keen to find out more about their relatives' involvement.

But for Joanna Legg, the search for families' links to the Great War, including her own, is nothing new.

Mrs Legg, 54, has traced the connection between her own family and the war, and has spent years helping other people search for their own ancestors' role in the First World War.

Her interest started as a child, when her father took her and her grandparents to visit the grave of her great uncle - her grandfather's brother.

She said: "When I was three, my father was serving in Germany in the army and he took me along with my mum and my grandpa and grandma and my other grandma.

"I just have a memory of skipping around the graves as a very tiny tot and my grandfather signing the visitors' book. That memory stayed with me."

As her interest grew, Mrs Legg and her father started researching the man they affectionately referred to as "Uncle Tom".

She later found more about him, including a letter written by his mother to his superiors asking where he was, with an annotation adding: "not listed in casualties, have informed his mother".

"I also found that my mother's father served in the Royal Artillery and his four brothers also served and two of them didn't come home.

"In total in the combined families I have found 20 young men who served in our family and six of them didn't come back."

At one point Mrs Legg's father was asked to take members of the history club at the NATO base he was stationed at on a tour.

The experience proved to be the birth of a thriving battlefield tour business in the 1980s and 1990s, called Flanders Tours, taking 45-50 people six or seven times a year.

"It was an amazing time really. We ended up taking a lot of veterans. Some were quite quiet, but some would see a grave and then suddenly all the stories would come out," she said.

Visitors included one lady whose local council paid for her, joined by her daughter, to go and see her father's grave.

"She told me she remembered being two and sitting on his knee and feeling the scratchy feel of his uniform," she said. "Obviously he didn't come back.

"We took her to his grave and she sat there for quite a long time, she didn't really want to move."

Mrs Legg, from Bracknell, Berkshire, said the tours attracted people from across the world, and all walks of life.

"You could have people from all sectors of society, young and old, and somehow the group would always gel together.

"There was always a slight sense of reluctance about getting off the bus at the end."

She and her father stopped running tours when he returned to the UK and she became a mother, but she went on to set up the website to help people learn more about the First World War and their own relatives' involvement.

"I run the website with my husband as a labour of love," she said. "I have a particular passion to help people locate and find out about what I call those 'lost' servicemen - men and women whose memories have been put away in a drawer for years or are not known about by families and they come to light when a family member discovers they existed and played a part in the First World War."

When she is not helping people, Mrs Legg runs the business behind the Rembrella - the distinctive poppy umbrella sold as part of Remembrance commemorations.

She said people contacted the greatwar website from across the world with inquiries about relatives.

"Sometimes I can start with a name and find out this wonderful story. Other times you're struggling a bit.

"Sometimes you can find things quite quickly, other times it can take years.

"But sometimes you can have that eureka moment. Then there's a connection, even the tiniest piece of information feels great.

"People always come back to me and say thank you. Some I have kept in touch with and we've become friends. It becomes a sort of group, or family."

And overall, interest in links to the Great War is growing, especially as the centenary period approaches, she said.

"It's getting busier and busier. It seems like our time has come, from next year onwards.

"My son, when he was six, sat next to veteran Bill Stone (one of the last UK First World War veterans, who died in 2009 aged 108) who was 104 or 105 at the time.

"I said to him, 'you will remember this moment, there aren't that many veterans left'.

"My only one sad feeling about it is that they won't know this huge interest that is going to come."


From Belfast Telegraph