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Just ask: War historian discovers a personal past

Petticoat Lane market, Wentworth Street, London in the early 1900s, the district where Abraham Benjamin worked as ‘frock hand’ to a manufacturing tailor.

News

Posted on February 1 2018

This year, as Australia commemorates the centenary of the last significant battles on the Western Front and the Armistice of 1918, Australians are increasingly asking about their military ancestors including journalist and historian Mark Dapin.

Dapin has authored numerous books on Australian military campaigns, but did not know he had a military ancestor until he started researching his cultural heritage for his children.

On Ancestry he discovered his great-great-uncle, Abraham Benjamin, a British rifleman who died on the Western Front in 1914 at the age of just 22.

“I’d spent 2½ years talking to Jewish people with ancestors who served in the First World War, researching Jewish Anzacs – and I had no idea I was one of them. It was extraordinary,” he said.

“Then I helped one of those hundred people, a woman at the National Library who was researching her great-grandfather.

“We found his name and were truly shocked. We read his biography on the screen … there were tears in her eyes. I almost cried too.”

In retrospect, Mark can see how it was easy for him to miss the obvious.

“Abraham Benjamin’s story was never told in my family. The war created great sadness – so many men died so young – and people didn’t want to pass on that sadness. After the war, there was an overwhelming blanket of pacifism and, in Jewish families especially, there’s a reluctance to talk about military involvement,” he said.

“When it was mentioned later, my family was congenitally confused, with so many names passed on from generation to generation, and unreliable memories feeding on each other.

Dapin recently visited his ancestor’s grave in the Rifle House Cemetery south of Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, and viewed his attestation papers.

Author Mark Dapin at the grave of his great-great uncle Abraham Benjamin

These records reveal that young Abe Benjamin was a ‘frock-hand’ from Stepney, then known for its large population of Ashkenazi Jews who had fled to East London in the late 1800s to escape persecution in Tsarist Russia.

Abe’s occupation in tailoring was typical of his time and place. Jewish immigrants cornered the market in second-hand clothes in Petticoat Lane and then set up rag-trade factories in Whitechapel Road. The Jewish Free School, which Abe most likely attended before joining the militia, had 4300 students, making it the largest school in the world.

Abe followed his father into tailoring and who knows what he might have achieved, had his life not been cut short after just 3½ months on the Western Front. The diary for his battalion reveals that on the day he died, 6 December 1914, he was not fighting, but most likely sniped at or shelled while building fortifications.

“At the In Flanders Field Museum I was still in disbelief, not expecting to find any records,” Mark said.

“I thought: ‘I must already know about his existence. This fact could not have passed me by.’

“But I keyed his name into the database and his details appeared. There he was. … I had goose pimples.

“Then we found his grave, with a Star of David. It was quite beautiful in the woodlands and a fawn walked by. I wanted to think the young deer was Abe’s spirit.

“I just stood there and looked at the headstone, thinking ‘It’s true. He lived.’ Abraham Benjamin lived and was forgotten … but not entirely forgotten.

“Abe had three stones on his grave, which is the Jewish [mitzvah] custom of remembrance, so others have remembered him as well.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of glorifying an ancestor, to bask in some of that reflected glory, but this has given me a greater appreciation.

“It’s important to see the service records, the memorials and cemeteries – how vast they are – to understand the devastation and unimaginable casualties of the First World War.”

“For anyone wondering about their family’s military history I’d say ‘just ask’ – start with family members or make enquiries online.”

References

Further reading

  • Simon Fowler. Tracing Your Great War Ancestors: Ypres – A Guide for Family Historians. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2015.
  • Mark Dapin. Jewish Anzacs: Jews in the Australian Military. Sydney: NewSouth, 2017.

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