Last night viewers in the UK were treated to the first episode of series 9 of Who Do You Think You Are? This episode featured the actress Samantha Womack, formerly Janus, and proved that this excellent genealogy programme has lost none of its quality.
Samantha started from the position of knowing very little about her ancestry, as many of us do, and began her research by speaking to her paternal grandmother. From this discussion she was able to move a couple of generations back, as she discovered the name of her great-grandmother and her great-great grandparents.
She decided to focus on her great-grandfather, Alexander Cunningham Ryan, and his experiences in the First World War fighting for the Scots Guards. She had been told that he suffered complication with his chest as a result of being exposed to poisonous gas, and wanted to investigate further. However, as it turned out, the chest problems actually arose from a gunshot wound to the lung.
Alexander Cunningham Ryan's service records revealed that he was a Glaswegian musician before the war, and as a result Samantha's next port of call was Glasgow. In particular, she wanted to investigate the fact that he had previously been in the Highland Light Infantry. In fact, it turned out that he had joined when he was only fourteen years old. It was discovered that this is where he learnt his skills as a musician.
More interestingly, a question was thrown up as to exactly how long Alexander has served with the HLI. His original records stated eight years, but his later Scots Guards records stated fourteen years. Samantha discovered that between the HLI and the Scots Guards Alexander had served with the Royal Garrison Artillery in Plymouth. The next revelation was that he had deserted from this post and had been imprisoned as a result, which explains why he had lied about his service record to the Scots Guards.
Interesting stuff indeed, and it gets better. A search of local historical records revealed that his crimes were the theft of two musical instruments. With a dishonourable discharge, it would have been virtually impossible for Alexander ever to re-enlist. In effect, the beginning of the First World War and the demand for soldiers gave him an opportunity to serve again, and he was able to conceal his past successfully.
This story made up only the first half of Samantha Womack's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? She went on to research her great-grandmother's past, which revealed some heartbreaking facts. I recommend you catch the full episode on the BBC iPlayer if you can. All in all a very good start to the new series.