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Book Reviews - Military & War

Fallen Felons by Jonathan Livitt

Book available directly from the author Jon Livitt, 8 Woodberry Lane, Rowlands Castle, Hampshire, PO9 6DP email: jonlivitt@btinternet.com   Tel: 02392 412304

It took ten years to research the 283 lives of men listed in The Police Gazette Roll of Honour and registered in the Criminal Record Office. They were killed or died of wounds during World War One 1914-1919.

The entries in alphabetical order give a glimpse of life in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their ages ranged from 18 to 58 but most were aged between 19 and 35. We learn about the character of individuals, the crimes committed and the range of punishments they received. The latter included birching, detention, fines and hard labour.

More than 40% had been detained in a Borstal institute. These men and boys came from all over Britain but I was struck by the number who came from Yorkshire with over 20 from Leeds! I was bemused by a number of entries but one in particular, William Hague from Barnsley, son of a miner, born 1876 was found guilty of a number of offences over a period stretching from 1900 to 1911. These included cruelty to a pony, stealing three ducks, drunk and disorderly, stealing a Canada goose and four other fowls! He spent time in and out of HM Prison Wakefield. He served in The York and Lancaster regiment [Barnsley Pals]. William was killed in action 1916 aged 40 years and buried in Tilloy British Cemetery, France. He was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

Many of the entries are dealt with in great detail others only briefly. The regiments in which they served, manner of death and where buried are described. Although seen as criminals in society, they have a story to tell and with each name representing a life cut short.

The author provides a long list of Primary Sources, Publications and National Archive References along with many websites which researchers may not have been aware.

Reviewed by Ron Pullan

October 2018

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The Victoria Crosses of the Crimean War
- The Men Behind the Medals by James W Bancroft

Published by: Pen & Sword
ISBN: 978-15267-106-11
Price £20 + £4 p&p

A number of recent publications have looked at the recipients of military awards such as the Victoria Cross, and this volume follows suit as it considers the 111 men who were awarded the VC for heroism during the Crimean War. However, what is different is that the VC was introduced during this particular conflict, and hence the author has spent four decades researching its very earliest recipients.

Mr Bancroft tells the stories of these 111 men, describing who they were, why they gained the Victoria Cross, and what happened to them afterwards. The men were from all parts of the British Isles, and included the likes of Claude Thomas BOURCHIER of Barnstaple, Devon ; William REYNOLDS of Edinburgh ; William COFFEY of Knocklong, County Limerick ; and even Henry James RABY, who was born in Boulogne in France. I found it interesting to note that a high proportion of the men seemed to originate from Scotland and Ireland.  

The pen pictures of the men give family details, information gleaned from census returns and newspapers, details of awards taken from the London Gazette and subsequent occupations. Other military awards are noted too. Hence, we learn that Corporal Matthew HUGHES of the 7th Royal Fusiliers received the Crimea Medal with Alma, Inkerman and Sebastopol clasps and the Turkish Crimea Medal, in addition to his VC. The author takes care to record the men’s burial places and to give details of new memorials, as well as detailing the whereabouts of the medals and their accessibility. For example, we are told that Corporal HUGHES’ medals are held in the Royal Fusiliers Museum in the Tower of London.

The men recorded here all displayed valour and determination, with the author’s descriptions of their courageous deeds having resulted in a most interesting volume. It comprises of some 234 pages and is presented in a hard cover with a colour dust jacket. The text is indexed, whilst the author fully documents his sources in an appendix. A bibliography of further reading is also included for those who want to know more. The author’s words are illustrated by the use of monochrome photographs.

Finally, prospective purchasers are advised to carefully check the publisher’s website before buying this volume. At the time of writing, it was on sale at a 20 per cent discount - £20.00 rather than £25.00 - whilst postage charges could be avoided by those spending in excess of a certain amount. Meanwhile, the title is also available in electronic - “Kindle” and “ePub” - formats, via its publisher’s website, at substantially discounted prices.

Reviewed by Paul Gaskell, Oxford Record Society

April 2018

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Tracing Your Boer War Ancestors - by Jane Marchese Robinson

Published by: Pen & Sword
ISBN: 9781473822429
Price £12.99 (£9.09 + £4 p&p from P&S at time of writing)

I had given up trying to put “meat on the bones” of my Boer War ancestor, Bertram Baldwyn as he died so young but now I have read this book I am inspired to look for more details about his short life. Born at Hidcote Boyce, Cotswolds, son to Bernard Eyres Baldwyn from Ashton under Hill, Worcestershire, Bertram died of Typhoid (enteric) aged 20 years in Pretoria as a volunteer Imperial Yeoman (his memorial is in Chipping Campden School).

The Foreword of the book is so interesting that it willed me to read on. It is well printed and easy reading describing the awful suffering and devastation of that war. The chapter Imperial Yeoman linked to my interest of the very young men and talks about them marching from Evesham through Pershore and Stourbridge and I imagined Bertram’s widowed father and siblings being proud of their young Bertram.

For me, reading through the book was like a valuable history lesson (a map of South Africa to refer to places would have been a bonus). The many sad stories handed down from relatives of those who fought shows us why we shouldn’t go to war. Women and children were killed and their homes destroyed under the “scorched earth” policy adopted in 1901. Young soldiers had to follow “their orders” that were crazy British plans or pay the penalty of being shot. Those soldiers who were fortunate to return home - at the “bitter end” - found life was hard too because a lot of mills had closed down and even the agricultural scene had changed because the men had been at war. Life at home was so bad that Widow Funds had to be set up by charitable gentry such as Rowntree, Charles Booth and The Salvation Army to try to help the growing poverty situation at home. Supposedly the British Empire won the Boer War - but debateable as lessons weren’t learned to take us into The Great War.

Reviewed by Val Taylor on behalf of MFHS

May 2017

cover for War Memorials

War Memorials - A Guide for Family Historians
by Susan Tall

Published by: The Family History Partnership
ISBN: 978-906280-46-8
Price £6.50

With the renewed interest in our relatives who were involved in the First World War this book will be useful.  It is divided into two parts: how you might locate a war memorial on which a family member is named and how to research the names and find out a person’s military history.  The author states ‘Do your research carefully, and, although you will often uncover sad and heart-breaking stories, by finding out about the people behind the names on war memorials, you can help make sure they are remembered by future generations.’ 

In the first section there is a good overview of the procedure for the erection of war memorials and the criteria for placing names on the memorials for the First and Second World Wars and subsequent Wars and Conflicts.  In some cases men appear on several memorials; in a town, workplace, school, club or church roll of honour. It is well illustrated with lots of website links to delve into. 

The second part gives advice on researching the names on the memorials from documentary sources to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, datasets such as Soldiers Died in the Great War and local newspapers.  It also guides the reader through sources for military service records.

This is a step by step ‘how to’ guide to locating memorials and the people who may be on them, that I would definitely recommend.

Reviewed by Jane Tunesi

January 2015

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Uncle Tom at War: From Penmachno to Prison Camp
by Hywel Roberts

Published by: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst  www.carreg-gwalch.com
ISBN: 978-1-84524-224-4
Price £8.00

This is the story of Thomas Williams of Penmachno in the Conwy Valley. It begins by giving some background information relating to the family’s history in the Valley during the nineteenth century, illustrated with family photographs. At the turn of the twentieth century Tom served his apprenticeship as a tailor before enlisting – travelling throughout Wales and England to gain employment and also to holiday. The information relating to his travels is compiled from the family collection of postcards, letters and photographs that he sent to various family members.

Most of Chapter 3 is focused on a World War I postcard encouraging financial support for the War and I feel has little significance to Tom’s story. He enlisted with the Liverpool Scottish Battalion after a recruitment campaign in Colwyn Bay in 1915, some background information relating to the Regiment is given along with details of the deployment of the Battalion to France in 1916 where Tom was stationed for a time.

In 1917 he was shot and became a prisoner-of-war in Germany, his time there is illustrated by photographs of fellow prisoners and a few letters that have survived. After his discharge from the Army he returned to work as a tailor in Colwyn Bay.

This was a very easy read about the life of one young man serving in the First World War, additionally illustrated by the wonderful photographs, postcards and few letters that survived within the family. It was not heavily laden with details about the War, just enough to give you some idea of the situation at the time. I hope such a book will encourage others to write similarly about their ancestors using surviving material within the family and further afield.

Reviewed Beryl Evans (Cardiganshire Family History Society)

January 2015

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Militia Lists and Musters 1757 – 1876 (5th Edition)
by Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott

Published by: The Family History Partnership
ISBN: 978 1 906280 42 0
Price £4.95

All family historians are well used to the census records from 1841 but earlier censuses are less known and much more difficult to find.

The Militia Ballot lists were introduced to provide, parish by parish a list of all adult men. Ballots were then held to determine who should be called up to the Militia. These lists in theory provide a census of all men aged 18-50 (1758 – 1762) and 18 – 45 (1762 - 1831) 

Defence lists, compiled in 1798 and 1803-4, were similar but were to be used to organise reserves of men to help the civil population and remove crops etc in the event of an invasion by the French.

The book goes into more detail about what information is contained in these lists. It will tell you which records survive and where to find them and includes a useful bibliography.

The information is well set out and easy to use and includes Archive and Record Offices references.

The fact that this finding aid has reached 5 editions shows that more of these records are coming to light.

Reviewed by John Treby

October 2014

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Breverton’s First World War Curiosities
by Terry Breverton

Published by: Amberley Publishing
ISBN: 978 1 4456 3341 1
Price £9.99

Breverton’s First World War Curiosities By Terry Breverton.
Published by Amberley Publishing
 ISBN 978 1 4456 3341 1 £9.99
The tommy, having had his baby’s head and spotted dog, pulled on his British warm and his Brodie. He met the old sweat and together they crept through the fire trench to the sap. They hoped that there would be no moaning minnies or coal boxes and that the Rupert would leave them alone until it was time to return to the cubby hole for a spot of crumbing up before doing it all again in a few hours.

The centenary of the start of the First World War has given rise to a plethora of books but this one concentrates on providing lots of interesting facts about all aspects of the war.

Its great benefit is that the chapters provide facts in bite size pieces of related information: The start of the war, the war at sea, the war on land, weapons, heroes and villains etc. This format allows the reader to learn a lot easily. If you want to know about the tunnels under enemy trenches, the information is there in a page and a half.

Learn how bees forced a British landing to retreat and how slugs were used as an early warning device.

Read the book to find out what the first sentence means!

The only criticism is that some of the proof reading was poor.

Reviewed by John Treby

October 2014

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Our Land at War: Britain's Key First World War Sites
by Nick Bosanquet

Published by: The History Press
ISBN: 9780752499628
Price £14.99

This new paperback book from The History Press is yet another in the plethora of new titles emerging with the anniversary of the start of the Great War.  It is well researched without being too academic in delivery, informative and easy to read and the content makes you look at areas that may be familiar to you in a different light.

There is an excellent introduction to the time, as Bosanquet informs us ‘The First World War was a challenge to a generation of Britons’, those serving in the Forces and those left at home supporting the ‘War Effort’, both male and female.

Each chapter covers a different topic, such as The Supply Lifelines, Intelligence and Propaganda and The Munitions Surprise, as well as sections on the three Services.  Each chapter has a gazetteer element where, if you wanted to, you could plan a First World War trip around places in your locality.

There are endnotes for each chapter, excellently chosen illustrations, although sometimes the source is not noted, a good clear text, maps and Guide to places mentioned in the text, index and bibliography.

A book I would recommend to researchers of the Great War as well as those interested in their local area from an historical or family history point of view.   It was interesting to learn about places I knew and their involvement in the War to End all Wars.

Reviewed by Jane Tunesi of Liongam
Hertfordshire FHS and Editor of  Hertfordshire People (society journal)

September 2014

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Female Tommies – The Frontline Women of the First World War Front - by Elisabeth Shipton

Published by: The History Press
ISBN: 978 0 7524 9143 1
Price £18.99

This is obviously a well researched book that gives the reader a lot of information and background detail on the military role of women in the war, the women’s organisations that participated in the First World War and a general history of worldwide attitudes to women doing ‘men’s’ work.

If you had any relatives that were in any of the nursing bodies, like the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Scottish Women’s Hospital, then this is a must read book as it tells how and why they formed and the role they played in the First World War. Apart from the women who were instrumental in founding all of the women’s organisations there are also stories of women like Flora Sandes, who although British, served in the Serbian Army alongside men. There is also a chapter on the many Russian women that served in the war and one on the American women who got involved long before the USA officially entered the First World War, plus lots of other women’s stories including people like Mata Hari and Edith Cavell.

Women wanted their Corps to be a part of the Army and the book explains that men in government were keen for women to be enrolled as civilians and not enlisted as then they wouldn’t be entitled to the vote.

I found this book a very informative read and my only criticism would be that the shading on the maps didn’t vary enough to make them easy to read. There is a full bibliography included if you want some further reading.

Reviewed by Jill Hickey (Member of Felixstowe FHS and Cambridgeshire FHS)

September 2014

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British Posters of the First World War - by John Christopher

Published by: Amberley Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-4456-3316-9
Price £18.00

This lavishly illustrated book is split is into 16 chapters and explores the art and themes of the many posters that emerged throughout the course of the war. Each chapter has a brief introduction and the illustrations have accompanying captions, but the images speak for themselves.

Using simple slogans and strong graphic imagery the posters were aimed at the working class, they were a form of mass communication that was easy to understand with a strong, clear message.

Many were calls to action such as those illustrated with the well known and much reproduced image of Lord Kitchener but there are other themes explored such as Women at War, Wartime Charities and The War Horses.

The author John Christopher has a degree in Graphic Art. With many titles on the subject of the First World War already published and more to come as we approach the centenary, this book is different; Christopher has drawn on a vast collection of works from a variety of organisations and individuals and has included cartoons from his own collection. All of these serve to explain and explore the importance and impact this medium had on the great British public.

Reviewed by

June 2014

In the Mind’s Eye: the blinded veterans of St Dunstans
by David Castleton

cover for In the Minds Eye

Link to Pen & Sword Books

ISBN 9781781593479
Price £19.99

If your ancestors were blinded whilst serving in the armed forces during the twentieth century, then the likelihood is that they were helped by St Dunstans. This charity for war blinded was established by Sir Arthur Pearson, the founder of the Daily Express, who himself suffered from glaucoma. It provided (and still, as Blind Veterans UK, provides) occupational training for over 3,000 blind ex-servicemen, and sought to demonstrate that there was life and hope after blindness. Whoever heard of the blind playing darts or climbing mountains? The answer: St Dunstaners!

This book recounts the history of St Dunstans from its founding in 1915, through two world wars. It is a story well-told, and includes the stories of many individuals. There was, for example, Thomas Drummond, blinded at Gallipoli, who had been second engineer on a passenger liner before the war, and who was the first St Dunstaner to train as a diver. Divers, of course, can’t see much under the water, so it is almost irrelevant if they are blind. Sometimes, the individual stories are so interesting that the author gets carried away and forgets he is writing about St Dunstans! Bill Stalham, for example, was forced to dig his own grave at Changi, before being sent off by his Japanese captors to clear the jungle for the Burma Railway. His exploits as a prisoner of war occupy four pages before we are told that his sight failed much later in life, and that he came to St Dunstans in 1977. Everyone whose relatives were helped by St Dunstans will find this book interesting. So will those who are interested in the history of disabilities in twentieth century Britain. However, I do have one complaint – probably due more to the publisher than the author. Where did the author’s information come from? And how would the researcher discover details of St Dunstaners? Presumably, the archives of St Dunstans are preserved somewhere, and it may be assumed that much information came from personal reminiscences. Other sources, such as newspapers, may have been consulted. But we are not told. Genealogists would have found this book much more useful if this information had been provided, so that they could trace the details of individual St Dunstaners.

Reviewed by Stuart A. Raymond

November 2013

Tracing Your First World War Ancestors – by Simon Fowler

cover for First World War Ancestors

Link to Pen & Sword Books

ISBN 978 1 78159 037 9
Price £10.39

This paper backed book is a delight! Clearly laid out and written expertly for the novice researcher in mind (although some military knowledge makes the task easier); full of detail, including black and white photographs, extracts from copious documents, VDU screen prints of salient visuals, to name but a few; the narrative is easy on the eye. Lots of web addresses are listed throughout, although I would prefer to have seen these emboldened or underlined. It is important to note that, although some of the accessible on-line information is free of charge, the researcher will need to watch their wallet carefully. Quite a few websites insist on 'pay per view' or subscription fees. These must be paid up front before any access to databases, photographs, newspaper cuttings etc is permitted. In some instances, when quoting a particular website, the author has been kind enough to list estimated costs involved, thereby assisting the researcher with discerning their expected project overheads.

There are 161 pages in total … comprising a detailed contents list, Appendices and Index, each chapter is clearly laid out so the reader is able to dip in and out as their research challenges dictate. The book's author has clearly done a tremendous amount of meticulous research, both on the ground and via the internet, enabling the die-hard enthusiast to sit comfortably at their desk and let their fingers do the walking!

All aspects of the First World War are covered : tracing causalities, locating and using service records, war diaries, pension record cards … the list is endless and thorough. All three services (the Army, Royal Navy and RAF) are covered in good detail with a chapter dedicated to Women and Civilians. The last chapter houses information pertaining to The Dominions - Australia, Canada, India, and various other countries are listed too.

With four appendices covering everything from useful addresses, key websites and battlefield tourism, there is also an informative section on how the army was organised. Interestingly, In Chapter 3 under the heading 'Service Records - other ranks and non-commissioned officers', the author has made a cautionary note where he elaborates on the loss of documents. These papers were unfortunately destroyed in a fire in 1940. However, Simon does give detailed descriptions on how to trace any surviving records.

With the centenary of the First World War approaching, I am sure that there will be a lot of interest from all generations in finding out about the lives of their parents, grandparents and other family members during the early part of the last century. Priced competitively at £12.99, 'Tracing Your First World War Ancestors' therefore, in my humble opinion, is likely to become the First World War researcher's "Bible of Choice".

Reviewed by Stephanie Turner

August 2013

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Evacuees - Growing Up in Wartime Britain
by Geoffrey Lee Williams

Published by Amberley Publishing
ISBN 978-1445613345
Price £9.99

Geoffrey Lee Williams has written about the wartime experiences shared by his twin brother Alan and himself for the duration of the Second World War.  The boys’ family home was close to Shooters Hill in Woolwich.  They were evacuated on three separate occasions to different parts of England, but returned home in between times to experience aspects of intense enemy action against London.

The book is a delightful tale of their wartime experiences and shows how children’s’ antics could produce amusing outcomes, even under the conditions of the time.  Geoffrey’s light style of authorship captures the spirit of the times; it is fascinating to read how inventiveness and play acting helped children cope during those years.

There are some interesting snippets about wartime propaganda and certain war efforts which came to nothing.  For example, you will be surprised to read what happened to the pots, pans and railings collected for the war effort!  Geoffrey’s commentary on social change in Britain is interesting.  The author has included a couple of chapters on the life of the twins in the post-war period.  This rounds off the tale rather nicely.

My only criticism is that the book isn’t indexed.  However, an index isn’t really essential and its absence should not detract from your experience as a reader.

Overall, this book is an enjoyable read which provides some nice pieces of information to flesh out the lives of your wartime family members.

I would certainly recommend this book as a holiday read.


Reviewed by Richard M Brown, member of The East Surrey FHS & The Lincolnshire FHSS

July 2013

Air Force Lives – by Phil Tomaselli

cover for Air Force Lives

Link to Pen & Sword Books

ISBN 9781848847439
Price £10.29

Phil Tomaselli wrote in his introduction that after writing Tracing your Air Force Ancestors he was not sure that there was much that could be added. He then goes on to say that on reflection there were people in his first book that deserve a more in-depth treatment. I agree with him, his method gives us a glimpse of the human face(s) of Air Force Service.

He gives an out line of the history of the Air Forces mentioned and then, in each chapter, gives a variety of people with the places they were in, and of course the planes that were being flown. As one would expect with Phil Thomaselli there are excellent references at the end of each chapter. He also adds extra information e.g. what is not there - so records for RAF Officers are in AIR 76 at TNA (The National Archives) and on-line, whereas those for ordinary airmen are at TNA in AIR 79 but, contrary to popular belief, are not on-line.

Phil has also covered a huge time span from the Wright brother to the 1970s. Some of the Air Force personnel worked, and flew, during the First World War, and were still involved in the Second World War. They therefore coped with a tremendous learning curve going from String Bags to jets.

The author uses a variety of sources for his research and readily shares them with the reader. Most of us think of the on-line resources first, he prefers to use original sources where possible, he uses newspapers both national and local, oral history backed up by documented evidence, personal diaries and Log Books. He has also visited places where the action happened, taking photos to illustrate his points. I recommend this book for all researching their Air Forces Ancestors.

Reviewed by Ann Gynes, Publicity Officer of Dorset Family History Society

May 2013

Tracing Your Army Ancestors (2nd Edition) – by Simon Fowler

cover for Army Ancestors

Link to Pen & Sword Books

ISBN 9781844154104
Price £12.99

This is the second edition of Simon Fowler’s guide, first published in 2006 and fully updated to include online resources and information on major archives and museums.

It is what I call a ‘dip into’ book, for each chapter is packed with information some of which may be of immediate use whilst other information may not be relevant to your particular line of research.

A complete beginner to family history? You are exhorted by the author to read Chapter 1 and this I would fully endorse, beginner or not,  to ensure that you have covered all that can and could be done before embarking on the quest of tracing your army ancestor.  Having read Chapter 1 then follow your heart to the Chapter that would seem to echo your needs into army research.  Most of the chapters are followed by lists of books to provide further reading and scattered throughout the book are references to 'Further Information'. The appendices covering such items as army service numbers and army ranks are a welcome addition.

Yes, there are other books on army ancestry but I found this book both readable and informative, however, as an avid reader of indexes, I must confess to being disappointed by the brevity of the index for there are things within the text that you will only find by reading the actual section. To have included them within the index would have encouraged the reader to that section, perhaps a section which they may not otherwise have thought of reading.

Reviewed by Dominic Johnson, of Nottinghamshire FHS

26 April 2013

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Remembrance And Community: War Memorials and Local History – by Kate Tiller

Published by The British Association for Local History (BALH)
ISBN 978-0-948-140-01-3
Available from  BALH at PO Box 6549, Somersal Herbert, Ashourne DE6 5WH
mail@balh.co.uk Tel: 01283 585947 £6.95 (£5 to BALH members)

Published at this time,  prior to the Centenary of the outbreak of WW1, this new title from BALH written by Kate Tiller, Reader Emerita in English Local History, University of Oxford and a Visiting Fellow, Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester provides an informative  guide for anyone wishing to conduct a study into local war memorials whether for personal interest  or as part of a community project.

Within this slim volume of just 56 pages, the author identifies  a variety of sources and suggests ways in which one might research how a particular memorial came into being, how it was viewed within the community and those it commemorates.

An interesting and enlightening opening chapter on local memorials before 1914 sets the scene before concentrating on remembrance and memorials 1914-18. Ms. Tiller makes use of four interesting Case Studies to demonstrate the use of resources suggested, however, with the emphasis, not surprisingly, on  ‘local’ history, the aspect of research concerning the lives of those commemorated on the memorials, i.e. their ‘family history’  is not covered in any great detail.

The book is well illustrated throughout with excellent colour photographs and provides a Further Reading list as well as a short list of Websites which omits some that I would have expected to see e.g . http://www.roll-of-honour.com/

At a time of heightened awareness of the Great War and a need to ensure that memorials are preserved and recorded, this book might hopefully inspire newcomers to local, social and family history to get involved in this rewarding aspect of research. An interesting addition to the book shelf.

Reviewed by Phiilppa McCray

11 April 2013



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