Inheriting family medals can provide a lead-in to an exercise in historical research at the personal level – something that genealogists do all the time. Medals can be particularly handy if one knows the rules for their award and (with the exception of British Commonwealth WWII campaign medals) can follow up the inscription information on the rim with official histories and personal military files. It can be even more rewarding if more than one family member or generation is involved as information from one generation can fill in holes on the next.
Such was the case with the collection in Fig 1 below. The top two rows of medals had been preserved by one Serjeant Major John Adelta Baker (with the bottom and centre group added by the current generation). Baker had preserved his own medals (top right), his father’s (top left), one of his brother-in-law’s (centre left) and his son’s WWI war medal (centre right). He, like his father and brother-in-law, was a career soldier – indeed a career that research indicates ran a bit longer than it should have.
When (exactly) he was born and where remains a bit of a mystery, even to the army as it turns out. Family legend has it that he was born at sea and a look at the few records that remain of his father’s service suggest that this was likely true. His father (also named John Baker) joined the 1st battalion 1st (Royal) Regiment of Foot in 1836 and served on garrison duty in Gibraltar and the West Indies, attaining the rank of Serjeant Major by 1847. That battalion was posted to New Brunswick (Saint John and Fredericton) in 1848 and J. Baker Sr seems to have purchased his exit from the army in 1849 and returned to England. He rejoined the army shortly thereafter, was re-assigned to the 13th Foot, and was sent to the Crimea in 1854. Some intimation from English parish records suggest that his wife was from New Brunswick which would lead one to assume that he may have: a. had to marry her, b. leave the army to do so, and c. leave the local society posthaste. The baby’s middle name “Adelta” is an odd one and needs to be confirmed. British tradition at the time was that children born at sea took the name of the ship they were born in but Lloyd’s Register of shipping for 1850 shows no ship of that name or anything close. A family legend still under investigation…
Another legend is that this child, John A. Baker, lied about his age to join the army. A copy of his attestation papers shows that he joined the army November 1864 with the “apparent age of 16 years”. This would have had him being born while his father was being shipped back from the West Indies so it is indeed likely that he had misrepresented his age – with some help from dad who had co-signed his papers. By 1867 though, he is a Serjeant in the 13th Foot and an early family photo probably shows him at this rank (Fig 2).
Most of his early service was either at “home” which from 1866-7 included a stint in Ireland. It was there that he probably met his wife, Mary Anne Dowling, a Catholic from county Birr south west of Dublin. A guess is that they were married in a Catholic service and family legend has it that she was estranged from the family for having married an NCO. This seems improbable as her own brother, Michael Dowling, was a Serjeant with the 2/18th Foot then serving in New Zealand in the Maori Wars. More probable was that she was “kicked out” for marrying an English Protestant. If such a marriage had occurred (and Mary appeared to be a committed Catholic) it would likely not have been recognized by the Army without sanction from the Church of England. The Battalion was moved to Gibraltar and then to Malta in 1872 and just before it was due to move to South Africa, his army records (and an extract of the British Army Chaplain’s records found on-line) note that he was married (probably again) in Malta 11 Nov 1874. The picture of his wife (Fig 3) probably dates from about this time. An officially recognised marriage like this was important as NCO’s were occasionally permitted to take their families with them on overseas postings.
And so it happened. When the battalion was posted to South Africa in 1874, Mary Anne accompanied him and at least one of their children was born there. Again, family stories have a monkey absconding with a new-born baby and Mary had to coax it down from a tree. The only personal artifact from this time period that has survived along with his medals and badges is Baker’s field cutlery (Fig 4) – similar to the Museum’s Boer War fork - with the additional feature that the fork and spoon could fold up into their bone handles. During their time there, the Battalion was involved in the Ninth Xosa War (which Baker’s records do not comment on) and of course the rather unfortunate Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Fortunately for Baker, the 13th was not in Durnford’s column (which got massacred at Isandlwana) but rather with Col Wood’s brigade.
Wood almost got into a similar pickle at Kambula where his 2000 man column, which included the 1/13th, got surrounded by a 20,000 man Zulu force. Nonetheless the attack was contained and turned into a rout of the Zulus when Wood’s mounted troops attacked during the Zulu retreat. After this, and a few similar attacks by the Zulus, a rather more cautious and reinforced British group advanced into Zululand – again with a large column of supplies and camp followers as well.
Indeed a further family legend holds that Mary Anne “entertained some Indian prince just before he was assegaied by the Zulus”. Not quite. The prince in question was the Prince Imperial of France, Napoleon Eugene, exiled to England after his father, Napoleon III, was captured at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Attached to Lord Chelmsford’s army in South Africa as an observer, the impetuous prince went out on a scouting mission with a small escort and was ambushed – indeed falling to assegai thrusts from the Zulu attackers. His body was retrieved shortly after, in part by privates of the 13th Foot. It is likely that the senior NCO’s wives would have been employed to serve at a field mess dinner or event shortly before his demise 1 June 1879 and no doubt Mary Anne got to meet him then. Chelmsford, anxious to retrieve his battered reputation after another disastrous PR event, pushed on to the Zulu capital at Ulundi before he could be relieved. Here, his army (including the 13th Foot) withstood a final attack from weakened Zulu forces before the Zulus broke allowing the British to enter and destroy his kraal. Baker, now a Colour Serjeant, received the South Africa Medal (1880) with the relatively uncommon 1878-9 bar and returned to England and the regimental barracks at Taunton in Somerset.
He became an “Instructor of Musketry” and was promoted Serjeant Major in 1883 and the family history is rife with anecdotes of the time immemorial problems faced by senior NCO’s attempting to teach drill to junior officers.
A further legend from this time has him noticing a boy playing on a weir over some dangerous water. He apparently admonished the boy to get off but was “given lip”. The boy continued playing around and fell in and Serjeant Major Baker then jumped in, pulled him out, and then “gave him a good hiding” for disobedience. The story has the local townsfolk giving him a silver topped cane in thanks. Army records (and a note in the Regimental history) confirm that he received the Royal Humane Society Testimonial for Lifesaving for “having on 9 Sep 1886 saved John Pierce from drowning”.
While he had completed his 21 years of limited service engagement by 1885, he stayed on with the army until taking his retirement, in Taunton in 1891. But this was not to be the last of his time in the army. In 1914 his oldest son, John Baker (the family was not terribly imaginative when it came to names for boys) joined the regiment’s 5th battalion (now known by its territorial name, the Somerset Light Infantry) and shipped off to India where he caught an eventually fatal case of TB. The senior Baker once again applied to join the army no doubt admitting that their records as to his age were somewhat in error. Surprisingly the old man was taken on as an Acting Serjeant Major in B Squadron of the Army Service Corps Remount Service in September 1915 but his service did not last long. After he suffered severe contusions from a fall from a wagon, the doctors recommended his immediate release from service in December of that year as being no longer fit for service. The army studiedly maintained that his age on discharge was precisely 65 years and 0 months.
Retirement consisted of living with his large family in the regimental town of Taunton, Somerset and obviously maintaining contacts with the army. Indeed a photo from about 1924 (Fig 5) shows him chatting with the Duke of York, then the Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment, probably at a regimental function. By this time the old soldier has added a Long Service and Good Conduct medal and, post-war, a Meritorious Service Medal to his African campaign medal. He had also been awarded the Silver War Badge during WWI in recognition of an honourable discharge during that conflict. The Duke of course, would become King George VI some 12 years later on the abdication of his brother in 1936.
Baker died in July 1926 at the (probable) age of 76 (according to the regimental history). The family stories have the streets lined with old comrades in a regimental send-off. Unfortunately, another family story claims that he had kept a diary of his experiences in Africa and was in the process of working his notes up into a book. He had remarried after Mary Anne died and his new wife, a compulsive house keeper, “threw the messy papers out”. A great loss to family and indeed, regimental history.
Notes on the research: Medals, particularly ones annotated with the recipient’s name and service number, are a very useful key to unlocking the attendant history. One key element to note is the conditions of service for issuing the medal which may give a hint to the individual’s campaign service or in the case of Long Service medals, when they may have joined. British military records held at the National Archives at Kew Gardens are still quite complete even back to the mid-Victorian era and a name, service number, and regiment will usually allow a researcher to locate the member’s service records. Linking these with a regimental history (and some of the best of these are held at the NDHQ library or at DHH) or, better still, a regimental diary or records and muster rolls may provide details on precisely where and when a member served. Finally a close look at the details of uniforms and badges together with a knowledge of the changes in uniform regulations will assist in dating a photo. Many regiments still maintain regimental museums and associations and a letter to them may also elicit additional information. Finally, the best source of personal information is often the family itself though the stories often need to be confirmed as they become dated. Best to get the information while it is still available. (I wish I had asked …)
Submitted by Cdr (Ret’d) Mark Tunnicliffe
 The spelling of Sergeant officially used by the British until 1953. His medals are annotated accordingly.
 The more recent medals include Baker’s granddaughter’s WWII RAF medals, his great grandson’s Canadian service medals (and 1972 era navy cap badge) and his great grand daughter-in-law’s reserve and regular force cap badges.