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History quest

PUBLISHED: 13:44 12 March 2008 | UPDATED: 10:16 07 July 2010

IT was a grainy black and white photograph showing the officers of a battalion taken in early summer 1915 just before the men left for the trenches in France - some never to return.

IT was a grainy black and white photograph showing the officers of a battalion taken in early summer 1915 just before the men left for the trenches in France - some never to return.

In the centre of the picture was Andrew Tatham's great grandfather, William Crawford Walton, and Mr Tatham decided to embark on a journey of discovery about the faces on the photograph that was to take him an amazing 14 years.

It took him seven years alone to find all the direct descendants of the 46 men in the photograph and contact each member of the family and start to compile their stories.

The officers were in the 8th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and Mr Tatham became focused on the image and of the stories behind each face.

“As my eyes moved from face to face, all sorts of questions came to mind. How did they come to be there? What happened to them all? And how are they remembered?

But instead of just wondering, Mr Tatham decided he would find out what he could and his painstaking detective work would have made the likes of Inspector Morse and Poirot proud.

He meticulously researched the soldiers' details to piece together family trees for all the group. It took him all over the world and cost thousands of pounds of his own money and countless hours of his time.

“It was one of those things that you have an idea about and by the time you realise it is too ridiculously stupid a project you can't give it up. I couldn't have got to the end of my life without knowing the stories behind all those faces,” he said. The results of his research have been made into an animated art-style film called A Group Photograph.

Mr Tatham, 43, who works part-time at Fakenham library, confessed that the project became all-consuming “During that first seven years I did take time out from it because I ran out of money and needed to work full-time and just became exhausted with it all. I then found enthusiasm again when I started contacting more families.”

He explained that he had to contact people out of the blue and they could have thought he was after their money so he had to allay those fears before he arranged to meet them and talk about their lives.

“I knew that I couldn't just ring people up, so I write and enclosed a stamped addressed envelope. In my letter I outlined what I was doing and enclosed a letter of reference from a university professor.”

Mr Tatham, who lives at Fulmondeston, said he really only had one person who gave a negative response.

“Some of the families I contacted really embraced me and I one family invited me to South Africa and they treated me almost as one of the family. My research took me to 23 counties in England, Scotland, Australia the United States and Canada and I wrote to people in Ireland, Hong Kong Switzerland, Argentina”.

During his fact-finding missions, Mr Tatham discovered that 26 of the men in the photograph had married and that there were more than 230 direct descendants of the officers.

The last member of the group died in 1989 aged 94 .

Relatives of the officers include Pugh The Times cartoonist, an Oscar winning cameraman, an ambassador to Bulgaria, and a man who survived the Paddington train disaster.

His project has included a poignant letter written by his grandfather after the 1915 Battle of Loos.

He wrote that the battalion went over the trenches with 900 men to fight the Germans but only 220 survivors made it back. The letter says “Thank God I have been spared without a scratch after taking part in the greatest fight in history.”

He explained that one of the interesting aspects of the project was that when he started out the internet didn't really exist in the way it does now.

“If it hadn't been for the internet I would still be trying to find these people,” he said.

“There were loads of family history nuts on the internet. I was looking for the brother of one of the chaps in the photograph and I put a message out in New South Wales and a retired insurance man used his contacts to find the family for me,” he said.

Mr Tatham said that the initially he funded the project with some of his savings and then later he came into some money and that meant he could continue with the research.

“I realised that the project was what I really wanted to do and the money meant I could carry on. Most of my research had been finished by 2003 when I went to Australia to visit a couple of families and then I spent a couple of years making my film,” he said.

Mr Tatham first showed the film in 2005 in Surrey and he showed it yesterday at Fakenham library. There are other screenings in Norfolk later this summer, including Dereham and Cromer.

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