As the world remembered the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo this week, the day had special meaning for one South Yorkshire man.
Les Leng, of Kimberworth in Rotherham, found himself remembering a relative he didn’t even know had existed before this year; Private John Hird of the 2nd Regiment of Lifeguards.
John was the four-times great-grandfather of Les’s three children and one of the lucky survivors of the famous battle, fought on June 18, 1815 in the Netherlands. Waterloo is now in Belgium.
Les, aged 66, explained: “He was injured in the Battle of Waterloo, losing the use of his left hand and was discharged home to Rotherham, where he lived to the ripe old age of 83.”
Les made the startling discovery while researching his family tree, something the former quality-controller had always wanted to do, but never had the time for until his retirememt in 2011.
He said: “My son Richard was keen for me to do it as, especially since he’s had his own son, he was eager to know more about our ancestors and preserve the history of the family to pass on.
“We’d always been told there was military service in the family but we were stunned when we discovered that John had been honoured with a medal for his service at Waterloo. I couldn’t believe it – a direct ancestor of my children engaged in battle on the field of Waterloo!
“His residence was always recorded as Chapeltown, which was a part of Rotherham back then of course, so I began checking websites looking for his grave. I found it almost immediately, at St John the Baptist Church in Chapeltown, a 15-minute walk from my house!”
Les set out immediately, only to find the church had closed down due to structural problems and been converted into offices. Luckily the cemetery was still accessible and, after circling all the stones, John’s grave was one of the last ones he came to.
“I walked very slowly towards the grave until I could read the inscription, ‘He Served His King and Country on the Field of Waterloo’,” said Les.
“That was a wonderful moment and made all the hours trawling though records, avoiding red herrings and hitting brick walls worthwhile. I had found him and he was right here. I took plenty of photographs then called Richard, who was obviously excited.
“The next step was to search the Lifeguard service records and his discharge papers told a little more of the story.”
The records read: ‘in consequence of having received five wounds at the battle of Waterloo, by one of which he has lost the use of his left hand, Private John Hird is rendered unfit for further service, and is hereby Discharged’.
John Hird was 27 years old when he survived the Battle of Waterloo. The records describe him as 5ft 10, with brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion. They also list him as a grinder, by trade.
“He survived,” said Les simply.
“When so many others didn’t, he made it home, and thank goodness, or my children wouldn’t be here today.”
Les admitted his knowledge of the famous battle was limited to bits and pieces he remembered from school, something he set out to rectify after learning about John.
“I started reading, on the internet, in books, learning everything I could. And I’m not finished digging into John’s history yet – there are still many unanswered questions my family and I are keen to follow up.”
And John’s story is not the only amazing one in the family’s history books. Les’s own grandfather, John Morton, was shot and gassed in the Battle of Ypres in 1915, exactly 100 years later.
Les added: “He’s another one that survived, thankfully. He came home to us and was 89 when he died, in 1968. For the last three years, my son Richard and I have been over to Ypres on the anniversary of the battle to pay our respects to those who weren’t as lucky as my grandfather, including his own brother whose grave we found out there.
“It means so much to me to be able to connect all these dots; our family history is such a big part of who we are and where we come from and it means a lot to pass the information on to my children for them to feed down to the next generations.”
Les says it’s a credit to how far family history has come in the digital age that people like him can find their family’s forgotten stories.
He said: “Ancestry is so much better now than it was when I first started poking around in my family tree, back in 2004. Everything is so accessible online, there’s not a lot of work, you just have to follow the hints and see where they take you.”
Les, his son Richard and John’s five-times great-grandson Heston lay a wreath at the grave of John Hird on Thursday, with the message ‘Private John Hird, 2nd Regiment Lifeguards, we salute you and thank you for your courage and selflessness on that fateful day at Waterloo 200 years ago.’