The Proof Is In The Picture

Recently, GenealogyChris acquired several family photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century.  The family photograph attached to this blog particularly caught my eye.  It shows two men in their late teens or early twenties in military dress uniforms from what appears to be the World War I era.  Who were these relatives?  What is their story?

Anyone who could easily identify the men or tell their story has since passed away.  But there are some clues in the picture that stand out and tell a much different story then would have been expected.

Before we get to the clues in the pictures, you need a little bit of family background.  First, the soldiers in the picture come from only two possible family lines in my Eastern European ancestry.  Second, any possible family relative in the photo already immigrated to the United States before 1914, when World War I started.  Third, the family never talked about or had stories about the two family members who would be the best candidates for the soldiers in the photograph.  Finally, I can confirm that the individuals in the photographs are family members through the origin and succession of ownership of the photograph.

Studying the picture closely, one prominent part of the uniforms did not appear correct – the flap cut on the chest pocket.  It shows a more deeply scalloped cut coming to a sharper point.  Why is this significant?  This is inconsistent with U.S. Army uniform during the World War I era which had a straight cut pocket flap.  Additionally, the U.S. Army uniform usually has a pleated pocket and the uniforms in the picture did not.  The stars on the collar and the embroidery on the legs also didn’t fit with the U.S. Army uniform of this era.

Another element that didn’t make sense was the printing on reverse side (not included) of the photograph.  It’s not in English as one would expect.  After more research, one word on the back,”Ungvár” was identified as the city of Uzhhrod in present day Ukraine.  In World War I it was part of Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Did you put the pieces of this puzzle together?  The answer is, for whatever reason, the family members in the photograph returned to their native country before or during World War I and served in the Austro-Hungarian Army.  Just a little refresher course on World War I history…  World War I took place predominately in Europe from 1914 to 1918.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was part of the central powers that included Germany.  The central powers were the enemy to the allied powers which included France, Great Britain and the United States.

The fact that very little information was shared by the family about these two individuals in this photograph now makes sense.  Was the family in the U.S. embarrassed or ashamed?  Were these men’s obligations or loyalties to their native counties greater than to the U.S. or the family that was here?  Were they willing fighters or conscripted?  What was their fate?  These are new questions that are just waiting to be answered through more genealogy research.

Sometimes we are generations removed from our immigrant ancestors and think of our military family members only serving in the U.S. military.  That may not always be correct.  There are stories of brothers divided and fighting on different sides in the U.S. Civil War.  In reality, it may be more common and recent in your family, like it was for mine.

Be sure to avoid the temptation of assuming something like a family member’s military service to a familiar country.  Doing so will help keep you objectively focused and help you have an open mind as to the circumstances and the bigger question – Why?

Do you have a relative or ancestor who was in the military?  What is their story?