Earlier in the summer, the Museum of Cambridge welcomed two very special visitors for an important medal ceremony. It was not the Mayor bestowing any grand titles upon a worthy citizen of Cambridge, but it was just as noble a cause. This was Susan Smith, the granddaughter of Private Leonard Lantiff Miller, a veteran First World War, receiving her grandfather’s Victory medal from the private collector Alan Laurence. Normally, Museums are places where items like these are kept. In this instance, the Museum helped unite Alan with Miller’s granddaughter Susan.
Around thirty years ago, Susan began looking into her family history and the story of Private Miller. At the age of 26, Susan’s grandfather Leonard Lantiff Miller was one of the many men in Cambridgeshire who ‘Rushed to the Colours’ shortly after the outbreak of war. At the end of July, the nations of Europe entered into a conflict that lasted four long years. On the 4th August, Britain declared war on Germany for its violation of Belgium’s neutrality. Like many people across the country, Miller was excited, not just with the pangs of nationalism, but with the joy of becoming a father to Reginald Miller. The same day he entered fatherhood, Britain joined what would be known as the Great War.
L-R Leonard, Reginald, Kate, c.1914
Leonard Miller endured much of this conflict, serving right up to the last months of the War. He participated in the great 100 Days campaign in the autumn of 1918. This was the Allied pushback against Germany’s final great offensive in the spring which had broken the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front. The 100 days campaign would bring the First World War to a conclusion, but not without loss.
Cambridge independent Press, 11 September 1914, 6.
In late September, Miller participated in the Battle of the Canal du Nord. He was seriously injured early into the five-day battle. He was taken to an Australian Tented Hospital in Abbeville on the mouth of the River Somme to be treated but tragically died a few days later on 30th September. He is buried in the extended part of the Abbeville Communal Cemetery. However, this distant grave in a foreign field would not be the sole carrier of Private Miller’s memory. He was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal of the Great War, which is inscribed with his name and service number. It is this small but precious token that was returned to his granddaughter by Alan.
In a bizarre twist of fortune, it was roughly thirty years ago that Alan began his medal collection, the same time when Susan started looking into her family history. As Susan explains, the disappearance of the Miller medal from the family most likely happened when her stepmother sold off many of the family’s possessions, possibly unknowingly giving away the medal whilst caring for her father. It was soon after that it was acquired by Alan Lawrence at Bourne End Antique Centre, Bedfordshire. With his own rich family history in the two World Wars, Alan describes how seeing that medal in the cabinet with a copy of Private Miller’s Commonwealth War Grave Commission certificate made the purchase irresistible. It started Alan’s medal collection, which quickly grew. Over the years, he has sold off this collection. Yet, as the medal that started it all, he has retained Private Miller’s Victory Medal. For the last three years, however, he has been on a mission to return it to the family. After several attempts that yielded little success, he eventually received a reply from the Museum of Cambridge’s trustee Roger Lilley.
At the Museum, Roger has been helping to run Capturing Cambridge, a mapping project anyone can use to search the many local histories in Cambridgeshire. This started as an ambitious local history project but has since grown to over 12,000 records. It provides users with the many histories, names and occupations of those who lived in the city dating back to the 17th century. Names like Kate Emily Miller, widow to Leonard Lantiff Miller.
Susan had contributed her family’s history to the Capturing Cambridge project after a friend told her about the website. She shared an exciting account of a German spy coming to stay at the house where Kate (Leonard’s widow who remarried to Alfred Sennitt) lived during the Second World War at 58 St Barnabas Road. Both were unaware the ‘Dutch’ Jan Willem Ter Braak was actually the German Engelbertus Fukken. This contribution to Capturing Cambridge provided Alan with the all-important Miller name in his search for relatives. Shortly after contact, Roger was able to put the two in touch, and the collector finally located a descendant of Leonard Miller.
For us at the Museum it has been a wonderful triumph for Capturing Cambridge to reunite Susan with her grandfather’s war medal. The meeting brought together Susan’s enthusiasm for her family history and Alan’s compassion to restore these items to their relatives.
We hope to continue the success of the Miller medal meeting at the Museum. If you have any local history in Cambridgeshire, why not donate it to the Capturing Cambridge project? It’s free to do and free to view. Alternatively, you can donate money to help continue the operation of this heritage project.