Tom Oxley – WW1 PoW…

This short piece of family research concerns Tom Oxley, the father of my aunt Milly (wife of my father’s elder brother), born in Rotherham in 1889. His father variously worked in local foundries and steel works and Tom became a coal miner as so many did in that part of Yorkshire.

However, by the time he was 18 he was in trouble with the police and in January 1908 he was convicted for minor assault and given 14 days hard labour in HM Prison Wakefield.

After his release and sometime before the beginning of World War 1 he apparently joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The RNVR was created in 1903 and was the Navy’s equivalent of the Territorial Army and was open to civilians with no prior naval experience. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to trace his enlistment records and am assuming they were part of the many thousands that were destroyed when the archive was hit during the Blitz in WW2.

Harriet Wootten

After the assassination of Crown Price Franz Ferdinand at the end of June 1914, people could see war approaching and Tom made another big change in his life, getting married in July of that year to Harriet Wootten.

And the following month war broke out, in August 1914.

On mobilisation, the popularity of the Navy and the strength of its reserves resulted in a large surplus of manpower, far more than were needed to adequately man the Fleet.

It was then that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, intervened in not one of his finest moments. He decided that the surplus men should be formed into infantry units – the Royal Naval Division. Not one to waste time, he duly sent a memo to the Secretary of the Admiralty and the First Sea Lord giving them a week to start making it happen!

By the end of the month a tented camp for 1st Brigade had been established at Walmer Downs near Dover comprising four battalions, each named after famous British Admirals – Drake, Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood.

Tom was assigned to 2nd (Hawke) Battalion.

There were over 7000 men in all, comprising men from the RNVR, ex-regulars from the Royal Naval Reserve and recalled retired officers and men.

I can’t help but think they were less than impressed being issued with rifles and being made into infantry rather than serving in the Fleet.

As it was, in the worst tradition of British military improvisation (yes, bungling), the only rifles available were outdated Lee-Metfords from the Boer War and as khaki was in short supply most men wore normal naval blue uniform. Eighty percent of the troops went to war without even basic equipment such as packs, mess tins or water bottles and the division had no artillery, Field Ambulances or other ancillary units.

Tom Oxley in uniform

After five weeks of basic training this improvised and still working-up division was sent to Belgium to join the Royal Marines already stationed there as the situation on the continent was fast deteriorating. The two Royal Naval Division brigades arrived to join the Marines around Antwerp on 6th October, taking positions interspersed between the semi-circle of eight old brick-built forts that surrounded the city.

At dawn, 8th October, the German infantry began a fresh assault on the old fortress line. Their 305mm and 420mm mortars had been moved up, and opened fire on the old brick forts. Even before dawn Forts 1, 2 and 4 were reported to have fallen.

The Royal Naval Division, positioned on the old fort line between Forts 2 and 7, were right in the middle of the German fire.

During the evening, the brigades of the Royal Naval Division were ordered to withdraw. Not all of the units received the orders, and there was wholesale confusion. One of the problems was the incredible congestion on the few roads heading north-west, as thousands of refugees moved in the same direction. It was impossible even for signal runners to move back and forth between headquarters and front line units. The 1st Naval Brigade suffered badly from confused orders and the chaotic condition of the roads.

As a result, the following day, 9th October, over 2400 men from Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood battalions were lost after being outflanked by the advancing Germans and cut off. 1479 troops managed to march north into neutral Holland where they were interned for the remainder of the war and 936 were captured by the Germans and would remain as prisoners of war until the end of hostilities.

Tom Oxley was one of these men.

His service record in the National Archives was unclear (literally), the lines referring to his capture virtually unreadable (second section below, dated 3.12.14 Officially reported prisoner of war):

But after some experts on a WW1 internet forum gave me some pointers, I managed to find Tom’s record with the International Red Cross who maintained a catalogue of all prisoners of war. This provided some more details:

It confirmed his capture on 9th Oct 1914 and interestingly identified the PoW Camp in which he was held – Lager Döberitz, which turned out to be north-west of Potsdam, near Berlin.

Tom Oxley was to spend the rest of the war in this camp, over 4 years.

The prisoners tried to make the best of things while they were held. Between their daily work schedules when they were often marched out of camp to undertake manual labour, they tried to entertain themselves as best they could. They had an orchestra, various sports teams, theatre and concert troupes and they produced a regular magazine – the Döberitz Gazette.

Work detail setting off for the day

I guess for the PoWs the end of the war couldn’t come soon enough but it wasn’t until 13th December 1918 that Tom was repatriated.

The photograph below is of the last PoWs to leave Döberitz. The quality isn’t good enough to tell if one of those in navy uniform is Tom but it’s nice to think that it may be, and it shows they hadn’t lost their sense of humour, despite years of incarceration.

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