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As it was, in the worst tradition of British military improvisation (yes, bungling), the only rifles available were outdated Lee-Metfords from the Boer War and as khaki was in short supply most men wore normal naval blue uniform.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.

Richard Bytheway – Just Another Pointless Death in a Pointless Sideshow

Richard Bytheway, born in 1892, was a younger brother of my great grandmother, hence my great-great-uncle. He was the second youngest of 8 children, all born and brought up in a tiny, 3-roomed miner’s cottage tied to Seymour Colliery just outside Staveley in Derbyshire.

The 1911 census has him still living in the Seymour cottage but shortly after that he must have moved away because when he enlisted in the army in late August or early September 1914, no doubt responding to Kitchener’s famous appeal for volunteers, his residence was listed as Rotherham in Yorkshire.

He was duly enlisted as 14663 Private Bytheway of the York and Lancaster Regiment (known more colloquially as the Yorks and Lancs).

After basic training Richard’s battalion embarked not for France or Belgium but were assigned to what has commonly been labelled an infamous “sideshow” – they were bound for Gallipoli.

At the end of July 1915 the battalion arrived at Mudros on the island of Limnos, the common staging point for troops before crossing the final stretch of Aegean to Gallipoli itself.

It would seem that it was there that Richard Bytheway, with others, was transferred to the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers who were under-strength. The war diary of the Connaughts records reinforcements joining on 4th August when they too were at Mudros and I am guessing Richard may well have been part of that contingent. Anyway, he definitely became 3157 Private Bytheway of the Connaught Rangers.


Connaught Rangers moving up into position

Two days later, on 6th August, the battalion embarked on HMS Clacton at 3am and sailed from Limnos to ANZAC Cove where they disembarked at 4pm that afternoon, taking positions in the aptly named Shrapnel Gully before moving up to the front line the following week.

Here, their introduction must have been horrific as they spent the next couple of days retrieving and burying corpses from Aghyl Dere Gully which was full of bodies after an earlier attack. Remember that this was in the middle of summer in Turkey where the heat was stifling and the stench must have been appalling.

A week of back-breaking trench improvement followed this before the Connaughts were assigned to support a major attack by the ANZACs on Hill 60, scheduled for 21st August. The Connaughts’ role was to attack the wells at Kabak Kuyu on the flank.

anzac cove

ANZAC Cove with Hill 60 on the horizon

On the evening of 20th August the battalion moved up to a position behind the 4th Battalion South Wales Borderers. They remained there until the afternoon of the following day when the attack was launched.

I will let the unusually effusive war dairy entries take over the story from there:
connaught diary 1
Transcript: “Kabak Kuyu 3.40pm: The first Company (C) dashed forward with a cheer through the gap and with great dash made for the well and trenches at Kabak Kuyu. They were followed by D Company, who followed close by and in successive lines at 4 paces distance and all cheering with fixed bayonets but no firing was allowed until the line was won. The two leading companie,s as soon as they had rushed the trenches, wheeled to the right and engaged the enemy along the Sunken Road and the Communication Trench. One platoon under 2nd Lt. G R Bennett bombed and blocked the Communication Trench and forced the Turks to leave this trench.
4.20pm: A Company was sent up in support and dashed forward to reinforce the left of the line. The reserve (B Coy) moved up the Sunken Road with two platoons and supported the right of the line and got up communication with the New Zealanders who had captured a trench on Hill 60.”
connaught rangers diary 2
6.55pm: The O.C. 5th Bn the Connaught Rangers now began to consolidate the line won and when the 5th Ghurkhas came up on the left of the line night came on rapidly and as the sun went down the men of the Rangers began to dig and make their position capable of resisting any attack. A Platoon of the Rangers had been sent forward and were actually in the New Zealanders trenches and although losing their officer and many men remained there until relieved the next day (22nd Aug). The charge was most brilliantly and gallantly carried out and although the losses were severe (3 Officers killed, 9 wounded; Other Ranks killed 43, wounded 158, missing 47. Total 260; together with losses up to date, 15 killed and 119 wounded and 7 Officers = 401 casualties exclusive of sick) the Battalion held on gallantly throughout the night of the 21st-22nd August (strangely enough the anniversary of its formation) and the next evening were relieved with the exception of 1 Officer and 50 men and marched back to the bivouac of two nights ago behind the SWB entrenchments. They had done splendid work in digging saps to the New Zealand trenches and to the Well, and the position was secure when they left it.”

“Secure” it may well have been but at the cost of nearly half the battalion’s effective strength and one of those killed was Richard Bytheway.

His body was not recovered and his final resting place remains unknown so his name is just one of the 20,956 names on the Helles Memorial commemorating Commonwealth service personnel with no known grave.
helles memorial
Oddly, because he was serving in an Irish regiment when he was killed, Richard also appears in the memorial record created after the war to commemorate the “Irishmen who fell in the Great European War”:

irish dead memorial

Alfred Swatton – a minor mystery solved

Alfred Florence Wedding

Alfred and Florence married in 1908

In the lead up to the centenary of the end of World War 1 I wrote a piece about the service my grandfather, Thomas, and his two brothers, Walter and Alfred performed during the war.
At the time, I had no idea why the oldest brother, Alfred, had been made a sergeant as soon as he volunteered. Similarly, I was puzzled why a man in his early thirties with a wife and four children, a fifth on the way, would volunteer for service.
Having done some more digging I think I have answered these questions. I have also discovered a postscript to the story which is just a little weird.
I’ll start off with the crucial information that solved the initial mystery. I found enlistment papers for Alfred for the Boer War, dated February 1901 which essentially answer everything.

boer war enlistmentSo, going through this document, it would appear that as a 21-year old Alf volunteered for service in South Africa, stating on his papers that he already had previous military experience with “1st Hants RE (Vols)”, which translates as the 1st Hampshire Royal Engineer Volunteers.
This unit was formed at Portsmouth in April 1891 with the majority of the rank and file being workers from the Portsmouth dockyard. They renovated an old drill shed for their use and acquired forty tons of gravel to lay down to form a parade ground. While their facilities may have been rough and ready it seems they became a very professional outfit.
In 1896 the 1st Hampshire took first place at a special course of instruction in fortress engineering at Chatham. Of the nine NCOs in the team from Portsmouth, six passed the examination as “very superior” whilst the other three passed “very satisfactory” placing them first in all England for the third time in the five years since they were formed. So it was no trivial matter that Alf had served with them.

hants vols

Following his enlistment in 1901 (note that on the form it was so soon after the death of Queen Victoria, no new form had been printed, and the recruiting sergeant has manually crossed out “Her Majesty” throughout), Alfred joined the Royal Engineers and was assigned to 37th Field Company.
Once serving he would probably have looked something like the soldiers in this picture (these are members of 11th Field Company RE in Durban).

royal engineers boer war
But his prior service in the 1st Hants RE (Vols) and in the Boer War explains why he volunteered again at the start of WW1. With the huge numbers of raw recruits that flooded into the army then, the authorities were desperate for recruits with previous experience who could immediately be made NCOs to help knock the untrained masses into shape.

So he volunteered in answer to the call for experienced former soldiers and was made a sergeantFlorenceand Childen1 because of his former service in South Africa.

And as for the postscript I mentioned…. unfortunately, Alf would not survive the war, dying on active service in the Balkan campaign in October 1916, probably of malaria that killed so many allied troops in that theatre.
The picture here is a family portrait his wife organised, the baby in her arms having been born within 2 days of his father’s death. I guess as a form of commemoration Florence decided to give the baby a middle name, Salonika, where his father died and is buried… and I’m not sure if that is poignant or just odd!