First World War centenary: Clayhall man tells father’s Great War tale 100 years on

PUBLISHED: 12:00 25 July 2015

Paul Oliver with a photograph of his father Harry (Henry) Oliver, who survived the First World War

Paul Oliver with a photograph of his father Harry (Henry) Oliver, who survived the First World War


In July 1915, 100 years ago, my father went to Holborn and enlisted in the British Army.

Paul Oliver's First World War soldier father Harry Paul Oliver's First World War soldier father Harry

But little did he realise that in the following years he would feature in two of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.

My father Harry (Henry) Oliver was the eldest of 11 children, three of whom died in infancy.

All the family were crammed into a few rooms in Hoxton, Hackney.

On July 3 1915, he enlisted with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at the Inns of Court Hotel, Holborn.

He lied about his age, saying he was 19, which was the minimum age to join up. He was really only 17.

In August, Harry’s unit moved to Winchester for intensive training.

On December 2, they sailed for France and proceeded inland from Le Havre, marching 17 miles to the front.

Harry took part in the Battle of the Somme, although fortunately not on the first day.

He fought alongside other Welsh regiments in Mametz Wood from July 7 to 11 1916.

The opposition were the crack Prussian troops (some of the best soldiers in the German Army).

Despite heavy regiment casualties, 263, they took over the wood, driving the enemy back and making 90 German soldiers prisoners of war.

Harry was wounded through shrapnel passing through his upper leg. I remember the scar which was the size of a small saucepan.

He was listed in The Times newspaper of August 31 1916 as wounded. He was repatriated and later rejoined his regiment.

The Royal Welsh Fusiliers were involved in the third Ypres offensive, at Passchendaele, between July 31 and August 6 1917.

Again, Harry was wounded through shrapnel smashing into his legs and suffered a perforated eardrum, which affected him for the rest of his life.

He was medically downgraded and transferred to the Labour Corps in late 1917, essentially for men medically unfit or too old to fight.

Harry was promoted to sergeant and demobbed in 1919.

He returned to Hoxton and had five children with Ellen Sarah – I was born in 1943 – and had a job for a leading insurance company.

He was too old to fight in the Second World War, but was a fire watcher in the City, a dangerous job.

Growing up, he would often convey what life was like in the trenches. The rats were as big as rabbits, feeding on the faces and eyes of the dead soldiers.

Trying to move dead, mutilated bodies out of the trenches after a shell bombardment was very distressing, but had to be done.

My father passed away in 1978, aged 80. It was only after he died I appreciated what he had been through – by 20 he had seen more than most of those living today have.

Sadly, I only realised too late how proud of him I was and learned too late what he had been through.

We must never forget the sacrifices made by the millions of men who died so we could enjoy the freedom we have today.

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