First World War centenary: The underage soldier scarred by seeing friends’ bodies eaten by rats

Paul Oliver with a photograph of his father from the First World War

Paul Oliver with a photograph of his father from the First World War - Credit: Archant

The prospect of war for Henry Oliver meant new clothes, a meal and a bit of an adventure that would be over by Christmas.

Henry William Alfred Oliver

Henry William Alfred Oliver - Credit: Archant

He did not know that he would be almost killed twice and see scores of his friends die in front of his eyes.

Photo of British infantrymen marching towards the front lines in the River Somme valley

Photo of British infantrymen marching towards the front lines in the River Somme valley - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Throughout his life, he told his youngest son Paul about the horrors of war and described seeing his friend drown in mud or their dead bodies eaten by rats.

Mr Oliver was the eldest of 10 children and was born in Hackney which at the time was rife with poverty.

He lied about his age to join the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1915 when he was 17 and fought in some of the deadliest battles including at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendale. Paul, of Stoneleigh Road, Clayhall, said researching his dad’s life has given him a new insight into what his father went through.

“I have always been proud throughout my lifetime of my father because he managed to survive the war, despite two narrow escapes throughout the conflict,” said Paul.

“He had mixed emotions when the war ended – relief at being alive but sadness that so many of his friends had been killed.

Most Read

“I’m very proud of him. Some people never speak about the war – he spoke about it all the time. It was quite a start to your first 20 years.”

Mr Oliver rose to corporal and would often have to organise burial parties where bodies blocking the trenches were removed.

“His rise to corporal was probably because so many of his colleagues and friends were killed,” said Paul.

One of the strongest memories which stayed with Mr Oliver until he died aged 90 in 1978, were the packs of rats which ate the decomposing bodies.

“He would also speak of the firing squads whereby a coward or deserter would be shot,” Paul said.

“Many of these men were suffering from ‘shell shock’ and were not cowards but mentally ill through warfare. The squads would deliberately miss the victim and the captain would kill the soldier by a pistol shot to the head.”

After he was demobbed in 1919, Mr Oliver worked as a caretaker for 40 years at an insurance firm in Moorgate.

“The war shaped the rest of his life,” Paul said.

“It had a marked effect on him with regards to religion, seeing his friends blown up and in pieces and collecting the bodies in the trenches, how could a God let this happen?”

Paul is now trying to find out where his father was stationed throughout the war. He is now trying to keep the terrible events of the war alive by telling as many people as possible about his father’s experiences.

“I want them to know what the world was like and how you drift into war,” he said.

“I had a grandchild born three weeks ago it’s important for her to have that link with what went on in the past.

“We should never forget.”