Under age soldier’s dreams about war shattered by harsh reality of conflict
PUBLISHED: 11:00 10 November 2018 | UPDATED: 09:20 13 November 2018
Paul Oliver’s father joined the army at 17 thinking the war would be over in months. But, as many of his generation found out, the reality was totally different.
It was not much fun being a teenager in 1915. There was no radio, television and certainly no social media.
Poverty was rife with no benefit system or NHS, so being a teenager like my father Harry Oliver was not easy.
He was born in 1898 in Stoke Newington, before the family moved to 40 Poole Street, Hoxton.
He was the eldest of 10 children, three of whom died in infancy.
The First World War started in 1914. In 1915, the minimum age you could enlist in the British Army was 19. But men were desperately needed. “Your Country Needs You” said the poster.
My father was only 17 but the promise of regular pay, regular meals, a smart uniform and the war over by Christmas was too tempting to turn down. So off my father went on July 3 to enlist at Holborn with a friend.
He joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He lied about his age, he was 17 not 19, and was not Welsh, but those two things did not seem to matter at the time.
In August 1915, the battalion moved down to Winchester for intensive training. On December 2, he officially became a Royal Welsh Fusilier. The new soldiers then marched on that day to Southampton and boarded the ship to Le Havre in France.
My father did not see action until July 2016. After being delayed, the Battle of the Somme started at 7.28am on July 1, 2016. By mid-afternoon, more than 57,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded.
He was at Mametz Wood – the biggest wood on the Somme measuring one square mile – from July 10 to 12. He was registered as a “first class shot” and was probably used as a sniper. It was a dense wood and the crack Prussian troops had been camped there many days.
Many of his regiment were just teenagers who had never seen action. His battalion suffered badly in the battle that followed but after four days, the wood was taken albeit with 4,000 casualties, a third of its infantry strength.
Conditions were described by Capt. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith. He recalled: “The undergrowth was so dense it was all but impossible to move through it. There were more corpses than men, but there were worst sights than corpses.There were limbs in the trees, trunks of men here and there as well as a detached head forming splashes of red against the green leaves.” My father escaped with shrapnel passing through a leg leaving a scar being the size of a small dinner plate. Either here or at Passchendaele, he also suffered a perforated eardrum that left him deaf in one ear. The battalion was retired to recoup for several months allowing my father and his brothers-in-arms to recover.
Their next conflict was the third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele as it is more widely known, which commenced on the July 31, 1917. My father was again wounded by shrapnel cutting into his legs at Pilckem Ridge, but he was one of the lucky ones. Intense rain made the ground very wet, muddy and sticky. Not only did the soldiers have to contend with mustard gas, but as described by my father, the rats were as big as rabbits. They would come out at night and chew at the bodies of soldiers injured or dead stuck in the mud between the enemy lines.
The war ended on November 11, 1918. Both sides were exhausted after years of intensive fighting and the Germans surrendered.
My father was demobbed in 1919 and his experiences dominated the rest of his life.
He passed away aged 80 in 1978.
As November 11 approaches, it is important to remember the futility of war and the sacrifice of those British and Commonwealth troops, some only teenagers, who gave their lives for our freedom. “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”, as reads For the Fallen Poem by Laurence Binyon.