This is the story uncovered in the University of Leeds archives by five undergraduates researching the things that soldiers at the front missed about home. The students unearthed accounts written by Oldham in 1969, more than half a century after meeting his future wife.
The ex-Leeds Grammar School boy, who served on the Western Front as a company commander in the 9th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, described how in 1917 he used his ability to speak German to save the life of a wounded enemy soldier.
Just months later, gravely wounded during the Third Battle of Ypres, Oldham found himself on an operating table in a York military hospital, muttering in German.
Oldham describes how “a young Irish nurse, a VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment – a volunteer nurse], announced that here clearly was a German spy, who should not be allowed to live – advice fortunately ignored by the excellent surgeon.”
He adds: “A few months ago, that seemingly murderous-minded young Irish nurse and I celebrated our Golden Wedding.”
Having survived the war, Oldham married Heather Orloff in 1919, and the couple went on to have three children. They later emigrated to Vancouver, where Oldham managed the British Trade Centre and was awarded a CBE. He died in 1973, followed by his wife five years later.
Among the items held in the university’s vast Liddle Collection of First World War papers is an account by Oldham of his near-fatal wounding on the notorious Passchendaele Ridge in October 1917.
He describes a dawn attack prompted by a break in the weather: “All was mud and desolation, and there the depths of human misery, suicidal futility, and despair were surely plumbed. The casualties were frightful; indeed the dead seemed better off than the living. Oh what a lovely war.”
Ordered to attack in “vile and impossible conditions… up to our knees and backsides in mud,” he describes the assault as a ghastly failure.
Of the 13 officers who went over the top, nine were killed in that attack and four were badly injured – including Oldham, who received serious wound to the abdomen. He spent a day-and-a-half lying in a mud-filled shell hole with five of his men, all of whom died.
At one point, a group of German soldiers stumbled across the British officer. One was about to bayonet Oldham when he was stopped by a superior “probably thinking it was unnecessary, as I imagine I wasn’t looking all that good.” Stretcher bears with white flags eventually brought him in with other survivors of the battle.
The research was carried out by fourth-year history students Dominic Smithers, Bryony Evans, Emma Wray, Alex Key and Noga Hill. Their research focuses on idea of perceptions and realities of war, and how their loved ones at home viewed war.
The students discovered that the middle-aged Oldham’s bleak recollections of his war experiences are very different to the bluff letters he sent home at the time. Also kept in the Liddle Collection at the university, they appear designed to ease worry among his family.
In his last letter in the collection, written just four days before he was wounded, Oldham writes cheerfully to his older brother, Fred, about having had “the most complete satisfaction of killing some Germans”.
Student Dominic Smithers said: “What’s equally amazing about Harry Oldham’s story is that he also relates how – in an earlier incident that almost mirrors what happened to him in that shell hole – he prevented his company sergeant major from bayoneting a gravely wounded 17-year-old German they came across after heavy fighting on the Ancre.
“This particular story really demonstrated to us how important it is to remember what soldiers such as Harry Oldham sacrificed for their country.
“By uncovering such fascinating stories and bringing them to the attention of a new generation we have tried to spark an interest and keep the memory of these heroes alive.”
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