Although I was born long after World War I ended, I feel its very important to keep the tradition of remembrance going and to mark the centenary of the start of the Great War.
Remembrance Sunday and the anniversary of Armistice Day on 11.11.14 are particularly special this year. Its 100 years this August just gone that hostilities started and the next four years will have the 100 year anniversaries of the major events in the conflict.
In April 2017, I will mark the centenary of the loss of my great uncle, Oliver Strangward, who was 21 when he died in Iraq, fighting in the Mesopotamian campaign. I never knew him and never knew anyone who had met him but, in way, I do feel quite close to him and he does not feel that far away in the past.
100 years ago… not long really
About 14 years ago I embarked on a journey into the past and spent several years researching our family tree with my brother and my mum. She had a marvellous memory and recalled not only events in her own early life, but also things her mother and father had told her and even conversations that she had overheard.
From being a small child I was fascinated by her stories of her great uncle who had died in the Great War. I first heard about Oliver Strangward when I was looking through the leaded glass windows of my grandma’s house, looking over to Pontefract Park and to the Big School where I would go years later. I was probably only about seven years old but that image, and the very romantic sounding name of a dashing World War 1 soldier, has remained with me.
Of course, my fantasy surrounding my great uncle bore little relation to reality, as I discovered when I really went into his life history.
Oliver’s early years
Oliver was the second youngest child of Thomas and Lucy Strangward, my great grandparents. He was born December 12th 1895 in Pontefract, just a few years after the family had moved up from Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. My grandfather came from a family of fellmongers and butchers who ran a shop in Huntingdon High Street for a long time. What precipitated the move up north no-one knows but they apparently went to York first because one of their children, a girl who was just 2 years old, died there of TB.
Altogether they had 12 children between 1875 and 1901, which was the norm for the time and a sobering thought today.
Oliver was one of the later sons and was apparently a bit of a character. When I was investigating the family history I spoke to many of my mum’s cousins, some who she hadn’t seen or spoken to since she was a child. One of them,Ronald Strangward remembers a story that shows Oliver to be a young man of ideals who had an intense dislike of injustice. One day, walking in the street, he noticed a man beating the horse that was pulling his cart. He went over and snatched the whip out of the man’s hand and threatened to beat him with it. The wife of the man, who was on the cart at the time, later went to Oliver’s home to complain to his mother Lucy. Lucy, however, would have none of this and sent the woman packing.
Oliver joined up to fight in the First World War in the January of 1916. His war record became available at Kew as part of the series of ‘burnt’ documents released on microfilm during 2000.
Oliver Strangward was examined to see if he was fit for service on 25th January 1916. He had enlisted at Castleford on 12 December 1915, joining the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry with the number 26303. He was later transferred to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Another cousin was told that this was because the KOYLIs had nearly been wiped out in fighting in France.
At the time of his examination, he was 20 years old, and is described as an engineer. He was 5 feet, 3 and three quarter inches tall, and weighed 126 pounds – just 9 stones. His chest measurement when fully expanded was only 33 and a half inches; 31 and a half otherwise. His physical development is only graded as ‘fair’. His vision was good in both eyes, and he had two vaccination marks on his right arm. The examiner made note of two scars on his chest on the right side – I have not been able to find how he might have got these.
The Descriptive Report on Enlistment confirms Oliver’s physical details and shows that his next of kin was his father Thomas, of Weeland Terrace, Pontefract.
Using the information from these sparse records, I searched out the war diaries of his battalion during the time he served with them in Mesopotamia. Although the diaries do not mention him by name, they provide a valuable insight into his war service and his last months of life.
Oliver Strangward’s casualty form showing his active service
This is probably the most useful document in Oliver’s file. It reveals his movements during the time he was with the 8th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in Mesopotamia.
- 7.6.16: Embarked: Devonport, England
- 5.7.16: Disembarked: Basrah
- 13.8.16: Oliver was admitted to hospital in Sheikh Saad
- 20.8.16: Oliver rejoined his unit
- 10.12.16: Oliver was admitted to hospital again, this time in Sinn Abtar, with a sprained ankle. The battalion had been marching through flooded boggy terrain in the days before, according to the war diaries.
- 3.1.17: Oliver was discharged to depot in Tanumuna
- 20.2.17: Oliver rejoined his unit
- 13.4 17: Oliver was killed in action
Oliver’s death in Iraq
Oliver died in Mesopotamia on April 13th 1917. He is commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Site:
Private Oliver Strangward
30285, 8th Bn., Royal Welsh Fusiliers who died on 13 April 1917
Remembered with Honour
Basra Memorial, Iraq
Grave Panel No: 15
The Basra Memorial inside the Basra War Cemeter. In the late 1990s, the authorities in Iraq decided to move it, in and rebuild it exactly as it was 32 kilometres away, on the road to Nasiriyah. Ironically, it now stands in the middle of a battlefield site important in the Gulf War conflict. The Memorial itself is made of white Indian stone with a roofed colonnade of white Indian stone. It is around 80 metres in length and has a 16 metre high obelisk in its centre.
Slate panels that are attached to the white wall behind the colonnade are engraved with the names of those who died. Oliver Strangward is one of 40,000 British soldiers who died in Iraq as part of the Mesopotamian campaigns between the autumn of 1914 and the end of August 1921. West African and Indian soldiers who lost their lives are also commemorated.
What Oliver’s parents knew of his death
Unlike today, when we can communicate with other people at the opposite site of the world with great ease, back then, information was hard to come by. My mother remembered that her mother knew that Oliver was in the Middle East because he and his brothers had invented a code that he would use for different parts of the world, once he was posted. He apparently sent back a postcard telling them his whereabouts, using the code to evade censorship.
But when he died, his family did not find out for several weeks and it was reported in the Pontefract and Castleford Advertiser and in the Express. His parents never really knew what happened to him:
Another Old Church Hero
News has been received that Pte Oliver Strangward, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, fifth son of Mr and Mrs Strangward, of 2, Weeland Cottages, Old Church, was killed in action on April 13th. The deceased young hero was only 21 years of age. He joined the Army in January of last year, and went out with his battalion to Mesopotamia in June. He formerly worked as an engine-fitter with Messrs. Lumb and Co., Castleford, and, like other members of the family – Mr Strangward senior, was employed at the Old Church Fellmongery works for very many years before the C.W.S took them over, and has remained with them ever since – was very highly esteemed by all who knew him. He has two older brothers in the service – Arthur, formerly on our staff as an apprentice, and then a reported on a Norwich journal, but now a sergeant in the A.S.C. in France, and Herbert, formerly with Messrs. Muscroft, and now in the A.S.C at Sheffield.
STRANGWARD – Killed in action in Mesopotamia on April 12th 1917, Private Oliver Strangward, fifth son of Mr and Mrs T Strangward, 2, Weeland Cottages, Old Church, Pontefract, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, aged 21 years.
Sleep on, dear son, in a far-off land,
In a grave we may never see.
But as long as life and memory last,
We will remember thee.
This is terribly sad. When I consider my own family now, my daughter of 21 has gone to the USA for a year to study and is having a great time. We message every day and speak a couple of times a week but I still worry. Oliver Strangward’s parents knew nothing about where he was or what he was doing and never had the chance to say goodbye or to bury him.
Oliver’s last days
In researching his history, I transcribed the war diaries that document his last movements and although my great grandparents and my grandparents were long dead when I did so, at least my brother and I and our mum knew. The diary does not mention him by name – the privates in the First World War really were regarded as cannon fodder and disposable.
1-6th April: at DELTANA
6th April: 13th Division marched at 6pm to bivouacs at North end of KUWAR REACH.
7th April: 8th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 8th Cheshire Regiment took over the line about OLD CANAL BED from CASSEL’s Brigade. 8th RWF on the left from the junction of SHATT-EL-ADHAIM with OLD CANA BED to M of line of Mounds (SqG5) a line of stray point sfacing the SHATT-EL-ADHAIM was construction and constant patrolling carried out to discover enemy dispositions on right bank.
8th April: 8th Royal Welsh Fusiliers were relieved by 6th LN Lancers at midnight 8th/9th and proceeded to camp at about G5 75/85. While relief was being carried out ***** patrols were sent to reconnoitre possible river crossings about Sq G5 50/35.
9th April: Further reconnaissances of river crossings and enemy positions carried out.
10th April: 39th and 40th Brigades with remainder of division troops marched 7pm across MARL PLAIN to CHALIYEN.
11th April: On arrival at Chalyen, Turkish 13th Army Corps were found to be attacking our Cavalry Division from the North. Cavalry Division were being driven back from ? ground which they occupied and which would soon have fallen into the hands of the Turks. 8th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and 8th Cheshire Regiment were immediately posted to occupy this position and this was done just in time. The Turks were caught in the open in the middle of their attack and suffered heavily from our rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. Turks dug themselves I in the open but evacuated their positions after dark. 94 dead were counted in front of 8th Royal Welsh Fusiliers next morning.
12th April: At 3pm, the 40th Brigade continued the advance. 5/Wilts and 4 South Wales Borderers advanced about 1000 yards after dark – guns being also moved forward and dug in.
13th April: Next morning, Turks were found to be occupying a position south of the SERAI. At 1pm, orders were received for the 8th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who were in reserved 2 miles behind the line, to attack the position. The Battalion moved forward to the attack at once on a frontage of 400-500 yards, one company in front supported by a second company with one company working well away to safeguard the left flank and one company in reserve. Fairly heavy rifle fire was experienced and considerable trouble caused by three machine guns firing from our right front. The line was advanced to the extent of 1 mile. However, at this point, and the casualties were fewer than might have been expected, no further advanced was made owing to the heavy fire experienced and the fact that both flanks of the Battalion were ‘in the air’. The Battalion was relieved by the 39th Infantry Brigade after dark and went into bivouack about 3 miles back.
As Oliver Strangward was killed in action 13th April 1917, this must have taken place during the battle described. He was one of the ten casualties sustained by the battalion in April 1917.
Total casualties during month
*One died of wounds.
Lest we forget
One of the most moving tributes to the people who died in the First World War is the display of poppies set up this year at the Tower of London. Each poppy represents one of the fallen. One of those poppies is for my forever young great uncle, Oliver Strangward.
Photo courtesy of Tony Hisgett, Flickr
Oliver’s older brothers Herbert and Arthur both survived and returned to England, Arthur moving to Lowestoft in Suffolk, where he became editor of the local paper in his later years. What the newspaper reports of Oliver’s death did not mention was that his slightly younger brother, Harry, was also a soldier in the war and although he also returned, he died of pneumonia in March 1919. Whether this was due to the effect of gas or because he succumbed to the great wave of aggressive influenza that swept the world that winter, killing 60 million people, I have never been able to find out.