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The First World War captain condemned by his flair for languages

The First World War captain condemned by his flair for languages

Research by students at the University of Leeds has uncovered the extraordinary story of a First World War officer who ended up marrying the nurse who condemned him as a German spy.

Captain Harry Oldham served on the Western Front as a company commander in the 9th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment.

The ex-Leeds Grammar School boy used his ability to speak German to save the life of a wounded enemy soldier, but found himself in the same predicament just months later.

Gravely wounded during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, he ended up on an operating table in a York military hospital, muttering in German.

Oldham describes how “a young Irish nurse, a VAD, announced that here clearly was a German spy, who should not be allowed to live – advice fortunately ignored by the excellent surgeon.”

The story has a happy postscript. In 1969, he wrote: “A few months ago, that seemingly murderous-minded young Irish nurse and I celebrated our Golden Wedding.”

Having survived the war, he married Heather Orloff in 1919; the couple had three children. They ended up emigrating, with Oldham eventually managing the British Trade Centre in Vancouver and being made 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.

Writing half a century later, 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 wounded – including Oldham, who received serious wound to the abdomen. He spent a day and 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.

Oldham’s fascinating story was uncovered in the University of Leeds archives by five undergraduates researching what soldiers at the front missed about home.

Dominic Smithers, a fourth year history student, 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.

“Oldham relates how, being fairly fluent in German, he talked to the teenager and helped him as best as he could.”

The officer, himself only 23 at the time, describes how he later made enquiries at the casualty clearing station and was told the soldier had a reasonably good chance of living, writing: “I hope he did. I cannot help but feel ... that some significance, call it Karmic significance, could be attached to the fact the young German soldier had been saved by me from being bayoneted, and that I, with an identical wound, had been similarly saved from the same fate by a German Unteroffizier [NCO].”

The research carried out by Dominic and his fellow students Bryony Evans, Emma Wray, Alex Key and Noga Hill, focuses on idea of perceptions and realities of war and how their loved ones at home viewed war. The middle-aged Harry 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 specifically designed to ease worry among his family. In his last letter in the collection, written just four days before he was wounded, he writes cheerfully to his older brother, Fred, about having had “the most complete satisfaction of killing some Germans”.

The students were assisted by the University’s Arts Educational Engagement team and staff from Leeds Museums and Galleries. The project – “Home and Away; Expectations and Realities” – has resulted in a series of workshops with pupils at local junior schools, as well as a short film currently being shown on the city council’s giant video screen in Leeds’ Millennium Square and viewed via the project blog at http://luslegaciesofwar.wordpress.com. 

“This particular story really demonstrated to us how important it is to remember what soldiers such as Harry Oldham sacrificed for their country,” said Dominic. “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.”

Dr Raphael Hallett, who leads the History module Research Collaboration & Communication at Leeds, said: “The group has made excellent progress, and their work is the perfect example of student-led impact and meaningful public engagement, backed up by strong research.”

Further information

Images of Harry Oldham and one of his letters, as well as of the group of students during one of their school workshops, are available from the University of Leeds press office. Contact press officer Gareth Dant on 0113 343 3996 or email g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk.  Interviews with the students can also be arranged. Please contact the press office.

The University of Leeds launched its Legacies of War research project four years ago in anticipation of the 1914-18 war’s centenary. The ambitious programme, which involves researchers across the University from a broad range of subject areas with expertise in France, Germany, Belgium as well as Britain, has five themes: Yorkshire and the Great War; Culture and the Arts; Science and Technology; War and Medicine and War and Resistance. Visit www.arts.leeds.ac.uk/legaciesofwar

At the heart of much of the research is the University of Leeds’ Liddle Collection, an unrivalled archive that includes the personal papers of more than 4,000 people, as well as artefacts, memorabilia and oral testimonies of veterans and their relatives. Visit http://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-liddle-collection.

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