Introduction

I remember ‘Uncle Hob’ being a small, neat man with a walrus moustache, tweed suit and a permanent aroma of pipe tobacco. I was also aware he had some breathing difficulty, as he whistled fiercely though clenched teeth at each intake. My mother told me that he had been wounded and gassed during the first world war and had never really recovered, and that was explanation enough for me. He was just ‘Uncle Hob’, and I was taken by my mother to Bexleyheath in Kent on a duty visit to see both him and my grandmother once or twice a year on my way to or from school. I liked those visits, particularly since there was still an air raid shelter outside their house in Danson Mead. Of course I was forbidden to go near it, but I have a clear memory of the frustrated hours I spent trying unsuccessfully to pick the lock so that I could get in and explore. A weekend treat would be for ‘Uncle Hob’ to take me on the tram to see Welling United play and, if I was really lucky, my visit coincided with a real ‘pea souper’, quite unknown in my home village in Northamptonshire.

Hob was actually not an uncle at all. As a young man he had worked for Wm. Cory and Son Ltd. in Fenchurch Street London, I think in the same office as my maternal grandfather, Allan Ninnis. Hob was nine years younger than my grandfather, and I assume a relationship was developed there, as Hob became a frequent visitor to my grandparents’ house in Thornton Heath, South London, before and during the war years. After grandfather Allan was killed in Flanders in August 1918 my grandmother kept the house on in Thornton Heath, but I suspect struggled financially, and in 1932 she and Hob were married, and went to live in Bexleyheath, Kent, where they remained until 1959 when they made their final move to a bungalow in the grounds of the rectory at Woodford, Northamptonshire in order to be near my mother. He died there in November 1962, at the age of 73, and is buried in Woodford churchyard next to the grave of my grandmother.

It was not until twenty years later, on my step-father’s retirement, when my own parents ‘downsized’ from a large and rambling Northamptonshire rectory to a Norfolk bungalow, that my mother gave me the diary which Hob had kept from August 2nd 1914, three days before he was called up to join the 5th Battalion City of London Rifles, until 1st July 1916, the Battle of Gommecourt in the Somme, at which he was wounded and subsequently repatriated to England.

The diary I was given is, in fact, a copy which Hob made in 1919 from the actual diary he wrote up each day, and to which he added documents, cards and sketches he had made and kept, somewhat in the nature of a scrapbook. The awfulness of the two main engagements he was part of, in Flanders and in the Somme, is not concealed, but nor is it dramatised. He never missed an opportunity to explore the towns and villages in which he was billeted, and had a keen eye for the beauty of the countryside, and an interest in the local people and their way of life. Like all who experienced it and survived, the memory of those war years was deeply personal and important to him. He never spoke about them, and no-one asked him about them. I wondered if, after his having taken the trouble and care to transcribe his diary, it was ever read by others. Certainly my mother, who did harbour a resentment against Hob for marrying her widowed mother (a resentment she later admitted to regretting as an unforgivable unkindness) did not, and it is quite possible that I may have been the first to do so some 70 – 80 years after it was written.

Whilst he was not judgmental or critical of the way ‘his’ war was conducted (apart, perhaps, from a reference to when his position came under fire from our own gunners), he did not conceal his hope by 1916 that he might, at worst, receive a ‘Blighty one’, a wound which would take him out of combat, but not provide a permanent and unsupportable disability. If this admission raises disapproval from the reader, it should be remembered that it was not made until after he had been gassed in Flanders, an experience from which he did not recover fully.

Hubert Oldfield was born on the twenty third of January, 1889 at 3 Longley Terrace, Longley Road, Tooting to James Richard and Ellen Brown. Hubert’s father was an Advertising Agent. As far as I can tell he was the youngest of three brothers and, judging by an S.P.C.K. certificate kept with his diary, was brought up in a family with strong Christian values. At some time between 1889 and 1900 his family moved into the parish of St Michaels, Beckenham, just to the South-East of Crystal Palace, where he was confirmed on Palm Sunday, 1900 at the age of eleven.

Apart from his confirmation, nothing is known about Hubert until March 1909, by which time he had joined the 5th Battalion City of London T.A. unit, as No 8699 Private H.O.Brown of ‘Q’ (Vintry Ward) Company. Later in the same year Hob represented the battalion in the 26th June London Territorial Marathon, winning the cup for 3rd prize.

Hob was still a member of ‘Q’ Company when the 5th Battalion City of London Rifles were formally embodied on August 5th 1914, and mobilised for war. The first entry in his diary, started on 2nd August 1914, pre-dates the declaration of war by two days.

In common with many of the young men who served in France and Belgium, Hob had never been abroad before. He was fascinated by the towns and villages he served in or passed through, and he never missed an opportunity to find places to visit. His collection of 157 postcards from 24 locations bear witness to this interest, and provide a visual support to many of the references in his diary.

I have been fortunate enough to be able to compare Hob’s diary entries, day by day, with those recorded in the battalion War Diary[1]. With the exception of a period of twenty-three days in 1915, when the War Diary records the battalion as being billeted at St Omer, whilst Hob records being some 15 miles away at Isbergues/Berguette, the two documents are completely aligned. Where Hob refers to a casualty by name I have also checked these against the CWGC published casualty records, and found no errors.

Hob did not attempt to divide his diary up into sections, and the headings are mine and added in order to make it an easier document to follow. With the same intention I have added his photographs, sketches and other miscellaneous documents where I feel to be most appropriate and, wherever possible, against a relevant diary entry. His collection of postcards have also been inserted into the main body of the diary wherever possible without ‘overpowering’ the diary entries. Nothing has been omitted, and the remainder of the postcards have been added in the appendices. Sub-heading references in brackets in the diary (e.g. (in billets)) are my own interpretation from Hob’s text as to his environment at each location, and ‘in billets’ may well include ‘under canvas’ and ‘in dugout’.

[1] National Archives WO 95/1498/2

4 thoughts on “Introduction

  1. Hi – we’ve just launched our own WW1 blog of letters written by a Jack Widdicombe. He was also in the 1/5 London Rifle Brigade. I’m finding “Uncle Hob’s” diary so interesting to compare with Jack’s and look forward to comparing them over the next few years as we are blogging Jack’s letters in real time – 100 years to the day they were written. So far we’ve published two. The connection with Henry Williamson was only pointed out to me about 10 days ago. Jack was wounded on the first day of the Somme also and spent the rest of the war recuperating and retraining as a bomb instructor. Best wishes, Kath Shawcross

  2. How fascinating to read too about Jack Widdicombe’s war – I have added a link to this blog from our web page ‘Henry Williamson and the First World War’ (see link in side bar).

  3. Brilliant material. My grandfather was LRB and I have been researching the LRB for the last 15 Brown enlisted 22.2.09; ‘Q’ Coy. and was in France 4.11.14 to 3.7.16 with 1st Bttn. I have a profile of all 848 ORs but very little about this chap.

    • Glad you are enjoying this. I have been corresponding with the Ploegsteert local archivist, and am thinking about taking a trip over there this year. Although M’selle Stella is no longer ‘with us’ her descendants still live in the village.

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