13/10/1880 - 29/9/1953
Corporal William Alfred Oldham (8/3456 12/204) served in a number of battles in the First World War with the Otago Infantry Battalion, earning a reputation as a honourable soldier and an evocative war correspondent.
Oldham withstood the Actions on the Suez Canal, the on-going Gallipoli Campaign, and the action along the Western Front, taking part in the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Messines and earning praise, honours and the respect of his men in the process.
Before the War
Oldham was an active man, who lived in Auckland, Rotorua, Petone and Whanganui before the War. His military personnel sheet describes him as a traveller by trade and according to the Wanganui Chronicle he was well known in the area for running the Whanganui River boat service between Taumarunui and Retaruke on his boat the Taniwha.
He was a self described "proud New Zealander" who embarked as a Private with the Auckland Infantry Regiment in August 1914. He returned briefly to New Zealand as a Quartermaster sergeant, helping with the war effort from home and within two months he joined up again to return to Egypt.
Corporal Oldham was instrumental in saving the lives of men on many occasions, including his exceptional rescue mission of Private Thomas Mackie
10262, a New Zealand Soldier from Mount Eden, Auckland.
During the Battle of the Somme, Private Mackie was badly wounded and had been lying in No Man’s land for twenty-four hours when Oldham spotted him by chance and bravely rescued him under sniper fire. It was reported that he was later recommended for the Victoria Cross for his efforts.
Oldham was awarded the Military Medal on the 22th of October 1916 for bravery and leadership during the Battle of the Somme (McDonald, 2001). He received this award for rescuing the wounded on the battlefield, taking them out of danger either into shell holes or behind the lines while risking his own life under heavy fire.
Memories of Messines
From the 7th of June to the 9th of June 1917 Corporal Oldham and his section endured the frontlines of the Battle of Messines. The Battle was considered a success, however, this success came at a price. Throughout the course of the Battle, New Zealand suffered 3700 casualties and 700 dead. Oldham was one of these casualties. He was hit by an enemy shell and suffered a severe fracturing of the skull that rendered him permanently unfit for war service.
Oldham wrote a searing account of the events of that day in his article "The Battle of Messines: A personal experience", published in the Tuakau Press. It is a difficult account to read, that is full of the brutal details of trench warfare and brings home the harsh reality of the things these men went through.
His grandson, Tony Oldham will be attending the 100th commemoration of the Battle of Messines on the 7th of June at Auckland Museum. He will be reading a piece titled "Memories of Messines" by Corporal Oldham in remembrance of the many New Zealanders who served at Messines.
McDonald, W. (2001). Honours and awards to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Great War, 1914-1918. Napier, NZ: Helen McDonald; Wayne McDonald; 2001.
Oldham, C. (Date). The Battle of Messines: A personal experience. The Tuakau Press. pp.63-69.
Oldham, C. (9 June 1919). Memories of Messines. MS 2002/209. Held in Auckland Museum's manuscript and archives collection.
Battle-scarred heroes. Wanganui Chronicle, Volume LXVI, Issue 17258, 10 April 1918.
Brave New Zealander. Rescue of a comrade. Taranaki Herald, 13 March 1918, p.3.
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Cite this article
Johnson, Ella .
Memories of Messines: William Alfred Oldham. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 18 May 2017. Updated: 6 June 2017.