From the records held at the Norfolk Record Office
June – the height of summer. A time today to think of holidays, sunshine and long summer evenings. By contrast the June months of 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918 were continuing times of victories, defeat and loss of life. The evidence was clear that it would not be over by Christmas and neither did there appear to be an end in sight.
Arthur Artis Oldham was born in 1886 in Wisbech. He was employed in a clerical capacity by the Royal Navy in the First World War. Initially based in Canterbury he later served in the Shetland Isles. After the war he returned to Wisbech then to Thorpe End in his latter years.
From the very start of the war, Oldham kept detailed journals chronicling on an almost daily basis the actions of the Royal Navy in the war. These journals, entitled by Oldham “Naval Engagements of the Great War” span eight volumes (MC 2201/1-8 935×3).
The volumes were initially completed by Oldham himself. They include newspaper cuttings (no names of the newspapers are shown), postcards, his own commentary and a wealth of facts and figures about ship tonnage and naval losses. When he joined the Navy on 11th April 1916 the task of continuing with the journals was handed over to his sister. These journals are predominantly newspaper cuttings. The source of the newspapers is not known.
June 1915 – the first June of the war. On 6th June the Chief of the General Naval Staff had described naval operations in the Adriatic to the press. Oldham commented: the cables uniting the continent to the islands of the Dalmatian Archipeligo were cut. All the lighthouses and lookout stations on these islands were destroyed. The following day there was a vivid account of the brave actions of Flight Lieutenant R A J Warneford who had attacked and brought down a zeppelin which had dropped six bombs. The force of the explosion turned Warneford’s aeroplane upside down and he had to make a forced landing in enemy territory. Fortunately he was able to restart his plane and get home safely. Warneford was awarded the VC for destroying the zeppelin single handed and he also received the Legion of Honour from the French. Sadly he died shortly after during a trial flight near Paris.
Two significant events dominated the news in June 1916. While it started on the last day of May, the Battle of Jutland raged into the early hours of 1st June. Much of Oldham’s journal for June 1916 consists of newspaper cuttings giving an almost minute by minute account of the battle. Britain lost three of its battleships; the Indefatigable, the Queen Mary and the Invincible.
Interestingly Oldham’s journal includes a cutting from the German press who reported “we damaged the great battleship Warspite”. The English press responded: “The Germans declared that the Warspite was destroyed. There is nothing in our own official statement to indicate that she was even damaged”. Fake news? Propaganda? One midshipman’s letter home after the battle was published in the press. “I told you I had the best action station in the ship, and so I jolly well have. . . . I was alarmed on arriving back here to find I was dead in the Scotsman”.
On 5th June the press reported on the death of Lord Kitchener. The cruiser Hampshire he was on was blown up in the Orkneys. Many others also lost their lives, either in the explosion or in trying to swim to safety off the rocky shores of the islands. Kitchener had been such a national symbol for the war and his loss was keenly felt. In a report for the inquiry the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet expressed his sorrow “that so distinguished a soldier and so great a man should have lost his life whilst under the care of the Fleet”.
June 1917 began with a “Strange German Story”. It told the tale of a German U-boat and a British submarine who had got so close to each other in the Channel that the submarine rammed the U-boat. The shock of the collision brought the submarine to the surface bringing the U-boat with it. “Both made frantic efforts to get free in order to attack”. However by the time the Germans were ready to do so the British submarine had disappeared.
On the 18th June there was a lengthy report on a zeppelin shot down in East Anglia. “To judge by the distance from which the destruction of this morning’s Zeppelin could be seen, the fight must have been witnessed by at least a quarter of the county’s population. . . . The zeppelin was fighting a life and death duel with the aeroplane”. The damage to the town (not named) was extensive. “Today this is a town of shattered windows… among the numerous premises denuded of glass were those of a plate-glass insurance firm”. Three of the Zeppelin crew survived and were taken prisoner.
June 1918 – the last June of the war although this clearly was not known at the time. The news was largely concerned with Canada and the USA with the latter having entered the war in April 1917. On 6th June there was a U-boat raid on the Eastern coast of the USA and several ships were sunk. This was followed by a report that fifty German enemy aliens were arrested in New York having been caught celebrating the raid in various nightclubs in the city. As a result New York citizens, like many of their British counterparts, experienced their first lighting restrictions as a precautionary measure.
Oldham’s first volume began with the start of the war in August 1914. How sadly prophetic then that, when the general view was that “it would all be over by Christmas”, the front page of his first journal bears the title “The Great European War”. Perhaps he completed the title page at the end rather than the beginning of the war. Even this would demonstrate a reservation on his part about the duration of the conflict to come.