Bernard was born in Newick in 1893, the third child of John Oldaker, Headmaster of the National Boys School (now the primary school) who was from Brighton, and his wife Helena, who was born in Painswick, Gloucestershire. By 1901 the family consisting of John, Helena, a daughter also named Helena, and sons, Herbert, Bernard, Harry, Reginald and Norman were living at Millfield, close to the boys’ school, which Bernard attended under the watchful eye of his father from 1899 until 1905. He attended Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School between 1905 and 1908.
By 1911 the family consisting of John, the two Helenas, Reginald, Norman and new boy Arthur were still living at the same address, but Bernard had emigrated to Canada by this time. His younger brother Harry followed him before the outbreak of the war.
Newick National Boys School 1880
John Oldaker, Bernard's father, was headmaster
Bernard’s extensive army records survive in the Canadian military archives and show that he originally joined up on 17th August 1914, enlisting in the 19th Regiment, Manitoba Rifles. He joined the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion at the Valcartier military base near Quebec on 22nd September 1914 and was given the memorable service number 1111. He gave his age as 21 years and 6 months, his occupation as ‘Bank Clerk’ and religion as ‘Church of England’. He was 6ft 1in tall, with a 37½in chest; his complexion was fair, eyes grey and hair red. His weight was not recorded. His next-of-kin was given as ‘John Oldaker, Father, Newick, Sussex, England’. His only distinguishing marks were moles on his collar bone and chest.
He sailed for England on 3rd October 1914 as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and arrived in England on the 14th of the month, and subsequently made the crossing to France on 12th February 1915. His military records show that in his time on the continent he was somewhat prone to illness. He was admitted to hospital at various times with ailments including influenza, bronchitis and somewhat ironically, German measles.
His military records show that in his time on the continent he was somewhat prone to illness. He was admitted to hospital at various times with ailments including influenza, bronchitis and somewhat ironically, German measles
Away from hospital, his time with the 8th Battalion was busy in and out of the front line. Private Oldaker was wounded, probably on 22nd June 1915, and was admitted to hospital at Rouen on 25th June, with a gunshot wound to his right hand. On the 22nd the battalion was occupying frontline trenches near Givenchy. The War Diary entry for that day tells an interesting story:
‘Battalion in the trench everything very quiet, repairs and improvements to defensive positions still progressing. At 4.25pm our artillery commenced shelling the German trenches. At 4.55pm our people placed ladders, screens, dummy rifles, hats etc. on the parapet, whistles were blown and everything done to look as much like an attack as possible. At 5.00pm our artillery opened a very heavy fire all along the German line. The German artillery retaliated from 5pm to 6.30pm without any casualties to the Battalion.’
Therefore, it is possible that Bernard was shot while setting up the dummy attack, exposing his hands above the parapet. Wounds to the hand could be treated with the suspicion that they were self-inflicted so the individual could leave the trenches; this is one of the themes of the excellent French First World War film ‘A Very Long Engagement’. However, there is no suggestion in any of the surviving records that Private Oldaker was suspected of this, and after treatment he re-joined his battalion in early July, but was soon back in hospital with influenza.
His apparent disposition to illness perhaps made him unfit for frontline service and Private Oldaker was used in a clerical role at various headquarters, utilising his peacetime skills. In August 1916, he was promoted to Sergeant for the duration of his employment as a clerk at 1st Division Headquarters. However, in March 1917 he was sent back to England for training, and after time at Shorncliffe Barracks near Folkestone he was posted to the 6th Reserve Battalion as newly-promoted Lieutenant Oldaker on 28th April 1917. He undertook further training at the No. 2 School of Instruction in Bedford in July 1917, although a confidential report ‘filed in envelope’ did not find its way into his surviving records.
On 30th July 1917, Lieutenant Oldaker was admitted to the 2nd Eastern General Hospital in Kemp Town, Brighton and was diagnosed as suffering from bronchitis. A laboratory report filed with his records shows that a sputum sample was sent for testing and was found to contain ‘Tubercle Bacilli’. Following a Medical Board held at Seaford on 13th August 1917, Bernard was designated unfit for military service for 6 months owing to a diagnosis of tuberculosis. The ‘Proceedings of a Medical Board’ form notes that he had suffered coughing and shortness of breath since November 1916 and recommended that he was to be ‘invalided to Canada for further treatment’. He was discharged from the hospital in Brighton on the same day, and he sailed from Liverpool on 26th August aboard the SS Carmania, a former Cunard liner pressed into military service at the outbreak of the war.
Following his return to Canada, Lieutenant Oldaker was treated as an outpatient at a hospital in Winnipeg. On 22nd July 1918, a Medical Board was held at Manitoba Sanatorium. Bernard’s physical condition is described in detail on the charmingly-named form ‘Medical History of an Invalid’:
‘Young man. General appearance favourable. Temperature slightly above normal in the evening. Cough troublesome. One ounce daily of muco-purulent expectoration. Tubercle bacilli present. Slight haemorrhage Jan. 1918. Dyspnoea on exertion. Has lost ten pounds in weight recently. Marked dullness all over right lung and upper lobe of left lung. Coarse crepitant rales all over right lung. Scattered crepitant rales all over left lung in front and upper lobe of left lung behind. Far advanced Pulmonary Tuberculosis. Prognosis guarded.’
Even without the medical knowledge needed to fully understand the description of the symptoms of Bernard’s condition, the last six words are clearly ominous. The form also notes that Lieutenant Oldaker had a scar on his right wrist, presumably a result of the gunshot wound he received in June 1915. It also concluded that he was unfit for further military service and should be discharged from the army and given further treatment. He officially left the army on 12th August 1918.
Bernard Oldaker died in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on 10th June 1920. He was 27 years old.
Bernard Oldaker is buried in Vancouver (Mountain View) Cemetery. Although he has a Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry as his death was considered to have occurred as a direct result of military service (listed as ‘phthisis’, an archaic term for tuberculosis) and was entitled to an official gravestone, his headstone is not of the ‘standard’ Commission pattern, although there are others in the cemetery which are. The headstone records that he served with the ‘8th Battalion C.E.F.’ shows that his parents were from Newick, and includes the inscription ‘WE LIVE IN DEEDS NOT YEARS’; the words are taken from a poem by Philip James Bailey (1816-1902). He is also commemorated on the school war memorial and in the village’s Book of Remembrance and Roll of Honour, and at The Green. His name is not included on the church memorial as he died after it was erected, but his name was inscribed on the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School (now BHASVIC) war memorial inaugurated in 1923.
Newick’s Roll of Honour was kept by his father; his feelings as he wrote the words ‘Died at Vancouver, B.C. 10th June 1920’ can only be imagined.
The biographical details given in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry and Bernard’s military service records are someone at odds, but the Commission records suggest that his mother had travelled to Canada to nurse him as her address is given as ‘2824, 5th Avenue West, Vancouver’; Mr Oldaker had remained in Newick at ‘Hurstfields’.
Bernard’s military records give the Newick address for both Mr and Mrs Oldaker and show that his 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and Victory
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