2165 Lance Corporal Thomas Roebuck Oxtoby MM 15/17th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, previously 18th Battalion (2nd Bradford Pals).
One of the 90 soldiers who transferred from the Bradford Pals, on their disbandment, to the Leeds Pals in February 1918.
Thomas Roebuck Oxtoby (Tom) and his brother Reginald Rycroft Oxtoby (Reg) enlisted in the Bradford Pals and served close to each other while on the front line. Reg was older and joined the 16th Battalion (1st Bradford Pals) in 1914 while Tom had to wait until December 1915 before he could enlist and join the 18th Battalion (2nd Bradford Pals) in 1916. They were both prolific letter writers and, thankfully, their letters are preserved at the Imperial War Museum, London. These letters provide and intimate account of life as a British infantryman during the First World War. Although Tom spent only the final year of the war with the Leeds Pals, and his brother had moved to the 1/7th Battalion, they were for two years in the same Brigade and Division as the 15th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment. They therefore knew the Leeds Pals well. Reg had trained with them at Ripon and Fovant, and he served alongside them on active service in Egypt and on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme 1916 and later, after Tom had arrived, at Arras in 1917.
Born in Bradford on 19th September 1895 Tom lived with his father, Thomas (1866-1956), who was born in Wakefield and was employed as a worsted stuffs manufacturer, and his mother Clara Rycroft (1867-1899). His siblings were Reginald Rycroft (1892-1950), Alice May (married Robertshaw) (1893-1949) and Dorothy V (1897-1984) who were all born in Bradford. In 1901 the family were living at 37 Beaumont Road, Bradford and now included Grandfather Robert (1834-1901), born in Halifax and Grandmother Alice (née Roebuck) (1841-1922) who was born in Dalton. Sadly, Thomas was now was a widower as Clara had died in 1899; they were married in 1891.
By 1911 the family had moved to 5 Easby Road, Bradford. Thomas was still employed as a worsted stuffs manufacturer and both Reg and Tom were Apprentices to their father. Alice was an art student and Dorothy was still at school. Tom was a bright child and attended Belle Vue Grammar School, Bradford. He learned textile design at Bradford College before working with his father and Reg at Cliff’s Mills, Bradford. It seems he was fluent in French as some of his letters were written in that language.
Tom enlisted at Bradford in December 1915 under Lord Derby’s Scheme. While the Leeds and Bradford Pals were preparing for the Battle of the Somme, which was to have a significant impact on both Battalions, Tom was undergoing training at Whitley Bay, and he wrote that he was doing ‘shooting training, 18-mile route marches and living in tents’. In another letter to his father he recorded his first encounter with John Joyce, who also served in the Bradford Pals, before transferring to the Leeds Pals. Like Tom he was awarded the MM. ‘Our “seaside holiday” here has been very nice, and the time has been made pleasant lately by some very nice people …. I was introduced [to] a Mr Joyce, Prudential Insurance Agent from Manningham. He is a young married man of steady habits and, as I said, we get on very nicely together.’ (See John Joyce profile). In September 1916 he was old enough to move overseas and arrived in France on 20th September. He was based ‘in a training camp near the sea’, probably Etaples and by 30th September was posted to the 18th Battalion, 2nd Bradford Pals, and trained as a signaller.
In a letter dated 24th October 1916 Tom reported that ‘At last I have reached the trenches’ and he goes on to describe his dugout in the support lines. ‘It is quite a comfortable little place containing a well-built fire place and a small table, for the instrument [signals]. The table is so small in fact that I am having to write this on my knee.’ Also he mentions his signalling work. ‘We felt every inch of the wire along our trench, and tested it by pulling, where it was out of reach overhead, and then by touch again in another trench, where we found the break. It had evidently been cut by shrapnel, or some such thing.’ On 16th November 1916 Thomas was pleased that, ‘my friend [John Joyce] and I, who had to maintain the line, have been complimented by the captain, and two of the officers. We were also told that the colonel was pleased with our exertions.’ This was to lead to the award of the MM to both Tom and his close friend John Joyce. On 3rd December he recorded, ‘I was awakened in the trenches last night, at eleven o’clock, to be warned that I was to leave the trenches as soon as possible this morning, to get all straightened, cleaned and titivated, ready to parade at three o’clock this afternoon, to receive the ribbon I am entitled to wear, from General O’Gowan – our Divisional Commander.’
On 3rd February 1918 Thomas wrote again to his father, ‘You will perhaps be surprised to learn that our battalion has been disbanded, and its members widely scattered amongst other battalions of our regiment. It has come as a rude shock to all of us ….. The whole thing has been so suddenly sprung upon us. Now I am officially transferred to the 15th’. A month later he reported the loss of his friend John Joyce during the German Spring Offensive. ‘We have had a very rough and busy time, and I have had the unpleasant experience of having my pal struck down by a bullet within a few yards of me, and I had to leave him there for the Germans to take and do what they wanted with. He was hit in the neck and though he was bleeding considerably, I have hopes of hearing that he is alive in Germany. How anybody at all got through, I really don’t know, though I did it myself. Of the party that I was with, at the time, I believe I am the sole survivor.’ He later explained to his father what had happened to him after he was posted missing. ‘I have wandered about, more or less, for nearly a fortnight, being, as I rather expected, posted “missing” in the interim. I suppose that you would get my last letter almost as soon as the intimation that I was missing, and I hope you have had no great anxiety.’ It seems that at one stage he was close to the Belgian border.
Shortly after the Armistice in November 1918, Thomas recorded the march by the battalion into Germany and the towns they passed through, ‘We have done a good deal of marching lately, through Courtrai, Brissegham, Wevelghem, Menin, Ypres, Poperinghe, Abeela, Steenwoorde, Cassel and here we seem to be having a rest. It is rumoured that we are coming to England as a division shortly ….’ Thomas was annoyed that during this march he sustained a leg injury and was hospitalised ‘through a ridiculous knee that won’t behave’. He eventually returned to England in early 1919 and transferred to the Army Reserve Z on 16th March 1919. In addition to the award of the Military Medal for ‘Bravery in the Field’, he received the British War and Victory Medals for his service.
Tom married Olive May Laws at St John’s Church, Great Horton, Yorkshire on 14th June 1920 and they had sons Thomas and Eric, and daughters Doreen and Enid. They lived at 37 Swinton Place, Bradford, where he died on 31st December 1953.
Imperial War Museum (IWM) – Oxtoby personal papers
Dave & Cathy Maguire and the Oxtoby family (many thanks for your help)
West Yorkshire Regiment War Diaries
Ancestry – Medal Index Card, MM Card, Medal Roll and BM&D Registers
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Cemetery Register
Researcher: David J Owen
- All opinions and inferences are the researcher’s own.
- Please refer to our Glossary of Terms for further information on the terms and phrases used in this post.