The Story of Henry Webber

While the government of Britain eagerly tried to gather as many recruits as they could to serve in the first World War, there were still rules in place. Those that were too young or too old could not join for numerous reasons including ethical ones. Conscription specified single men between the ages of 18 and 40.

Hence, Henry Webber was breaking all of the rules when he signed up to serve in his sixties. Henry, who was from Kent, England, had a very particular reason for doing so. As a father, he wanted to fight alongside his three sons who were all already on the battlefields. While his age may seem old to some, Henry was physically fit. As an avid sportsperson, at the age of 59, Henry had achieved 200 runs in cricket, rode horses, and was an exceptional golfer.

Initially, he attempted to sign up to serve in any capacity but was turned down. Clearly a highly motivated individual, instead of giving up, Henry tried another method. He gathered up horsemen like himself to form a company and offered up their services to assist in the army as a unit. Sadly, once again, Henry found his efforts rejected but with a fire in his heart he persevered, lobbying the government until he was given a commission as a battalion transport officer in the July of 1915.   

Under his new role, Henry found himself sent to France serving with the 7th South Lancashire battalion. There he helped in the preparation for the Somme offensive.  As a credit to his physical fitness, most of the younger soldiers apparently did not realise Henry’s true age.

In a letter written to a friend, Henry spoke about some of the struggles of his job. While he reassured that he was in good health, he noted that for four days in a row he had spent 21 of 24 hours per day either on his feet or on a horse. He also wrote how he had received no end of thanks for his help. His letter also hinted at his hopes that he might run into his sons, stating that if he were to see the three of them on the battlefield he would have to salute them, as they all outranked him.

Sadly, on the night of July 21st 1916, before Henry’s letter could be received, tragedy struck. A month away from his 68th birthday, while Henry was transporting supplies, he went to join in a discussion with a group of officers when a shell was dropped nearby. The blast caused Henry to lose consciousness from which he never recovered. He is buried in Dartmoor Cemetery of Somme, France.  

All three of his sons survived the war. His eldest, in particular, garnered a distinguished career of which he went on to become chief of staff to the commander of the Canadian Corps. 

Henry himself was described as being helpful, as well as gallant and energetic by his commanding officer, who stated he had the greatest respect for him. One thing Henry showed is that with hard work and determination, one can achieve almost any goal the heart is set on and that you are never too old to follow your passions. His name was mentioned in General Haig’s dispatches of the 4th of January 1917, a form of recognition and praise which describes the acts of individuals who played a significant role and were nominated worthy of mention.

Visiting Henry Webber's grave in Dartmoor Cemetry, Somme, France Henry Webber, portrait, one of the oldest men to die in duty during WW1

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The variety of the visits and the personal stories made it even more memorable. the supporting materials of appropriate videos, songs and information booklets made us realise that much thought and preparation and enthusiasm had gone into the planning and execution of our Battlefields experience. Thank you very much.

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