When the great war in Europe ended, men were returning to their families over the course of the following months. In Arbroath, Agnes Wallace had been waiting for the return of a loved one, who had been held for over four years as a prisoner of war. It was not her husband, brother, or even her father the 36 year old awaited, but her 19 year old son, Scott Oram.
Scott was born on the 14th of November, 1899, in his maternal grandparents cottage in the rural parish of Kinnettles, Forfarshire. Recently married Agnes was just 16 years and 5 months old, when she gave birth. Henry, the husband of Agnes, had by 1908 relocated the family to the town of Arbroath, the home town of his father, whom Scott was named in honour of. Henry was employed as a carter, formerly having been a ploughman.
In 1909 Henry died suddenly. Agnes, now 26, was left with four children to support. Within a year Agnes had remarried, to a 40 year old widower, Duncan Wallace, also with four children. Scott and his three siblings kept their surnames when Agnes and Duncan married.
In 1913, sometime between the 17th and 28th of November, no more than two weeks after his 14 birthday, Scott enlisted into the Black Watch. He was posted to the 1st battalion based at Oudenarde barracks in Aldershot. It's unknown what age he gave upon attesting, as no service records survive. It is later reported in the press that he was a "well built lad" and had told the authorities he was 19. Whether this age was stated upon enlistment, or at the point of embarkation, is unclear. Youngsters were usually sifted out and left behind until old enough to join their battalion at a later point.
(1st Black Watch arriving at Farnborough railway station having marched from Aldershot)
During the fighting of 1914 the average age of a private soldier in the British army was about 27. Scott's mother being far closer to this in age than himself.
On the 13th of August, 1914, along with about thirty two officers and one thousand one hundred and fifty other ranks, he crossed the channel on the 'Italian Prince' landing at Le Havre. The 1st Black Watch was one of four infantry battalions within the 1st Guards Brigade, this being one of the three brigades making up the 1st Division. Along with the 2nd Division, they made up I Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig, later overall commander of the British Expeditionary Force.
When the Black Watch left Le Havre on the 16th, they did so by rail. Heading east for 190 miles they detrained late the next day at Le Nouvion. After a night of rest they made the three mile journey west on foot to billets in Boue, where they spent several days route marching.
On the 21st, the Black Watch as part of a body of men tens of thousands strong, marched over two days the thirty five miles into Belgium. They were eleven miles from Mons and saw none of the heavy action that took place around it. Being ordered to retire before an enemy they had not yet seen, caused frustration on the part of the men, who didn't really know why they weren't getting to face the Germans.
The retreat began in the early hours of the 24th, the battalion marched forty five miles to Petit Cambresis, reaching it the next day. This being only a few miles from their start point of Boue five days previously. On the 27th the Black Watch came under German fire for the first time. Artillery and rifle fire opened up on them while marching along a roadway, catching them by surprise. Fortunately there was a drainage ditch running by the side of the road that they could take cover in, only three men were wounded. These were the first casualties in action for the battalion, indeed of the whole regiment, that would occur over the next four years of warfare. The retreat continued for another one hundred and thirty six miles until the battalion reached Nesles-le-Gilbert, twenty five miles east of Paris, on the 5th of September. In fifteen days the men had walked two hundred and sixteen miles, having had very little contact with the Germans.
On the 8th of September the battalion mounted their first attack, as well as taking their first fatal casualties. They advanced to take Sablonnieres and the high ground overlooking the village. Holding it was a German jagerbattalion. They were successful in taking both objectives with loss of two officers and eight men, with seventeen wounded. On the 14th and 15th the Black Watch were involved in the battle of the Aisne. The battalion lost its commanding officer Lt-Col Grant-Duff as well as sixty eight officers and men, with over a hundred more wounded. The battalion then remained dug in where they were for a month. By the 20th of October the battalion was back in Belgium, guarding a road just north of Poperinghe. On the 22nd the battalion were the reserve to the other battalions in their brigade, who had been heavily attacked, they were sent up to reinforce them. Two days later when the roll call was taken, two officers and twenty men were killed and five officers and forty men wounded. On the 26th the battalion were ordered to dig in close to the village of Gheluvelt. On the 27th they were heavily shelled and A company sustained heavy casualties amounting to three quarters of their number. On the 28th the enemy attacked again and inflicted heavy losses on a position only half the battalion were defending. During this period five officers and eighty seven men were killed with more wounded or taken prisoner. It was in this action that Scott Oram was wounded in the arm and captured, while still only 14 years of age.
Agnes, or more accurately for the time, her husband, received the official notification in late November of Scott being a prisoner of war. Schneidemuhl camp, north of Posen in Germany was where he was sent. This camp eventually held soldiers from all the allied countries, mostly Russians. Scotts 15th birthday, two weeks after his capture, will have occurred while there. (Black Watch Prisoners at Schneidemuhl early in the war.)
(unidentified prisoners early in the war at Schneidemuhl)
The arrival of Scott's first letter home is not recorded. He did however send a letter in early May, 1915 thanking his family, friends and employees at Netherward mill, his place of work before enlisting, for parcels they had sent to him. The next communication from him reported in the press was August 1917, when 17 year old Scott sent a letter to his former headmaster at Parkhouse Public School in Arbroath. The article describes him as "Britain's youngest prisoner of war", and quotes passages from his letter:
"Just a few lines to let you know I am a prisoner of war in Germany. I meant to write you a letter a bit sooner, but had no time. I suppose you will remember me, for I only left school in 1913, and here I am, a prisoner of war in Germany, although yet quite a young lad. But I like the army, and to be able to help the British. Please let Miss Laing, Miss Christie and Miss Stewart know where I am. I am sending a photo of myself and a chum soon. I am at work on a farm, and I like the work, for it is not too hard, and we are not badly done to by the Germans. I have been a long time here now, and the time seems long in passing. Will you kindly show this letter to Mr James Campbell, for he was my schoolmaster before he went to Keptie School. I don't suppose there are any of my chums in school now. I met a few out at the front during the short time I fought before being captured."
The photograph alluded to by Scott did indeed arrive home. It showed him and a fellow prisoner standing in front of a farmhouse with the farmer and his young family. So presumably he was well enough liked by them. The second and final letter from Scott to appear in the local newspaper, this time sent to Agnes, was published the very next month. Scott expressed his hope of being repatriated. Although it isn't specified on what grounds this would happen, as his wounding didn't seem serious enough to stop him working on a farm so it could have been based on his youth. This hope however did not come to fruition.
The article about his letter explains that Scott replied to the news he'd received regarding the arrival of his new half sister, sadly the next letter sent to him was informing him of the infants untimely death. Unusually his letter passes comment upon his German captors, saying "One day they could shoot him and his chum, the next day they would give him a rise in pay!".
He expressed his pride at the part he has played for his country, possibly too much as some of it was censored, he writes of his hope that, "Scotland will send all her available sons to help to hurry on the end of this terrible struggle". He finishes with an appeal for parcels, feeling that his regiment are hard done by in this regard compared with others.
When the war ended it took time for prisoners of war to return from their many locations all over Germany. The situation was not helped by the influenza pandemic raging across the continent.
While awaiting Scott's return, Agnes suffered a double tragedy in early December. Her husband Duncan Wallace and his son Charles, both went missing the same day and were later found drowned. It seems the son had misappropriated his fellow factory workers saving fund, of which he was secretary.
In the first week of January, 1919 a letter was received from Colour Sergeant G.S. Hayles, president of the British Help Committee at the Gerfangenelager, Schneidemuhl, dated the 23rd of December.
"It is with the deepest regret that I have to report the sad death of your son, No. 2619 Private Scott Oram, of the Black Watch Regiment. He was admitted into the hospital here on the 8th inst., and died to-day of Spanish influenza and complications. All ranks offer their deepest sympathy with you in your great bereavement."
(Scott Oram. Photo possibly sent home from Germany)
His grave is located in Berlin South Western Cemetery, where it along with other British P.o.W.'s, were relocated in the years after the war.
Scott's 19th birthday occurred three days after the armistice on the eleventh of November. At the start of the war 19 years of age was the minimum age a soldier could legally be to enter a theatre of war. This was temporarily reduced to 18 and a half after the manpower crises of 1918. Summer 1918 may have well been the earliest Scott should legally have seen service abroad.
Agnes, still a relatively young woman at 36, had in a matter of weeks been both widowed (again) and lost her eldest son, leaving her with six or seven children to support. A small, but useful material consolation, arrived in August when she received her sons back pay. Added to this was a gratuity the next of kin were paid when a soldier on service died. She received an unusually high amount due to the unique set of circumstances that meant Scott had not received any wages from at least late October, 1914, more likely since disembarkation in the August, until his death in December 1918. Over four years of wages, at a shilling per day for a Private, as well as the gratuity calculated on rank and time spent overseas, meant Agnes received £92, 11s, 2d.
Agnes married for a third time at 40 in 1923 to a Mr Gibson.
Before dying aged 65 in 1948 she had the misfortune to lose another son in a war. Henry Oram, Scott's nine years younger brother, was killed in action at El Alamein in 1942, aged 34. He left a wife and three daughters.
Scott and his brother Henry are remembered today on the name panels of the civic war memorial in Arbroath.
(Arbroath War Memorial)
Scott Oram was one of an estimated 250,000 underage soldiers who fought for their country in the great war. Not many would have been quite as a young, or younger than he. Nor would many of those that were as young, be captured and spend so long a time as a prisoner war, or die, in the course of their service.
There also can't be more than a handful of mothers aged 32, whose sons went to war.
Brothers dying in each of the two world wars isn't unheard of, but it is still a remarkable incidence.
Edited by Derek Black