ROBERT OATES (1894-1918)

7003 Private Robert Oates, 14th Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers was killed in action 30 May 1918 and is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial, France.[1]  He was 23 years old and is commemorated West Auckland War Memorial.

Family Details

Robert Oates was born 1894[2] at South Church, Bishop Auckland the son of Robert and Jane Oates.  There were 8 children:[3]

  • Elizabeth bc.1886 at West Auckland
  • James bc.1887 at West Auckland
  • Sarah bc.1889 at West Auckland
  • Mary bc.1890 at West Auckland
  • Thomas bc.1892 at West Auckland
  • Robert born 1894 at South Church
  • Joseph bc.1898 at South Church
  • John bv.1901 at St. Helens Auckland

In 1901, the family lived at the Square, St. Helens and 39 year old Robert worked as a coal miner (shaft man).  14 year old James was employed as a coal miner (driver).  Aged 42, Robert died in 1903[4] and Jane married John Carney in 1905.[5]  In 1911, John and Jane Carney lived at St. Helens with their son 5 year old John and Mary, Robert and Joseph Oates.  44 year old was a coal miner (shiftman) and his 16 year old step-son Robert was employed as a coal miner (pony putter).[6]

Service Details

The service record of Private R. Oates has not been researched.  He enlisted at Bishop Auckland and joined the 14th Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers being given the regimental number 7003.[7] The 14th (Service) Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers was formed at Newcastle in September 1914 as part of K3 Kitchener’s New Army and came under the orders of 21st Division as Army Troops and in January 1915, it was converted into a Pioneer Battalion.  The Division landed in France in September 1915.[8]  Private R. Oates entered France 9 September 1915.[9]  The Division’s first action was at The Battle of Loos in September 1915.  The 21st Division then saw action throughout 1916 on the Somme and during 1917 at Arras, Passchendaele and Cambrai.  Then in 1918, the Division encountered the full might of the German Spring Offensive.

The German Offensive, spring 1918 – an overview

3 March 1918: Soviet Russia made peace with Germany and her allies in a separate treaty, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  This meant that Germany could now transfer divisions from the Eastern Front to the Western Front.  More importantly, these Divisions included the original elite of the German Army – the Guards, Jagers, Prussians, Swabians and the best of the Bavarians. In all 192 Divisions could be deployed in the West so that the Germans held superiority in numbers.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions.[10]  A single division numbered about 19,000 men[11] so the German Chief of High Command General Ludendorff could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.

It was essential that final victory was gained before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America had entered the war 6 April 1917 and the first of her troops arrived in France 26 June 1917.  In July 1917, Pershing General of the Armies of the United States asked for 3 million men.[12]  The build-up of troops took time but eventually by June 1918, the Americans were receiving about 250,000 men a month in France.  This amounted to 25 divisions in or behind the battle zone and another 55 in the United States.[13]

The French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of effective inactivity.  However, the British were worn down by continuous fighting following the major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai during the summer of 1917.[14]

The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918.[15]

The German Spring Offensive was launched 21 March 1918 and took 5 phases:

  • 21 March – 5 April: Operation Michael, the Battle of Picardy, otherwise known as the First Battle of the Somme 1918 against the British
  • 9 – 11 April: Operation Georgette, the Battle of Lys against the British sector near Armentieres
  • 27 April: Operation Blucher-Yorck, the Third Battle of Aisne against the French sector along Chemin des Dames
  • 9 June: Operation Gneisenau, the Battle of the Matz against the French sector between Noyan and Montdider
  • 15 – 17 July: Operation Marne-Rheims, the final phase known as the Second Battle of the Marne.[16]

The Germans enjoyed spectacular territorial gains particularly during the initial phases of the offensive which led the Kaiser to declare a “victory holiday” for German schoolchildren, 23 March 1918.  But the cost in manpower was enormous:

  • Between 21  March and 10 April the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 1/5th of their original strength – 303,450 men
  • The April offensive against the British in Flanders was estimated to have cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000.[17]

The German High Command calculated that it required 200,000 replacements each month but even by drawing the next annual class of 18-year olds, only 300,000 recruits stood available.  Also 70,000 convalescents from hospitals were available each month but even counting them, the strength of the German Army had fallen from 5.1 million to 4.2 million men in the 6 months of the offensive.  It could not be increased on the estimated scale required.[18]

In June 1918, the first outbreak of “Spanish Flu” laid low nearly 500,000 German soldiers.  This epidemic was to reoccur in the autumn and wreak havoc throughout Europe and the wider world. [19]

Added to this the poor diet of the German troops, battle fatigue, discontentment with the military leadership, social unrest at home and a general realization that their great effort was beginning to wane, the Allies counter attack in mid-July began to seize the initiative.  Sweeping victories over demoralized German forces eventually led to the resignation of Ludendorff, 27 October, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II 9 November and the signing of the Armistice 11 November 1918. [20]

The German Offensive in Picardy 1918

Together with other engagements, the Battle of St. Quentin is otherwise known as one of the First Battles of the Somme, 1918, part of the German offensive in Picardy.  The engagements are classified as follows:

  • 21 – 23 March: Battle of St. Quentin
  • 24 – 25 March: Actions of the Somme crossings
  • 24 – 25 March: First Battle of Bapaume
  • 26 – 27 March: Battle of Rosieres
  • 28 March: First Battle of Arras
  • 4 April: Battle of Avre
  • 5 April: Battle of the Ancre
  • 24 – 25 April: Action of Villers Bretonneux
  • 4 July: Capture of Hammel

The Germans enjoyed overwhelming superiority of forces – 58 Division against 16. [21]   The 21st Division served in the VII Corps as part of the Fifth Army and saw action at St. Quentin and Bapaume. [22]   The Division moved north to engage the enemy again:

  • 10 – 11 April: The Battle of Messines
  • 25 – 26 April: The Second Battle of Kemmel

Both are phases of The Battle of the Lys then:

  • 27 May – 6 June: The Battle of the Aisne. [23]

27 May 1918: the Battle of the Aisne: some detail [24]

The 21st Division held a front of roughly 5 miles south of the Aisne running parallel with the Laon to Rheims road.  The terrane is flat and swampy and the main feature is the Aisne and Marne Canal which ran between the Forward and Battle Zones.  The Division had insufficient troops to defend the position and the British were not impressed with the French defensive plan.  The British would have preferred to give up the forward areas and defend from behind the canal and to be in a position to destroy the bridges and crossing points if required to do so.

The 64th Brigade held a front just over 1¼ miles with the right just north of the village of Loivre and the left on the Boyau Godat.  On the right of the brigade was the French 45th Division and on the left 110th Brigade.  64th Brigade held the extreme eastern sub-sector of IX Corps and had 3 companies of 14/NF and 126 and 98 Field Companies Royal Engineers under its command.

“If the 3 forward companies had been withdrawn a barrage  could have been put down on the crossing places of the canal and the 3 companies could have been saved and help strengthen the Battle Zone as it was they were just blotted out and overrun and the Germans were able to cross.” [25]

News of the German attack came late.  At 9.30pm 26 May 64th Brigade HQ was informed by the French that an attack was imminent, at 1.00am the following morning, 27 May.  Some advance outposts were informed as late as 11.00pm.  At 12.30am, instructions were given to destroy bridges as soon as the enemy attack began.  The German bombardment opened up as predicted.

“Heavy bombardment opened up along the whole front, a large amount of gas being mixed with HE.  The gas used was of several kinds but there seemed to be a large proportion of Yellow Cross.  [Mustard gas]  It was impossible to tell the exact frontage of the bombardment but judging from the sound alone, it seemed to be heavier to the north than the south.[26]  

By 3.30pm, survivors from the forward companies of 9/KOYLI joined with 15/DLI and 14/NF (Pioneers) in defence of Cauroy and Hermonville which they succeeded in doing until the early hours of the following day.

Private R. Oates was killed in action 30 May 1918.[27]  His body has never been identified and he was presumed to be dead due to the lapse in time.  14/NF war Diary has not been researched therefore no details surrounding the circumstances of his death are currently known.  He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial.  Later research records the 14/NF lost 3 officers and 35 Other Ranks between 27 May and 6 June, killed in action or died of wounds, 14 ORs died 30 May including Private R. Oates.[28]  Private R. Oates was awarded the British War and Victory medals.[29]


Private R. Oates has no known grave and is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial, France.  It commemorates almost 4,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom who died during the Battles of the Aisne and the Marne in 1918 and who have no known grave.  Another local serving with 14/NF to fall in this action was 34125 Private William Hutchinson from Tindale Crescent.  He too has no known grave and is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial. [30]


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales 1837-1915 Birth Index Vol.10 p.217 Auckland 1894 Q4

[3] 1901 & 1911 census

[4] England & Wales 1837-1915 Death Index Vol.10a p.143 Auckland 1903 Q4

[5] England & Wales 1837-1915 Marriage Index Vol.10a p.267 Auckland 1905 Q1

[6] 1911 census

[7] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[8] http://www.1914-1918.net/northfus.htm

[9] Medal Roll card index


Many references have been quoted including some from “The First World War” 1998 John Keegan, “The Imperial War Museum Book of 1918 Year of Victory” 1998 Malcolm Brown, and “The Unknown Soldier” 2005 Neil Hanson.

[11] http://www.cwgc.org/somme

[12] http://www.firstworlwar/timeline

[13] SEE 10

[14] http://www.1914-1918.net/batt22

[15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] SEE 10

[21] http://www.1914-1918.net/batt22

[22] http://www.warpath.orbat.com/battles_ff/1918_pt1.htm

[23] www.1914-1918.net/21div.htm & http://www.warpath.orbat.com/battles_ff/1918_pt1.htm

[24] “Aisne” D. Blanchard

[25] Report attributed to Brigadier General  Hugh Headlam

[26] An account of the part taken by 64th Infantry Brigade in the operations of the 27th May to 30th May written by Captain Lancelot Spicer (the Brigade Major)

[27] CWGC

[28] Officers & Soldiers Died in the Great War

[29] Medal Roll card index

[30] CWGC


Soissons Memorial

Soissons Memorial

OATES R. Inscription


OATES R. Medal Roll

Medal Roll