James Oakman was born in the Parish of St. Leonard's, Hastings, Sussex, in the year 1857. Prior to joining the Army he was a painter by trade. James Oakman enlisted as a Sapper (Regimental Number 13496) in the Royal Engineers on the 12th of May 1876 at Aldershot in Hampshire. At 10:00 a.m. on the following day he took the oath of attestation, which was duly approved by Major A.G. Durnford, R.E.
At the time of Oakman's enlistment the British Army was operating under the Army Reserve Act of 1867 which required a new recruit to be attested for a term of 12 years; the first eight years in Army Service, and the remaining four years in the 1st Class of the Reserve. What this meant was that as a member of the 1st Class Reserve Oakman would be liable for recall to the Colours and for active service overseas. This was distinct from the Second Reserve whose members served on home duties only and consisted of regulars completing their second term of service. It also consisted of present and future pensioners.
Postings and Campaign Service
Oakman was assigned to the Royal Engineer Trains and was posted to "C" (Telegraph) Troop for duty at Aldershot. On the 6th of June 1877 he was injured in an accident and was admitted to hospital at Aldershot where he remained until the 17th of July while being treated for a contusion. The injury must have been fairly severe to keep him hospitalized for 42 days, although his record of medical history provides no details.
On the 1st of December 1877 Oakman was posted as a driver in the mounted section of "C" Troop and on the 13th of May of 1878 he qualified for Good Conduct Pay at 1.d. All the while he continued to serve at Aldershot where, on the 28th of September 1878, he was again admitted to hospital and was treated for a period of 34 days for what is listed as a "boil" on his medical history. The entry "boil" is very common in the medical histories of soldiers serving during the 19th century. It would be interesting to know precisely what significance this term had to a doctor during the mid- to late-Victorian period. In the late 20th century the dictionary defines a boil as "a painful suppurating inflammatory sore forming a central core, caused by a microbic infection." This definition certainly would not account for the requirement for 34 days of hospitalization now as it did back in 1878, unless an infection was involved. At any rate, Oakman recovered and was released for duty on the 30th of October 1878.
James Oakman was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal on the 5th of February 1879, just 14 days after the disastrous defeat of the British column by the Zulus at Isandhlwana and the heroic defence of Rorke's Drift by the force under the command of Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, VC, R.E. Units were being mobilized for service in South Africa and "C" Troop was one of them. Oakman arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on the 3rd of April 1879 where his unit was engaged in communications support for the expeditionary force.
The work of the Telegraph Troop can best be understood by an examination of the service of its officers during the campaign. These services are briefly summarized below:
- Major A.C. Hamilton proceeded to the Cape in command of the Telegraph Troop and was the Director of Telegraphs and Signalling for the Army throughout the campaign.
- Lieutenant J. Hare was in charge of the southern line of telegraphs to St. Paul's and subsequently to Ulundi.
- Lieutenant J.C. Mac Gregor had charge of the northern line of telegraphs and signalling up to Ulundi.
- Lieutenant H.B. Rich proceeded to the Cape with the Troop and was employed on the southern line.
- Lieutenant F.G. Bond served on the lines of communication of the Headquarters Column in Zululand and with the Telegraph Troop from the beginning of May 1879 until the conclusion of the war. He subsequently served in the Transvaal on the telegraph lines between Utrecht and Wakerstrom.
It is apparent that "C" Troop ranged far and wide across South Africa establishing communications for the Army in the field during the campaign. Unfortunately, there is no record to indicate precisely where Lance Corporal Oakman served during the operations in Zululand, but his service records indicate that he was there.
Army Reserve Service
Oakman returned to England on the 28th of January 1880. One of the three Cardwell reforms, the Army Enlistment Act of 1870, had changed the requirements of soldiers' service obligations. Enlistment was still to be for 12 years; six with the Colours and six in the reserve. However, while men in India would serve the full six years with the Colours, men in Britain could pass into the reserve after only three years. Since Oakman now had over three years of service with the Colours and was in Britain, he was eligible to opt for service in the reserve to complete his first term of limited engagement of 12 years. Therefore, on the 25th of May 1880, James Oakman was transferred to the 1st Class Army Reserve at Brighton, having served a total of four years and 12 days with the Colours. Upon his transfer he reverted from the rank of unpaid Lance Corporal to the rank of Driver. His character was described as "very good" and he had earned one Good Conduct Badge and a Third Class Certificate of Education.
On the 26th of August 1880 the medal roll for "C" Troops participation in the Zulu War was prepared at Aldershot Camp. Oakman's name appears on the roll authorizing the award of the medal for South Africa with the clasp . The Remarks section of the medal roll shows "no trace of issue." This remark is probably due to the fact that he had already transferred to the reserve only three months before the roll was prepared. He was subsequently issued the medal.
Oakman took up residence at Silverhill, Hastings, Sussex upon his release from active Army service. On the 4th of March 1882 he married Emily Saxby of Silverhill. Presumably he returned to work as a painter while continuing his reserve military service for an additional eight years and 105 days. On the 12th of May 1888 James Oakman completed his first term of limited engagement and was discharged at Chatham in Kent. His residence at this time was listed as 8 Mark Terrace, Eastbourne, Sussex.
An interesting follow-on to the military service of James Oakman can be found in the records of the 1st Sussex Royal Engineer Volunteers. For many years the County of Sussex had attempted to form a Volunteer Royal Engineer unit. Eastbourne, a town of about 34,000 people at the time, was the center of this effort. The founder of the Sussex Royal Engineer Volunteers was Mr. George Frederick Chambers, F.R.A.S., Barrister at Law, J.P. Chambers lived in Eastbourne from 1873 to 1902 and was the husband of the only daughter of a Vicar of Eastbourne, the Reverend A. Brodie, D.D., who held the appointment from 1810 to 1828.
Mr. Chambers started the campaign for the formation of a Volunteer Royal Engineer unit in Sussex in June of 1888 after a great deal of preliminary work. At his first meeting with influential Eastbourne men he presented a full account of his explorations, proposals, and estimates. He had the support of the Commanding Officer of the Royal Engineers for the South-Eastern District, Colonel Walker, who stated that the Government was anxious to have Royal Engineer Volunteer units along the South Coast.
Towards the end of 1889 a meeting was called for the purpose of recording names of men willing to enroll so that a formal requisition could be made to the War Office for the formation of one unit. At least 60 men were called for; 105 names were taken. The requisition was sent off to the War Office early in November of 1889.
Mr. Chambers' efforts and persistence over more than two years were at last successful. The unit, "A" Company, 1st Sussex Royal Engineer Volunteers, was formally established at Eastbourne in June of 1890. The nominal roll of the first recruits to join the unit includes the name of J. Oakman (original Volunteer Regimental Number 6) with a date of enlistment of the 12th of June 1890. Since this unit was formed in Eastbourne, and since James Oakman had settled in this town in 1888, it is reasonable to assume that it is his name which appears on the unit roll of "A" Company of the 1st Sussex Royal Engineer Volunteers. The roll also shows Oakman as being promoted to the rank of Sergeant on the 29th of June 1890, just 17 days after the formation of the unit. This too would seem logical since any volunteer unit wanting to promote non-commissioned officers would undoubtedly look to individuals such as Oakman with prior active service.
On the 31st of October 1893 the 1st Sussex Royal Engineer Volunteers expanded to three companies. The nominal roll for "A" Company at Eastbourne still included the name 6 Sergeant J. Oakman. He would have been only 36 years old at this time and still had many good years of military service left.
Some members of the 1st Sussex Royal Engineer Volunteers saw active service in the Boer War in South Africa between March 1900 and March 1901. Whether or not James Oakman was among them is not known. The history of "A" Company from Eastbourne can be traced to the formation of the 1st Home Counties Divisional Royal Engineers in 1908. This unit subsequently served as the 1st Home Counties Field Company and later as the 490th Field Company with the 8th Division in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. By 1914 James Oakman would have been 57 years old. It is unlikely that he was serving during the Great War.
ADDENDUM NO. 1
The following obituary from a 1905 edition of the Eastbourne Gazette was supplied by Mr. Andrew Barrowcliff:
"DEATH OF AN EASTBOURNE ENGINEER - APPEAL TO THE CHARITABLE. The death occurred a few days ago in the Princess Alice Hospital after a painful illness of Sergt. James Oakman, of Montpelier House, Seaside Road. Deceased, who was well known in Eastbourne, enlisted in the Royal Engineers on May 12th, 1876 when he was 19 years of age. He served in South Africa during the Zulu war, and left the Regulars, in which he was lance-corporal, in May 1880, his conduct during the period he was in the service being most commendable. Oakman was for the following eight years in the reserves, and he obtained his final discharge in May 1888. Deceased was one of the first to join the 1st Sussex R.E.V. and as sergeant was held in high esteem by the officers and men. Unfortunately he had been out of work for several months - his occupation was that of a painter - and when he obtained employment his health failed him. He left a widow and eight children, five of whom are unable to earn their own living. The youngest child, aged 3-1/2 years, has been in the hospital for ten weeks. As the family have been left destitute a fund has been opened to assist them. Mr. George Stevenson, who was for several years quarter-master-sergeant of the 1st Sussex R.E.V. and knew deceased as a man of highly respectable character, has been requested to become treasurer, and subscriptions should be sent to him at 35, Seaside. The idea of a fund originated with some of the fellow workmen of the deceased, including Mr. Albert Lamb (formerly a member of the 1st Sussex R.E.V.), 29 Avondale Road; Mr. E. Cole, 44, Avondale Road; and Mr. G. Steel of Gilbert Road. Four pounds, in small sums, has already been collected. Subscriptions to the fund may be sent to any of the above named."
The obituary paints a truly sad story of the end of James Oakman's life. His final discharge from the forces in 1888 puts to rest any conjecture regard his possible service in the Boer War and his death in 1905 settles the questiion of any service during the Great War.
Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
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