One of the most remarkable members of the British Army of the First World War must have been Henry Webber. In 1914, he was sixty-six years old, over twenty years past the Army’s normal age limit, and his family of four sons and five daughters were all grown up.
He had already lived a very full life, having been a member of the London Stock Exchange for forty-two years. and was a prominent member in a great variety of local affairs: a Justice of the Peace, a County Councillor since the formation of the Surrey County Council, a Churchwarden and President of the local Boy Scouts Association.
He also took part in many of the fashionable sports: cricket, shooting, hunting (as Master of the Old Surrey and Burstow Hunt). Three of his sons were Army officers serving in France and he longed to join them.
Henry Webber was born in Tonbridge, Kent, on 3 June 1849. He was the youngest son of Dr William Webber of Norwich and was educated at Tonbridge School and Pembroke College, Oxford, and gained his degree in 1870. He joined the Stock Exchange in 1872 and in 1874 he married Emily Morris at Lingfield Church. Emily was the eldest daughter of Mr Norman Morris of Ford Manor, Dormansland. They lived in Horley from 1875 firstly at Greenfields, and then settled at The Elms in Honey Row, (later the house became Kingsley School, since demolished).
First, Webber applied to the War Office, offering to serve ‘in any capacity’ but his offer was rejected. Next, he recruited a company of ‘Rough riders’ fellow-horsemen like himself and offered this unit complete to the Army, but again he was rejected. He never gave up and, possibly to rid themselves of this persistent old gentleman, the War Office eventually gave him a commission. After a very short training period, Henry Webber went to France as a battalion transport officer at the ripe old age of sixty-seven, a remarkable achievement for perseverance.
He was sent to join the 7th South Lancs, a New Army battalion, in the 19th (Western) Division. He was accepted quite normally by the younger officers in the battalion; he performed his duties well and not many knew his true age, although the CO found that his own father and Webber had rowed together at Oxford in the same year, over half a century earlier. Webber hoped that he might meet and salute his three sons who all held ranks higher than his.
Late on the afternoon of 30th June 1916, the men due to attack the next morning marched out of the villages where they had been billeted. It was a moment charged with emotion as all those remaining behind turned out to give the fighting men a good send off. One man to be left behind was Lieut Henry Webber. Although his duties as Transport Officer would normally have kept the sixty-seven year-old out of any action, many men were finding excuses to go up to the trenches and his CO had specifically ordered Webber to remain behind.
All next day, the First Day of the Somme, the 19th (Western) Division had remained in the trenches of the Tara-Usna Line, just outside Albert. Fresh orders were issued that they should attack the German front line at 5pm but these were cancelled and four Lancashire battalions were ordered to turn back and march to the rear. When Lt Webber with the battalion transport met the 7th Lancs that evening he was greeted by smiling friends. Despite the carnage of 1st July, Lt Webber’s battalion, which was on the outskirts of Albert, was not touched by the battle.
On 21st July the 7th Lancs moved up to relieve a battalion in the front line near Mametz Wood. That night Henry Webber took supplies as usual with the battalion transport. Leaving his men to unload the horses, he went over to where the C.O. was talking to a group of officers. Into this routine, a peaceful scene, there suddenly dropped a single, heavy German shell.
When the smoke and dust had cleared it was found that twelve men and three horses had been hit. Henry Webber lay unconscious, badly wounded in the head. He and the other wounded were rushed to a Dressing Station but, for Webber, it was to late. He never regained consciousness and died that night.
The news of the death of this old warrior was noted in high places. His family received special messages of sympathy from the King and Queen and from the Army Council, unusual tributes to a dead Lieutenant of infantry. Webber’s devotion to duty was further honoured when he was mentioned in the C in C’s Despatches. His wife never recovered from the shock of his death and died two years later, but ironically, his three sons all survived the war. He is buried in Dartmoor Cemetery at Becordel-Becourt and at age 68 was probably the oldest British soldier known to be killed during WWI.
Henry’s eldest son was Brig-Gen NW (Tommy) Webber CMG DSO (plus 9 Mentions in Despatches) who had a distinguished career in the War ending up as chief of staff to the commander of the Canadian Corps and was later MD of the Army & Navy Stores group.
(Henry Webber is also commemorated on the Horley War Memorial)
Surrey Fire & Rescue Service, Drill Section newsletter. 2013