The recruiting boom of 1914 brought a large number of under-age Londoners into Britain’s armed forces. It also saw a number of over-age men into the ranks. Probably the oldest to actually (re)join the forces was Edward John Dolton, who had first joined the army in the 1850s as a drummer.
Edward John Dolton was born in London in December 1835. After joining the Scots Fusiliers Guards (who later became the Scots Guards) as a drummer, he was sent to the Crimea at the age of 17 or 18. The British and French were on the peninsula fighting the Russians; Dolton served in the battles of the Alma, Inkerman, Sevastapol and Balaclava.
After the war, he stayed in the army, moving into more logistics-centred roles and being promoted through the ranks to become a quartermaster and an honorary officer in 1871. He served in Egypt during the Abyssinian Campaign of 1876 (in modern-day Ethiopia). In 1881 Dolton was promoted to Captain and in 1890 retired as an honorary Major and settled in Twickenham. He volunteered his services during the Boer War and again in 1914 – at nearly 80 years old!
During the Great War he became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Service Corps and was put in charge a camp in Hounslow. He finally retired from the army for good in 1917, at the ripe old age of 81.
In early 1917, an entertaining interview with Lt Col Dolton was published in newspapers in New Zealand and elsewhere. In them he told of his work with the Boys’ Brigade in Twickenham, his love of astronomy, and the time he sat on Cleopatra’s Needle:
“I often amuse my grandchildren – and puzzle them if it is their first journey there with me – when I take them to-day to see Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment. I tell them that I once sat down on the top of that Needle; and they stare in absolute wonder! ‘How could you possibly sit on a point like that, so high up, granddad?’ they say in surprise. Then I have to explain.
“My soldiers in Egypt were playing a cricket-match one hot day on the sands against another eleven, and being warm and tired I moved a short distance off and sat down on the end of a worn, allen obelisk [sic], whose identity I did not trouble about just then, though I noticed it closely. However, later on, when it was reported that the celebrated Needle was to be brought to London, I visited the Embankment and recognised it as the very same one I had sat on when it lay on the Egyptian desert.”
Dolton had married Sophia Williams in 1860; they had twelve children. The birthplaces of their children attest to a military family’s life of repeated moves between camps and bases: Farnborough, Aldershot, Devonport (in Plymouth), Chatham. Sophia Dolton died in late 1916 at the age of 76; Lt Col Dolton died in March 1921, by which time he lived on Kennington Park Road.
There cannot be many people who served in both the Crimean War and the Great War. Edward John Dolton lived a long and (by his own account) interesting career, in an army that changed enormously from the one that occupied the trenches around Sevastapol in 1854 to the one that attempted to break the deadlock on the Somme in 1916.
‘The Old British Soldier on Active Service’, Wanganui Chronicle, 20 February 1917
Ancestry – Dolton’s census, death, Silver War Badge and Crimean War Medal records.