George Henry Whitehurst and Hannah Bailey had married at All Saints, Odd Rode, in 1877. By 1881 they had moved to John Street, Biddulph, and had two children; Minnie followed by Wilfred (born 1881). The family remained at John Street – their family gradually increasing in size. By the time of the 1911 census their address was given as 165, John Street and Hannah states that they have had ten children in total, although only seven were still alive. Up until this census, Wilfred’s father had always been employed in the iron industry. However, by 1911 his job description had changed to ‘council labourer’.
By the age of twenty Wilfred was employed in the mines – as a hewer underground. With the onset of war, Wilfred was one of the young sportsmen to enlist in the ‘Biddulph Company’. His former regimental number of 3345 suggests that he joined at Biddulph alongside Private William Morris (3343) and Lance Corporal John Robert Reeves (3353). Both also died in the war.
In the early months of the Great War, according to local newspapers, Wilfred enlisted at Biddulph joining the 1st/5th battalion North Staffordshire Regiment, in the local company. Training was carried out at Butterton Hall and in the Harpenden area. The battalion went to France in March 1915 attaching to the 137th Brigade, 46th North Midland Division. Without service records or a date of entry on his medal card it cannot be assumed Wilfred joined his battalion on this crossing, as his medal card shows no 1915 Star.
The 46th Division saw action in the Ypres salient and in October in the Battle of Loos, where Biddulph lost eight of its soldiers in the battalion on October 13th 1915 at the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Later in the year the soldiers were on a long train journey to the south of France from where the division sailed from Marseille, crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt. For unknown reasons the troops were ordered to return to France within a short period and arrived back in January 1916.
The Battle of the Somme in July 1916 found the division in a diversionary role at Gommercourt on the 1st of the month. At some point during the war Wilfred transferred battalions. Whether this happened in the field or back in England is uncertain. The battalion was the 2nd/6th North Staffordshire Regiment who went to France in February 1917 previously serving in Ireland. In France they attached to the 176th Brigade, 59th (2nd North Midlands Division) and saw their first major action on the Hindenburg Line from April to June. The Third Battle of Ypres was their next big battle, at the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood in September. These were battles that only offered the inevitable misery in the appalling Ypres Salient.
At rest during Christmas and the whole of January 1918 at Le Cauroy gave the lads of the North Staffords a welcome respite from the battlefield. Other Biddulph mates in the battalion were Walter Lovelock and Jesse Wright. During the winter the troops held their lines enduring the hazards of shelling and enemy snipers. March 1918 brought a new danger. On March 21st the German Spring Offensive commenced. The trenches were full of water and a barrage of shrapnel, high explosive and gas shells fell on the British front line. The 2nd/6th Battalion were in the St. Quentin and Bapaume areas at this time and like many battalions were overwhelmed by the speed of the enemy attack, losing many men with many wounded. Others were taken prisoner and it was more than likely that Wilfred was taken and became a POW during this period.
Men who were taken prisoner were marched in guarded groups from one barbed wire compound to another. Over the days they slowly moved deeper into enemy held territory, with little in the way of food and drink. Wilfred and the other prisoners in his group would be taken to a larger camp with huts and a diet of black bread, soup made of mangle wurzels or horse beans. At some time he was taken by rail to prisoner of war camps in Germany of which there were many. It was a long way to the Berlin area. It is known that Wilfred spent time in camps in Germany, no doubt taken from camp to camp where work was required. Conditions in camps varied greatly and the prisoners were in the hands of the staff and commandant. There was much fund raising both locally and nationally for POWs, collecting for food and clothing parcels.
For reasons unknown, maybe through illness or poor conditions, on September 16th 1918, aged 37, sadly Private Wilfred Whitehurst died. He was buried in the Berlin Western Cemetery Brandenburg. This cemetery was one of four built after the armistice to take men who died in the many POW camps in Germany.
Private Wilfred Whitehurst is also remembered on the Biddulph memorials.
Michael Turnock and Elaine Heathcote.