FIRST WORLD WAR: Victoria Cross winner Harold Whitfield


Aimee Jones

HAROLD Whitfield may not be the person that most Oswestrians would immediately think of should they be asked to name a famous soldier of the town.

Indeed, the prominence of the renowned First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, is very much a feature of Oswestry, as well as the literary and theoretical aspects of the war itself.

But as Owen remains very much a figurehead of the town and indeed the realities of war, it is Whitfield, pictured right, who can rightfully lay claim to being Oswestry’s most highly decorated soldier, having received Britain’s highest military accolade, the Victoria Cross, for his actions in the First World War.

Harold Edward Whitfield, was born in Oswestry on June 11, 1886, and like many people in the town, including his father, enlisted in The Shropshire Yeomanry, in 1908.

Working as a farm hand, Whitfield was living in the family home at Pool Farm, Middleton, near Oswestry, when war broke out in August 1914. As a result, The Yeomanry was quickly mobilised, and a few days later left Shropshire to embark on active service.

With all sides involved expecting the war to be swiftly resolved, many soldiers would have left their families buoyed by the valiant tales of the glory of war, and with their expectations of being home by Christmas uppermost in their minds.

For many, this was an adventure and a chance to reach far and foreign lands that would otherwise be merely dreamt or read about in newspapers and books. But as it was, soldiers of The Shropshire Yeomanry were to be disappointed, spending the next two years on British soil as part of the eastern coast defence forces as the realities of the conflict began to unfold.

Whitfield therefore had it better than most for the first two years of the war, spending his days in the relative comfort and sanctuary provided by his homeland; compared to that of others who had been miserably trudging their way through the mud of the fields in France and Belgium as they watched their friends fall around them.

But on March 3, 1916, The Yeomanry was itself called into battle, arriving at Alexandria, in Egypt, later that same month.

The Yeomanry first saw service in the scorching heat of the Western Desert, based at the camp at Minia, during the Senussi Campaign of 1916. From there they became part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, advancing across the Suez Canal in November of that year.

In doing so they played a full part in the campaign headed by General Allenby, to liberate the Holy City of Jerusalem and drive the Turks northwards and out of Palestine.

However, the campaign was a demanding one and the troops had to adapt themselves quickly to the desert climate, as well as becoming battle hardened in the face of the formidable fighting carried out by the Turkish soldiers themselves.

Having finally taken the city in the days before Christmas, The Yeomanry then turned its attention further north as it advanced towards the city of Nablus, and it was during this period that the heroism of Private Harold Whitfield, of the 10th Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, (formed by the amalgamation of The Shropshire and Cheshire Yeomanrys in 1917), was ultimately rewarded.

On March 7, 1918, Private Whitfield’s Battalion were directed to attack the Turkish positions at Selwad, as they played their part in the larger battle of Tel Asur. Having completed their objective two days later, the Battalion were then ordered to seize the hill of Birj-el-Lisaneh, to their north.

The Battalion began their attack just after midnight on March 10, but were subjected to fierce counter attacks as the Turks attempted to turn the left flank of the increasingly vulnerable British line. It was at this point, at the age of 31, that Private Whitfield distinguished himself in battle, launching himself into action in an attempt to prevent the enemy from pushing home their growing advantage.

Acting without orders, Private Whitfield, single-handedly attacked a Lewis Gun that the Turks had been using to inflict heavy casualties upon the British forces. Killing or bayonetting the entire gun crew, Private Whitfield then turned the gun onto the advancing Turks, driving them back while still acting alone as his comrades struggled to reach him in the face of heavy fire.

Leaving the gun, the bravery of the man was to be further enhanced as he then led grenade attacks, rushing another machine gun position and destroying it, before continuing to hold the post until reinforced.

The initiative of Private Whitfield was identified as being integral to the break up of the Turkish attack, although two further onslaughts needed to be repelled before the enemy finally retreated, and Birj-el-Lisaneh could be secured.

Private Whitfield himself promoted to Lance Corporal, and later to Sergeant, and was decorated ‘in the field’ with the ribbon of the Victoria Cross on May 10 and received the medal from HM King George V, in a Ceremony of Investiture in Leeds on May 31, 1918.

Whitfield was given a hero’s welcome upon his return to Oswestry when on leave in June of that year, where the town bestowed him with civic honours.

As with many winners of the VC, Whitfield returned to his normal life without making much of his heroism, continuing his pre-war work as a dairy farmer, as well as being a guest at many local, regimental, and formal occasions through the years.

Harold Whitfield VC, died in 1956, at 70 years of age, ironically after being hit by an army vehicle while making his way home from work and was lain to rest in Oswestry.

Sergeant Whitfield’s Victoria Cross and other medals are on display at Shrewsbury Castle, in the Shropshire Regimental Museum, as well as the rifle and bayonet he had with him during his VC action, alongside some of his other personal possessions; courtesy of the Whitfield family.

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