Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

Frederick Thomas Wheelhouse

Frederick Thomas Wheelhouse :

Frederick Thomas Wheelhouse : (L to R) 1914-15 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal; St John Ambulance Association Medallion

(L to R) 1914-15 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal; St John Ambulance Association Medallion

Frederick was born on the 18th September 1894 in Lees in Oldham, Lancashire. His father was called Thomas and his mother was Edith. He had 2 older brothers called Alfred and Edwin, and 5 younger sisters called Constance Florence, Gladys, Hilda, Edith Mary and Doris. The family had lost 4 other children by 1911.

Like many of Oldham's residents Thomas worked in the cotton spinning trade. By 1911 he was a weft carrier. In this year all 3 of his sons worked as piecers in a cotton mill or mills. The family lived at 45 Frankhill Street in Oldham.

On the 28th July 1914 Frederick joined the 3rd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. This was a unit of the Special Reserve. A Special Reservist was a man who had not previously served in the Regular Army. They kept their civilian career, but trained to be a soldier for a short period every year. Unlike the Territorial Force, which was intended to serve as complete units within the UK or Empire, Special Reservists could be sent to join Army units anywhere as individuals or in small groups.

When he enlisted Frederick was 5 feet 1 1/8 inches tall and weighed 105 pounds. He had 'fair' physical development. He was given the service number 2317.

The same day that Frederick enlisted Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo. This event led to the outbreak of the First World War. Britain declared war on the 4th August.

Frederick was mobilised on the 8th and reported to the Manchester Regiment Depot in Ashton-under-Lyne. The 3rd Battalion moved from here to the Humber estuary later in August, then to Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire. This meant they could be used to guard against an invasion as well as to train.

The Army in France and Belgium took heavy casualties during the first few months of the war, and soon needed reinforcements. Frederick was sent to the Western Front on the 23rd February 1915 and joined the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment in the Wulverghem area of Belgium. After spending time in the front lines they moved north to the area around Ypres during April.

Frederick and the 2nd Battalion took part in the Second Battle of Ypres, which was fought between the 21st April and the 25th May. After the end of this offensive the battalion stayed in the Ypres area until the end of July.

During August the battalion moved south to the Somme area of France. It was based here for the rest of 1915 and into 1916. We believe that Frederick was one of 18 members of the 2nd Battalion who were attached to the 179th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers on the 26th August 1915.

Tunnelling Companies worked underground. They dug subways, which allowed soldiers to shelter from artillery fire as they moved to and from the front lines, trenches to protect signal cables and chambers that could hold specialists such as surgical teams. They were also used for both offensive and defensive mining.

As the trenches of the Western Front moved very little, it was possible to dig mines underneath them. These would then be filled with explosives and detonated to support an attack. They could destroy large sections of trench and disorientate those defenders that they didn't kill.

Infantrymen were attached to Tunnelling Companies to work as labourers. It is likely that Frederick's height made him well suited to working in the cramped conditions underground.

We know that on the 22nd March 1916 Frederick officially transferred to the Royal Engineers. He was 'discharged to re-enlist' and given the service number 148530. His rank became Sapper. When he re-enlisted he gave his trade as 'miner'. This suggests he was now involved in digging tunnels rather than labouring in support.

The 179th Tunnelling Company was stationed in the Somme sector during the Somme Offensive which lasted from July until November 1916. They were responsible for digging a mine that was detonated on the 1st July, the day it began. It formed what is now known as the Lochnagar Crater.

Mines were highly effective, so it became necessary to try and destroy an enemy mine before it could be detonated. Tunnellers would use listening devices to try and hear the sound of other men digging. If they heard enemy tunnellers they could set off a small explosion to try and collapse their tunnel. Sometimes tunnellers dug their way into the enemy tunnel. This could lead to vicious fights underground in the dark, cramped tunnels.

Poor air quality, drowning and Carbon Monoxide poisoning were also dangers face by members of the Tunnelling Companies. Sophisticated construction and rescue techniques were developed to try and keep them safe.

During the battles of 1917 tunnel warfare became less common. This was because the front lines were more mobile. Tunnelling Companies were often used to dig large dugouts for soldiers to live in.

In 1918 trench warfare largely came to an end. First the Germans, then the Allies launched large offensives that led to mobile warfare. During this period tunnellers, with their knowledge of explosives, were sometimes used to make safe newly captured towns and villages by disarming explosives.

We know Frederick was able to return to the UK in late 1916, as he married Ada Butterworth in Oldham on the 13th December. He later returned to the 179th Company.

Frederick was wounded on the 21st October 1917. He and Sapper 132647 Sidney McDowell were poisoned by a gas shell. Sidney was able to stay on duty, but Frederick had to be evacuated to the UK for treatment. Between the 15th November and the 29th December he was treated at an unknown hospital in Staffordshire.

We don't know when Frederick returned to France or anything about his service during the rest of the war. The war ended on the 11th November 1918. On the 18th December he was a member of the 173rd Tunnelling Company, although we don't know when he had joined them.

By the 23rd Frederick had been returned to the UK. He was demobilised back to civilian life from Number 1 Dispersal Unit at Oswestry in Shropshire on this day. Frederick returned to Ada at 5 Fisher Street.

Back in Oldham, Frederick found work as a labourer. He must have missed Army life, but not have wanted to serve full-time. The Special Reserve was not reformed after the war, but the Territorial Army was. Frederick joined the 10th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment on the 16th September. This was the TA unit based in Oldham. He was given the service number 3514388.

The TA trained during evenings and weekends, and would have an annual training camp, lasting around 2 weeks. Frederick served for exactly one year. When he was discharged he lived at 2 House, 3 Court on Shaw Street in Oldham.

The rest of Frederick's life remains a mystery. We don't believe he and Ada had any children.

Frederick's St John Ambulance Association Medallion was awarded to him after he passed three First Aid Examinations. He didn't have to be a member of the Association to earn it, and we don't know if he ever was.

Frederick eventually moved to Blackpool in Lancashire. He died there in March 1986, aged 91.

Frederick's brother Alfred also served in the Manchester Regiment during the First World War. He was a member of the 24th, the Oldham 'Pals' battalion, when he died of wounds on the 2nd November 1916. He was 25 years old. He is buried in Varennes Military Cemetery.

We don't know whether Edwin served during the First World War, but his son, Edwin junior, joined the Manchester Regiment, most likely the 10th Battalion, in around 1933. This unit became the 41st Royal Tank Regiment in November 1938. During the Second World War he served in the 6th Royal Tank Regiment. Edwin was killed aged 27 on the 22nd November 1941 during Operation Crusader in Libya. He is buried in Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Acroma.

Frederick's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in July 1990.

Museum of the Manchester Regiment
c/o Portland Basin Museum
Portland Place
Heritage Wharf
Ashton-under-Lyne
OL7 0QA

Telephone: 0161 343 2878
Email: Portland.Basin@tameside.gov.uk
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Trustees of the Manchester Regiment Museum & Archive and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council