Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

Fred Whittaker

Fred Whittaker :

Fred Whittaker : (L to R) Military Medal and 2 Bars; 1914-15 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal

(L to R) Military Medal and 2 Bars; 1914-15 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal

Fred was born on the 28th September 1892 in Oldham, Lancashire. His father was called Edward and his mother was Sarah. He was their eldest child, and had at least 9 younger siblings. They were William, Alice, James, Joseph, Milly, Annie, Elizabeth, Miriam and Betsy. William's medals are also in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection.

Edward worked as a moulder in an iron foundry. In 1901 the family lived at 11 Swinton Street in the Clarksfield area of Oldham. Ten years later they had moved the short distance to 35 Brewerton Road. Both of these houses were small terraces, and must have been extremely cramped as the family grew. In 1911 Fred worked as a mule piecer in a cotton mill. At some point between then and 1915 Fred became a machine minder at the Windsor Mill in nearby Hollinwood. We don't know if he had also worked here in 1911.

The family were Methodists, and both Fred and William were staunchly religious. They attended the United Methodist Church on Roundthorn Road, and both brothers taught at the Sunday School there.

The First World War broke out in August 1914 and hundreds of thousands of men joined the Army within a few months. Neither Fred nor William enlisted with them. Their Methodist beliefs meant that they were both pacifists, opposed to war.

Ultimately, Fred must have decided that he could justify joining the Army. On the 4th June 1915 he joined the Oldham Battalion of Comrades that was being formed to allow the men of the town to serve together. This became the 24th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and Fred was assigned to 11 Platoon in C Company. He was given the service number 15452.

Although he had been willing to enlist and serve his country, Fred's beliefs would not let him take up arms. Instead he volunteered to become a stretcher bearer. His job would now be to find and evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield so that they could receive medical care.

The 24th Battalion trained in Grantham, Lincolnshire, until September when they moved to Larkhill in Wiltshire. They sailed to France on the 8th November. Fred spent some of this time training with the 27th (Reserve) Battalion in Prees Heath, Shropshire, before rejoining the 24th and going overseas.

During their first few months in France the 24th Battalion spent time holding the front line trenches around Albert and Arras, as well as being used as labour for various construction and excavation projects behind the lines. They saw some fighting, but were not involved in any large battles. During late April Fred suffered from scabies on 3 separate occasions. He had to go for treatment at the 23rd Field Ambulance on the 26th, and the 22nd Field Ambulance on the 27th and 30th.

During May 1916 the battalion was given the new role of Pioneers. They would now focus on work such as digging trenches, building roads and buildings, and moving supplies. They were still equipped and trained to fight as infantry, but this was no longer their main role.

As Pioneers the battalion supported the Somme Offensive that began on the 1st July. They followed the attacking infantry and began to build new trenches and dug outs in captured areas. Fred was promoted to Unpaid Lance Corporal on the 12th September and to Corporal on the 18th.

After they left the Somme sector later that month the 24th Battalion moved north to Armentieres near the Belgian border, where they continued their labouring work. Fred was able to return to the UK on leave between the 18th and the 28th January 1917. He fell ill with scabies again on the 25th February, and needed to spend the night at the 23rd Field Ambulance.

During May Fred carried out an act or acts of great bravery. He was awarded the Military Medal in the London Gazette of the 9th July 1917. The earliest reference we can find to Fred's award is a notice published by V Corps on the 23rd May, so it must have been earned shortly before then. At the beginning of the month the battalion had been involved in supporting British attempts to take the village of Bullecourt. All we know about how Fred earned his award is the sentence: 'Awarded for conspicuous gallantry as a company runner and guide'.

In early June Fred wrote a letter home to his mother. She now lived at 294 Lees Road. He told her that he had received the ribbon of his medal, which he included in the letter. He also told her that he had been recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal. This recommendation must have been turned down at a higher level.

Fred and his comrades entered Belgium in June 1917 and were sent to Ypres (now called Ieper). Between June and October they supported the Passchendaele Offensive being fought in this area. Again, their main role was to help the infantry by digging trenches and moving supplies. The weather and the German shelling in the Ypres area had turned the ground to mud, so both these tasks were even more difficult and dangerous than usual.

The 24th Battalion was withdrawn from Ypres in late October and sent to a completely different environment. They arrived in Italy in late December 1917. They had been sent, along with other British and French units, to help support the Italian Army in their fight against Austria-Hungary. The Italians had suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Caporetto the previous month, and were in danger of collapsing completely.

Fred's surroundings may have changed, but his job had not. Digging trenches was more challenging in the rock of the Asiago plateau than the mud of France and Flanders, although once built they needed less maintenance. Moving supplies up narrow, steep paths from the plains to the trenches 4,000 feet above was also a significant challenge. As compensation though, for Fred and his comrades the Italian front was generally quieter and more relaxed than France.

On the 7th July 1918 Fred was able to return home on leave again. He spent 14 days at home and rejoined the battalion on the 1st August. During his time in Oldham he attended a gala at Roundthorn Church, where he was presented with his Military Medal by the Mayor of Oldham.

On the 23rd October the British and Italians began an offensive aimed at crossing the Piave River and driving the Austrians back. The 24th Battalion's main jobs were to help speed the infantry's advance by building pontoon bridges and clearing tracks for the infantry to follow. The attack was successful and by the 3rd November the British had reached the next river, the Tagliamento. A ceasefire was agreed the next day, and the war in Italy came to an end.

Fred had displayed outstanding courage in Italy. He was awarded 2 Bars to his Military Medal during his time there. This was the equivalent of being awarded the medal twice more. His awards were published in the London Gazette on the 29th March and 17th June 1919. We don't know when he earned his 1st Bar, but we believe his 2nd Bar was awarded for actions during the last month of the war. Again, all we know about Fred's actions is one sentence: 'In Italy he displayed exceptional courage and resource in organising the evacuation of the wounded'.

Fred returned to the UK between the 27th December 1918 and the 17th February 1919. He was demobilised from the Army on this date and returned to his parent's home at 294 Lees Road.

William also joined the Army and became a stretcher bearer. He joined the 10th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, based in Oldham, and fought in France and Belgium. He was injured at Miraumont in August 1918, losing an eye and being injured on his left hand side. He was also awarded the Military Medal.

A civilian again, Fred became a physical training instructor at the Middlewood Remand Home in Rochdale. This was a detention centre for young offenders. Later he worked as a truancy officer for Oldham Borough Council, making sure pupils were in school when they should be, and taking steps to deal with those who were not.

Outside of work, Fred was involved with the local Boy's Brigade for 52 years, meaning he became involved with them no later than 1925. He also returned to Roundthorn Church, alongside William.

Between October and December 1920 Fred married Alice Stemp in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne. They had one child, Dorothy, between January and March 1922.

Fred joined the 24th Battalion Old Comrade's Association so that he could keep in touch with his friends from the Army. They were a close group, and met regularly over the years. In 1958 Fred became their Honorary Secretary. He was one of almost 90 men who attended the 50th Anniversary reunion at the Co-operative Cafe on King Street on the 18th September 1964.

We believe Fred resigned as Honorary Secretary between June 1971 and June 1972. He was still involved with the association though, and it was he who announced to the press that their 1976 reunion would be their last. He told them that they still had 30 members, and 'would remain in contact by letter'.

Fred lived at 36 Fulham Street for many years. This was just round the corner from William's home on Melling Road. He died on the 15th February 1977, aged 84. William died just a few months later on the 26th December. He was 83. Fred had been a tee-totaller all his life, even in the trenches, when he always refused his ration of rum.

Fred was one of only 185 men to be awarded the Military Medal and 2 bars during the First World War, and awards of the medal to brothers must be even rarer. Both Fred and William's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in January 1994.

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