b. 10/06/1886 Oswestry, Shropshire. d. 19/12/1956 Oswestry, Shropshire.
Harold Edward Whitfield (1886-1956) was born in the Shropshire market town of Oswestry on 10th June 1886. He was one of at least six sons born to John and Katherine Whitfield. His father ran the Five Bells public house in Oswestry. Harold seems to have been raised though by his aunt at Pool Farm. Like his father before him and many of his rural colleagues, Whitfield enlisted in the Shropshire Yeomanry (in 1908) and went on to serve after World War One, reaching the rank of Squadron Sergeant Major before retirement in 1936 – after 28 years’ service.
A farm worker by profession, he was living in the family home, Pool Farm at Middleton near Oswestry, when war broke out in August 1914 and the Yeomanry was mobilised. Only four days later they left Shropshire ready for “active service” but to their disappointment were to spend the next two years in the UK as part of the eastern coast defence forces. Not until March 3rd 1916 did they sail for war and arrived at Alexandria in Egypt later that month.
Their first active service came in the scorching heat of the Western Desert of Egypt, based for at Minia camp during the Senussi Campaign of 1916. Losing a few men as volunteers to the Imperial Camel Corps, the SY then became part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force advancing across the Suez Canal into Palestine in November 1916 and played a full part in General Allenby’s campaign to liberate Jerusalem and drive the Turks northwards out of Palestine.
This was not an easy campaign – albeit now somewhat neglected by World War One historians. The Turks proved to be formidable fighters (as they had at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia) and the desert climate was equally demanding. After being engaged in the Second and Third battles of Gaza in April and August 1917, the Shropshire Yeomanry (by then designated 10th KSLI) took part in the advance on Jerusalem – which fell in December 1917, to become the “Christmas present” Allenby had promised to Lloyd George.
By March 1918, the Shropshire Yeomanry was part of the famous 74th Yeomanry (“Broken Spur”) Division and was engaged in the advance towards Nablus, north of Jerusalem. On 7th March, the 10th KSLI were directed to attack Turkish positions at Selwad, as part of the larger battle of Tel Asur. After taking the Turkish positions there by the 9th, the 10th KSLI was ordered on the next day to seize the hill of Birj-el-Lisaneh to their north. Attacking Turkish defences soon after midnight, the 10th carried the position but were then subjected to fierce counter-attacks and faced very severe fighting, which was to last nearly three hours.
At one stage, the Turks appeared to be just about to turn the left flank of the British position when Pte. Whitfield launched himself into the action. Alone and on his own initiative, he attacked a Turkish machine-gun post which was doing great damage. Killing or bayonetting the entire crew, he turned the gun on the advancing Turks, driving them back single-handedly.
He then led grenade attacks against another nearby Turkish machine-gun position and destroyed it, holding the advanced post until reinforced. This individual initiative materially helped to break up the Turkish attack, though two others had to be defeated before the enemy was finally driven off and Birj-el-Lisaneh secured. Coincidentally, this was to be just about the last real action the 10th KSLI saw in Palestine; shortly afterwards they were dispatched to France – and a completely new set of circumstances. The award of the VC was announced in the London Gazette of May 8th, 1918.
Promoted to Lance Corporal after the 10th KSLI landed in France on May 7th 1918 and to Sergeant on May 10th, Whitfield was decorated “in the field” with the ribbon of the Victoria Cross on May 10th 1918 by the General Officer Commanding the 74th Division and received the medal itself from King George V in a ceremony of investiture in Leeds on May 31st 1918. Needless to say, he was welcomed as a local hero on his return to Oswestry on leave in June 1918 and received civic honours and private gifts of all kinds. In 1925, he married Mary Tomley. They had a daughter, but sadly Mary died of cancer after only four years of marriage. Harold remarried his housekeeper, Rose Scoltock, and they went on to have seven daughters and two sons.
A farmer and later a dairy worker in civilian life, Harold Whitfield was a familiar guest at local functions, regimental reunions and formal occasions in later years. Like many other winners of the VC, he was a modest, reticent and unassuming man who simply went about his daily work and never made much of his heroism or celebrity. It is sad to relate that he died on 19th December 1956 at the age of 70 as a result of a road accident, whilst cycling home from work at Whittington Express Diaries on the 16th December. He was hit by an army vehicle (of all things) whilst making his way home from work and was buried in Oswestry Cemetery.
Sergeant Whitfield’s Victoria Cross and medal group, the rifle and bayonet he actually used in the VC action and some other personal possessions are on display in the Shropshire Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury Castle, thanks to the generosity of the Whitfield family. The medal had originally been held in the Midland Bank in Oswestry, but a bank clerk stole it in 1977 and sold it to a dealer in London for £2,000. The dealer became suspicious and the family had the medal returned. The bank clerk was given 200 hours community service. The medals were presented to the Shropshire Regimental Museum in 2000.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: SHROPSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY, SHREWSBURY.
BURIAL PLACE: OSWESTRY CEMETERY, OSWESTRY, SHROPSHIRE.
PLOT W, GRAVE 26
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
Richard Pursehouse – Image of the Whitfield VC Stone at Oswestry War Memorial.