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The Final Whistle: Robert 'Pom Pom' Whiting

Gravestone of an unknown soldier at the memorial at Arras in France
Gravestone of an unknown soldier at the memorial at Arras in France

By Ronan Thomas
City of Westminster Archives

November marks the 90th anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior at London's Westminster Abbey.

It represents the 500,000 men killed and missing in action during The Great War.

Among them is football icon Robert 'Pom Pom' Whiting.

The date 11 November has a profound and lasting significance in Britain.

Each year, this day recalls the end of the Great War of 1914-1918 and the wider, enduring human costs of war.

Never identified

In November 1920, the body of an unidentified soldier was returned home from a battlefield grave in France. His flag-draped coffin was carried by naval warship to Dover and then by special train to Victoria Station, arriving on 10 November.

Flanked by 100 holders of the Victoria Cross, this 'Unknown Warrior' was laid to rest in the Abbey with great solemnity in the presence of King George V on 11 November 1920.

The grave was dedicated to the memory of over 500,000 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth killed but never identified during the First World War.

It rapidly became a place of pilgrimage for grieving relatives.

In 1921, a permanent grave of black Belgian marble was completed, surrounded by red poppies, just inside the western nave of the Abbey.

A service is being held at Westminster Abbey for all the "Unknown Soldiers"

The inscription attests: "Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior, unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land".

Ninety years on, the sacrifice of all unidentified or missing soldiers of the Great War is being marked afresh, in commemorative services and by a new Heritage Lottery Funded memorial.

On 10 November, Westminster Abbey will hold a service for local schoolchildren and relatives, commemorating the missing men of 1914-1918.

Co-ordinated by the City of Westminster Archives, the Dover War Memorial Group and Westminster Abbey will unveil a new free-standing stained glass window display depicting six soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice but whose remains were never found.

Among those remembered will be London-born Robert 'Pom Pom' Whiting (1884-1917), father of three, pre-war goalkeeping star and Middlesex Regiment soldier.

His extraordinary personal history combines sporting prowess, patriotism, reckless desertion, ostracism by his local community, redemption by brave military service and tragic loss in battle.

Pals Battalions

The First World War claimed the lives over 10 million soldiers, 908,000 of them British. Millions more on both the Allied and Central Power sides were severely wounded or otherwise psychologically marked by the war.

From 1915 to 1917, men from all backgrounds fought alongside each other in so-called 'Pals Battalions', units raised to replace the battle losses of 1914 as part of Lord Kitchener's New Army.

These battalions were composed of men with similar peacetime occupations or close sporting affiliations. They suffered appalling casualties in the great offensives of 1916 and 1917. The losses decimated communities across Britain, the more so because many lived in the same streets or were the main family breadwinners.

The dead from these regiments and corps lie in silent, immaculately-tended Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries across France and Flanders or - when they could not be found - were listed as missing on vast memorial gates and arches constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.

Robert 'Pom Pom' Whiting
Whiting played for Chelsea FC, West Ham United and Brighton & Hove Albion

One of the 2.6 million men recruited into the British Army was Bob 'Pom Pom' Whiting, an outstanding goalkeeper of his generation.

Today, Whiting's sporting reputation is such that he is claimed by no fewer than four football clubs (West Ham United FC, Chelsea FC, Tunbridge Wells FC and Brighton and Hove Albion).

Born in January 1884 in Canning Town, Bob Whiting followed family tradition and entered the local shipyard as a labourer. Selected as goalkeeper for the works football team, Thames Ironworks, (West Ham United from 1900) he went on to play for South West Ham FC and Tunbridge Wells Rangers.

Bob was moving up, fast. After being scouted to play in goal for Chelsea FC in 1906, Whiting married his wife Nellie the following year.

Ruthless business

Such was the power of his kicking from goal that Bob Whiting soon acquired the nickname 'Pom Pom' (after the four-barrelled two pounder rapid firing naval gun of the same name). Chelsea fans revelled at his piston-like ability to kick deep into the opposition's half.

But team selection was a ruthless business. After only one season 'Pom Pom' was dropped from the Chelsea side. In 1908, with his wife Nellie and his two sons still in Tunbridge Wells, he was transferred to Brighton and Hove Albion.

Whiting's football career flourished for seven seasons (320 appearances) until the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914.

From August to December 1914, over one million British men responded to their government's call for army volunteers. Their motives varied: patriotism, the need not to miss an adventure, peacetime boredom, peer and societal pressures.

Most were fit young men, many with professional sporting connections. In 1914, the popular press also played a powerful part in the recruitment drive.

Tabloid newspapers, poets such as Henry Newbold and writers including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle happily praised the virtues of upper and middle class rugby and cricket playing recruits - as exemplars of patriotism - yet insinuated that soccer players and fans were working class 'shirkers', more concerned with watching from the terraces than serving their country on the battlefield.

The noisy press tactics had no basis in fact.

Recruitment poster for Chelsea 'Die-Hards'
Recruitment poster for Chelsea 'Die-Hards'

By July 1916, such notions had been dispelled by reports of men kicking footballs as they advanced across No Man's Land on the Somme: the apogee of sportsmanship.

But in 1914, the cacophony of critical press voices proved highly effective, convincing many traditional working class sportsmen and fans of many clubs to become 'die-hards' themselves.

At Fulham Town Hall on 12 December 1914, Bob Whiting, now 30, enlisted as a private in the 17th (Service) Battalion (1st Football) of the Middlesex Regiment.

Football Battalion

The 17th was a well-known 'Pals Battalion' with a complement of over 400 professional football players and officials from 70 clubs. Thirteen of Whiting's Brighton and Hove Albion teammates and officials also joined up with him that day, along with 22 other footballers.

Even so, some sections of the British press complained, peevishly, that by March 1915 only 122 men out of an eligible 1,800 had joined the new Football Battalion.

In the event, the Middlesex Regiment was to suffer 12,720 casualties during the Great War. The 17th Battalion alone would lose over 1,000 men during 1914-1918, 462 at Arras in 1917.

After almost a year's infantry training in England, Robert Whiting - promoted to lance sergeant in June 1915 - was sent with his battalion to France in November 1915.

Whilst serving in the filthy trenches Whiting contracted scabies and was evacuated in late May 1916 for treatment at the Eastern Military Hospital at Brighton.

Nellie was able to stay in Brighton to be near him and it was at this time that she fell pregnant with their third son Joe.

When the time came to return to the trenches, Pom Pom could not bear the prospect of leaving his pregnant Nellie behind and so went absent without leave from the hospital - for 133 days.

A serious military crime which carried the possibility of a death sentence.

'Coward'

Whiting was arrested for desertion and sent for trial in December 1916. At his court martial he was demoted to private and sentenced to nine months hard labour. The Whiting story seemed destined to end in disgrace.

His absence and detention coincided with the great Somme offensive from 1 July to 18 November 1916 - in which 420,000 British soldiers had been killed. Pre-war sporting hero Pom Pom Whiting was labelled a coward by his military colleagues.

Whiting got his nickname for kicking the ball deep into the opposition's half
Whiting got his nickname for kicking the ball deep into the opposition's half

However, the British Army was in dire need of able-bodied soldiers, even those convicted of serious military offences. His case was passed up the chain of command to General Hubert Gough (commander of the British Fifth Army) for final review. Gough suspended his sentence.

In March, Whiting was returned to B Company, 17th Middlesex (6th Brigade, 2nd Division, Fifth Army) in France, just in time for the bloody, month long, offensive at Arras from 9 April to 16 May 1917.

The big push at Arras was launched as a diversionary thrust in support of the huge French Nivelle offensive on the Aisne. Initially, the offensive was successful. For three weeks prior to the attack, 3,000 British guns fired 2.7 million shells onto the formidable German Hindenburg Line positions.

On 9 April, the British divisions advanced under a creeping artillery barrage, from a deep network of concealed chalk caves, to penetrate four miles of German-held territory, taking 9,000 prisoners in the process.

Vimy Ridge

Slow to respond, the German Army eventually counter attacked on 23 April. The British advance stalled in the teeth of heavy opposition. A vicious battle of attrition set in; the Nivelle offensive it was designed to support faltered and then failed.

The battle inflicted 159,000 British, Australian and Canadian and over 100,000 German casualties. At Arras, 4,076 British soldiers were killed each day, an attrition rate even higher than on the Somme. The bill for Arras also included 'Pom Pom' Whiting.

On 28 April 1917, Private Robert Whiting was among 462 men from the Middlesex Regiment killed whilst fighting at the northern end of the village of Oppy, four miles north east of Arras.

He was reported as being buried near Vimy Ridge but his remains were never recovered.

Back in Brighton, Nellie Whiting not only grieved for the loss of her husband but was also forced to endure unfounded local speculation that Bob had been shot for desertion.

She was obliged to publish a letter in the Brighton Argus from his commanding officer attesting to his courageous end.

With no remains ever found, Bob Whiting was listed on the imposing Arras Memorial, along with 35,942 other missing British Tommies from Britain and its Commonwealth.

At the 10 November Service for the Missing in Westminster Abbey, surviving relatives, including granddaughter Lauretta, her husband and great-granddaughter Eppie will reflect on Robert Whiting's life as a loving family man, football star and courageous soldier.

Ronan Thomas is a London-based journalist and researcher with the City of Westminster Archives.




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