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Southwater War Memorial
is published by kind permission of the author, GT Cooper
Frederick William Whitner
"D" Company. 9th (Service) Battalion. Royal Sussex Regiment.
73rd Brigade. 24th Division.
Killed in action 21.3.1918. Aged 26.
Frederick Whitner's birthplace in 1892 was the village of Southwater, some five miles south of Horsham, where his parents George and Rosina Whitner lived at that time. George was a Horsham man, born there in 1862, and when single worked as a contractor before going into the farming industry, eventually becoming a farm foreman at Sharps Farm. He married Rosina, a young dairy maid who worked at the farm, born at Shipley village, and eight years his junior.
Before the First World War their only son Frederick married Gertrude, and in 1918 their family home was at 41, Swindon Road, Horsham. Three years earlier they were living at 8, Swindon Road. (After her husband's death Gertrude remarried in the name of Randell and moved to the seaside town of Worthing where she lived at 92, Tarring Road.) Before entering the armed forces Frederick had been employed as a gardener by a Mr Riley Scott, a nurseryman & florist of Station Nurseries, 100, Station Road, Horsham.
Prior to the war, like many of the town's men, Frederick had been a member of the Territorial Force, having volunteered for service at the local recruitment centre. When war broke out he would have been immediately recalled to the colours and eventually joined one of the county regiment battalions on 6th April 1915. Sergeant Whitner had been stationed at Windsor Great Park as a drill instructor training raw recruits in the early part of the war, and then went on to serve in the same capacity at Purfleet, Colchester, Cambridge and Tunbridge Wells, before eventually going on active service overseas in early 1918. He had been in France a mere six weeks before being killed in action at the age of twenty-six, and already serving as an experienced NCO in D Company of the 9th Btn Royal Sussex Regt.
In the last year of the war on Thursday 21st March 1918, the German High Command unleashed its Spring Offensive, cutting through the British lines in the Somme area. After the initial shock at the scale and intensity of the German attack, fresh British reserves were hurriedly brought up to the Battle Zones. As part of the 24th Division's de¬fences in 73rd Brigade, the battalion found itself facing the enemy advance in the Trinket Post and Carpeza Copse area approximately five kilometres north of Jeancourt, a village south-east of the small town of Roisel, that lies some twelve kilometres east of Peronne. Hesbecourt lies approximately two kilometres east of Roisel
The Battalion War Diary records that the troops "stood to at 5 am" and com¬menced to move up to battle positions that had been reconnoitred by the CO. and two of his officers the previous day. As the battalion passed through the village of Hesbecourt on its way to take up positions in a line known as the Redoubt Line, it was subjected to a heavy gas barrage and shelling that preceded an enemy attack. Hesbecourt had been the target for a heavy bombardment by the enemy artillery firing 5.9 shells into the wire at Trinket Trench until approximately 2.30 pm. Half an hour later the Germans troops came into view, but failed in their attempt to overrun the British positions held by the battalion soldiers, assisted by stragglers of other units retiring from what had been the Forward Zone redoubt areas and the original British front line. The night remained uneventful ( this was but the lull before the storm as the Germans mounted a successful assault on the same area the following day) and D Company was relieved by a cavalry unit to take up new positions at a place named White Chalk Trench.
In the confused battle conditions Sergeant Whitner was originally posted as “missing, believed killed" but the war diary confirms, at a later date, that he was killed in action at sometime during the turmoil and confusion of fighting on that first day of the German assault. The enemy units leading the assault in that area were the 4 Guards Divi¬sion, rated by allied intelligence as a first rate division, attacking from 21st -26th March, and the 208 Division that by the 23rd had struck westward and entered Peronne town. Unfortunately it was mainly the full weight of the Guards Division's regiments that fell upon the 9th Btn Royal Sussex Regt driving it back to Hesbecourt with severe losses. (TNA.WO.l2219)
As with so many of the British soldiers killed on that Black Thursday, Sergeant Whitner has no known grave, but is commemorated with others of his unit on Panels 46 & 47 of the Pozieres Memorial, five kilometres north east of Albert on the D.929 road to Bapaume in the Department of the Somme, France. (Advancing troops tended to bury enemy dead, if at all, only should time and conditions allow, either in unidentified mass graves or shell holes. Sadly, often even these traces were obliterated by subsequent shelling and fighting over the same ground).
It was not until 4th May 1918 that that a local Horsham newspaper reported that Mrs Whitner had received a sympathetic letter from an officer in D Company that read
"I very much regret to have to advise you that your husband Sergeant Whitner, Royal Sussex Regiment, was killed while heroically leading his men into action on the 21st March. Although your husband was with us a short time, I have been able to appreciate the way in which he worked and the good example he set to his colleagues. It is hard to get reconciled to such happenings as these but we must all realise that your husband gave his life that others might live, and this I know will be of some comfort to you a wife. The greatest consolation I can find at times such as these is the thought that some day we shall hope to meet our loved ones again in a place where war is no more. May God shower upon you and your husband's relations a plenitude of His divine consolation and reward you for the sacrifice you have made in the course of right and justice."
The newspaper article finished with what was by this stage in the war sadly an all too familiar message, “Mrs Whitner desires to return her sincere thanks to all friends and acquaintances for their kind expressions of sympathy in her sad bereavement." In addition to being commemorated at Pozieres and on the Horsham War Memorial, Sergeant Frederick William Whitner's name is to be found on the white marble Memorial Plaque to the eighty-five men of the parish who died in the First World War, situated on the north wall within The Holy Trinity Church at Blunts Way.