Albert Henry WHITFORD (5103)
21 Battalion KIA 20/3/1917
Albert Whitford was born in Won Wron in 1887 and grew up in the Shire of Alberton, attending no less than 4 local state schools: Alberton, Devon North, Won Wron and Yarram. His name is recorded on the honor rolls for all 4 schools. It also appears on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. It is also on the separate honor roll for the Devon North District. His mother gave Yarram as the location with which he was ‘chiefly connected’.
The Whitford family name was well known in the district. The father – John Joseph Whitford Jnr – had been born in Gippsland (1854). He had been a selector with land at Boodyarn and Won Wron. But he faced significant health problems and had sold his properties just before he died in 1899. His wife, Mary Jane Whitford, retained a house in Yarram and 12 acres at Devon.
There were 10 children in the family. The oldest – Emily, born 1876 – died as a 5 yo from burns she received in a bushfire in 1881. Of the 6 sons, 3 enlisted and the other 2 – Thomas Joseph Whitford and Reginald James Whitford – survived the War.
At the time of his enlistment in January 1916, Albert Whitford gave his occupation as labourer. Presumably, he was working on farms in the local area. He was 28yo and single. He listed his widowed mother – Mary Jane Whitford – as his next-of-kin. She was living in Church Road, Yarram. He gave his religion as Church of England.
The first medical was in Yarram and he was then re-examined in Melbourne 2 days later (24/1/16) when the enlistment was completed. The medical papers indicate that he was missing the second finger on his left hand.
Private Whitford joined 21 Battalion and left Melbourne on 3/7/16. After an additional training in the UK, his group of reinforcements were taken on strength in France in late November (22/11/16). In late January 1917 he was wounded and hospitalised for two weeks. He rejoined the battalion on 7/2/17.
Private Whitford was killed in action on 20/3/17. However there was initial confusion over his fate. He was reported as both ‘wounded’ and ‘missing’. The family received advice in mid April (13/4/17) that he had been wounded. It was the standard form letter that did not provide any details, but reassured the next-of-kin that the case was not serious and that … it is to be assumed that all wounded are progressing satisfactorily. The cable advising the mother that her son had in fact been killed did not reach Australia until mid May (15/5/17) nearly 2 months later. When, later that same month (May, 1917), the Devon North State School honor roll was unveiled, the name of A H Whitford appeared with a cross, as one of the ‘brave boys who have paid the supreme sacrifice’ (Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 25/5/17). The formal report of death was not completed until 3/9/17. The body was never recovered and Private Whitford’s name is recorded on the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
The war diary for 21 Battalion in mid March 1917 traces the movement of the battalion to the Hindenburg Line in pursuit of the Germans as they staged their tactical withdrawal as part of Operation Alberich. On March 18, in the early afternoon, the battalion passed through Bapaume and by 11.30 that night they had reached and occupied Vaulx-Vrarcourt, and were only about 10 K from the Hindenburg Line itself. The next day they encountered enemy patrols near Ecoust-St-Mein when they pushed forward another 5 K and then on the 20 March – the day Private Whitford was killed – the battalion came under artillery and machine gun fire from the villages of Ecoust, Longatte and Noreuil. An attack planned for Noreuil on that day ‘failed to develop’. There was enemy shelling all afternoon. The casualties were heavy: 21 killed, 139 wounded and 11 missing. All this fighting was taking place very close to the Hindenburg Line and not far from the village of Bullecourt where the next great tragedy for the AIF was soon to unfold.
Witness statements from the Red Cross file for Private Whitford tell how he was shot near Longatte and buried, with others, near the village. Even though the grave was identified, it was subsequently ‘lost’.
He was in B Co. I knew him in Victoria. I come from the same town, Yarram, Gippsland. He was killed on March 20th, 1917 at Longatte and buried on the right hand side of the road near the village close to a big crater. There are a number of graves there. His grave has a cross on it. I could point out the spot. Pte. T Paterson 5066
Private Thomas Paterson (5066) enlisted in 21 Battalion round the same time as Private Whitford. Paterson was from a farming family from Darriman and would have grown up with Whitford. He survived the War and returned to Australia in July 1919.
Another witness statement – Cpl D Matheson – provided additional details:
I saw him wounded in the leg at a place called Langote (sic). It happened during an advance. I was told by Pte. W.[?] Smith, 21st Battn. B. Coy 8th Platoon that while he was crawling back endeavouring to get to the dressing station, the Germans turned their Machine guns on to him and killed him. I saw his grave near place of casualty, and it was marked by a cross bearing his number, name and unit.
But this statement did not line up with the one actually given by the same Pte. W Smith:
I am pleased to say that I can give you all the information required as I was close to him when he was killed. I am pleased to say he died without pain as he shot through the heart. I would have seen that he was buried properly only the circumstances did not permit., as it was he was buried after the charge on the filed near some of his mates. There can be no doubt as to his identity as I was in camp with him and his brother Reg for over 12 months.
When she completed the Roll of Honour information, the mother – Mary Whitford – listed 4 cousins of her son who were also were killed in the War. It is a striking illustration of how families, and the wider local community, were affected. Three of the cousins appear on the Soldiers’ Memorial in Yarram: the Sweeney brothers – Patrick and Cornelius- and George Jeffs. The fourth cousin killed – Roy Whitford – grew up in Won Wron but by the time the War started he was farming in Western Australia at Narrogin. There was also a younger brother, Reginald James Whitford, who also enlisted in 21 Battalion within a month of Albert. He reached the rank of corporal, survived the War and returned to Australia in September 1919.
The relevant personal kit – 3 Testaments, Gospel, 3 Military Books, Novel, Razor strop, Housewife, Wristlet watch strap, Writing pad, Mouth organ, Photos. – was returned to the family in early March 1918.
In the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/3/18, the first anniversary of Private Whitford’s death, the following in memoriam appeared:
WHITFORD – In sad and loving memory of my dear son, Pte. A. H. Whitford, killed in action in France on 20th March, 1917, aged 30 years. Sadly missed.
He sleeps not in his native land,
But under foreign skies
Far from those who loved him
In a hero’s grave he lies.
No loved ones stood around him
To bid a fond farewell,
No word of comfort could we give
To him we loved so well.
– Inserted by his sorrowing mother, sisters and brothers.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 3, The Alberton Project
National Archives file for WHITFORD Albert John 5103
Roll of Honour: Albert John Whitford
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Albert John Whitford
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Albert John Whitford