Photograph of George by kind permission of Mrs Vivien Ellis and Wendy Eaton Williamson
(L to R) British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal
George was born on the 23rd October 1891 at 42 Queen Street in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire. His father was named Thomas and his mother was Louisa. He had 2 older siblings: Edith and Fred Whitehead, and 3 younger: Stanley, John and Leonard. The family had lost two other children by 1911. One of them was named Bertha.
Thomas worked as a cotton spinner and George grew up at 1 Athol Street in Ashton. By 1911 he had begun to work as a piecer in a cotton mill.
The First World War broke out in August 1914 and George joined the Army in mid 1915. Fred enlisted on the 14th May and was given the service number 3765. George's service number was 3770, so they probably enlisted together. They both still lived at 1 Athol Street.
Both brothers joined the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. This was a unit of the Territorial Force based in Ashton. The original 9th Battalion had been sent overseas in September 1914. The men left in Ashton formed a Reserve to train new recruits. This became known as the 2/9th Battalion, and it was soon decided that it too would become a front line unit. There were still recruits to train, though, so a 3/9th Battalion was formed in March 1915. George and Fred had both joined this unit by July.
The 3/9th Battalion was sent to Southport, Lancashire to train. In early 1916 it moved to Witley in Surrey.
The brothers were separated in the autumn of 1915. Fred was chosen to join the 1/9th Battalion on active service in Gallipoli. He arrived there on the 22nd October. This campaign ended in December and the 1/9th Battalion returned to Egypt. At some point Fred fell ill. He did not recover enough to return to duty, so on the 23rd March 1916 he was discharged as 'no longer physically fit for war service'.
On the 16th November 1916 George married Ethel Dean at Albion Congregational Church in Ashton.
Ethel had a sister named Mary Elizabeth. She had married James Shelmerdine in June 1915. His medals are also in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection. James and his brother Albert had joined the 3/9th Battalion at around the same time as George and Fred.
After training with the 3/9th Battalion George joined the 2/9th Battalion. They trained Heyward's Heath in Sussex and then moved to Reed Hall Camp in Colchester in Essex.
On the 1st February 1917 George wrote his will. He left 'the whole of my property and effects' to Ethel. He was a member of C Company at the time.
The next month soldiers serving in Territorial units were given new service numbers. The 9th Battalion was given the range 350001 to 375000, and George's number became 351812. At around the same time the 2/9th Battalion sailed to France.
The battalion served around Givenchy and La Bassee until late June 1917, when they moved north to Nieuwpoort, on the North Sea coast in Belgium. They guarded the coast until the autumn.
The Passchendaele Offensive began on the 31st July 1917. It was fought around the nearby town of Ypres. The 2/9th Battalion joined this campaign on the 9th October, when they took part in an attack on Poelcapelle.
The battalion attacked over flooded ground that had been turned into a sea of mud by shelling and rain. Their attack began well, and they captured a number of German positions, but the mud slowed them down, and other German soldiers were able to inflict a large number of casualties. By the end of the day the attack was bogged down and could not continue. This was the largest battle the battalion took part in.
The 1/9th and 2/9th were joined together to form the 9th Battalion in February 1918. On the 21st March 1918 the Germans launched a major offensive aimed at defeating the Allies before large numbers of American soldiers could enter the war against them. The 9th Battalion was one of the units that faced this attack. During March and April it took part in the desperate fighting to try and stop this offensive. They took heavy casualties and were reduced to a small unit, known as a cadre, in April.
George survived this fighting. After the battalion was reduced he left them and eventually joined the 1/8th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, although we don't know when. They took part in the final British advances of the war that began on the 8th August 1918 and became known as the Hundred Days Offensive.
This offensive was very successful and drove the Germans back all along the Western Front. Although they were retreating, they were not beaten, and Allied units still took heavy losses. One of the men killed during this time was George. He died on the 30th August during fighting around Riencourt near Amiens in France. He was 26 years old.
After the war George's grave could not be found so his name is one of 9847 commemorated on the Vis en Artois Memorial. George is on Panel 9.
Fred and George were not the only members of the family to fight in the First World War. Stanley, who was a taxi driver, joined a Motor Transport unit of the Army Service Corps on the 12th December 1915. His service number was M2/156208. He never served overseas. He suffered from seborrhoeic dermatitis and was discharged as 'no longer physically fit for war service' on the 6th May 1918.
James Shelmerdine won the Military Medal with the 1/9th Battalion. He was killed in action on the 21st March 1918, the first day of the German Spring Offensive. He was 28. He is remembered on Panel 64 to 67 on the Pozieres Memorial in France.
Ethel remarried to Percy Eaton in December 1923. They had 2 children; William Dean in July 1925 and Doreen in April 1931. Shortly after Doreen was born Ethel and Percy separated.
Ethel ran a sweet shop on Penny Meadow in Ashton for several years. In around 1937 Mary, Ethel, their sister May Whitehead and her family all moved to Leyland in Lancashire. Here she worked in a mill in nearby Farington.
Mary never remarried after losing James. Doreen doesn't remember either sister ever talking about the husbands they had lost, although Ethel kept a photograph of George in uniform on her piano.
Both sisters lived in Leyland for the rest of their lives. Mary died on the 26th July 1955, and Ethel on the 20th July 1957.
James and George's medals were donated together to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in November 1957.