Henry Witney

HENRY WHITNEY (1881 - 1916)

Henry, listed as Edward Henry in the 1891 Census, was born in Macclesfield in 1881. He grew up with his parents, John and Mary, two brothers and two sisters, firstly at 18, Great King Street and later at 4, Water Street. Henry was educated at St Alban's School and attended St Alban's Church regularly.

In 1902, Henry married local girl Elizabeth Bennett. Henry and his bride moved to 1, Brunswick Square, Cuckstoolpit Hill, in Macclesfield. Henry's occupation at this time is a little unclear; some sources describe him as a fettler, (someone who maintained railway tracks), others suggest he worked for eleven years at Macclesfield Gasworks as a stoker, shovelling fuel into a boiler. Cotton weaver, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Bertha, and a son, James. At the time of the 1911 Census, the family were sharing their home with Elizabeth's fourteen year old sister, Beatrice, who worked locally as a spinner.

In 1913, the family decided to emigrate to Australia. St Alban's parishioner Anne Whitney-Corke recalls being told that the plan was for Henry to travel ahead to Australia in order to find employment before calling for his wife and children to follow him. So, on 17 April 1913, the thirty two year old Henry set off alone from London aboard the new P & O passenger liner 'Benalla' on his way to Sydney; interestingly, his age is given as thirty on the passenger list. Once Henry arrived in Australia he soon found employment as a platelayer, inspecting and maintaining railway tracks.

Elizabeth and the children were about to join Henry in Australia when war was declared in Europe. Henry immediately enlisted in one of the first infantry units to be raised in New South Wales, the 1st Battalion, Australian Infantry. This was not the first time Henry had served in the military. At the age of eighteen, he had served as a Private with the 4th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment during The South African Campaign; he was eventually invalided home. Henry was later issued with the Queen's South Africa medal with the Cape Colony and Orange Free State clasps.

Now, following basic training, Henry left for Egypt with his new Battalion, arriving there on 2 December 1914. After a period of encampment in Egypt, where they underwent training with a view to being posted to France, the Battalion was instead transferred to the ill-fated campaign to seize control of the Dardanelles Straits. Henry took part in the ANZAC landings in Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and went on to see action across Gallipoli including the Sulva Bay landings and The Battle of Lone Pine.

On 28 December 1915, the 1st Battalion were withdrawn from Gallipoli and returned to Egypt. They remained there until 13 March 1916, when they sailed for France and the Western Front. Six days later, Henry landed in Marseilles. The Battalion was then transported by train to the battlefields in the north. It is likely he was initially billeted with other Australian troops in the St Omer-Aire-Hazebrouck region of French Flanders, which was known as the "Nursery". The first major action for Henry's Battalion was at Pozieres in the Somme valley. Just two days after arriving on the Somme, the Australians were given the task of capturing the Pozieres Ridge. Following almost two weeks of heavy fighting, the offensive was over. Henry survived this action but just days later, on 20 August 1916, he was killed when a shell exploded in the trench where he was sheltering. Henry was aged thirty six.

Elizabeth Whitney received a letter from his Captain giving her the news of Henry's death:

"I report that it is my painful duty to inform you that your husband has been killed at Pozieres on August 20th. A large shell burst in the trenches, killing Sgt Whitney instantaneously.

Sgt Whitney was a brave, quiet, competent and reliable leader. He was buried by the Rev. Ashley Brown and a cross erected to his memory."

Information reagrding exactly where Henry was buried was lost and his resting place is now unknown. He is commenorated at the Australian National Memorial at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, Somme, France.

Bretonneux Memorial, France
JVillers-Bretonneux Memorial, France © C.W.G.C.

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