Herbert Whiting was born on 20 February 1896 in Earls Barton, to William and Elizabeth, the fourth of five children. Sometime before the 1901 Census his father a shoe worker died leaving his widowed mother to raise him, his sister, Emily and his three brothers Walter, William and Frank.
By the mid 1890’s the family had moved to Rushden and the 1911 Census shows them living at 80 Glassbrook Road living with a Charles Bishop with his mother listed as the housekeeper and Herbert as a shoe hand. Charles Bishop and Elizabeth Whiting were married at St. Mary’s Church, Rushden on 18 October 1914.
In early 1914 Herbert joined the Army Special Reserve. The Special Reserve was introduced in 1908 as a means of building up a pool of trained reservists. Special Reservists enlisted for 6 years and started with 6 months full time training (paid the same as a regular soldier, 1 shilling a day), followed by 3 – 4 weeks training per year. In 1914 the Northamptonshire Special Reserve had their annual training from 29 June to 25 July at Landguard Fort, Felixstowe.
Landguard Fort, Felixstowe
When war was declared the Special Reserves were mobilised and Herbert would have reported to Northampton Barracks and by 20 September he was in France.
After a few days delay Herbert moved up to the front, and on 9 October joined the 1st Battalion as part of a draft of 8 Officers and 200 men.
From 9 to 15 October the Northamptonshires were in trenches near Vendresse Troyon and the War Diary states there were no attacks of any importance, heavy shelling but no harm done, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists five men killed during this time.
On 15 October orders were received to prepare to move out of the trenches. The unusual activity in the British lines aroused the suspicions of the Germans who twice during the night opened heavy rifle and machine gun fire on an imaginary attacking force. The next day Officers of the French troops who were going to relieve the British came up to inspect the trenches. The relief took place on the night of the 16/17 October. There was a delay caused by German artillery fire and the relief was not completed until 3.30am on 17 October, which was a serious matter for the Northamptonshires as they had an 11 mile march to their billets in Vauxere, mostly over country under enemy observation. However early morning mist provided cover and they reached Vauxere by 7am.
At 3am on 18 October the Northamptonshires marched the four miles to Fismes and boarded trains which took them via Amiens and Etaples to Cassel arriving at 11am, where they moved into billets for a rest until the morning of 20 October.
At 5am on 20 October they marched to Elverdinge via Poperinghe, and on 21 October the march continued to Ypres arriving at 11am, later in the day moving onwards to Pilkem arriving 7pm.
Battle of Pilkem
Pilkem is a small hamlet about 4 miles north of Ypres and a mile south of the Bossinge – Langemarck road. A sunken lane from Pilkem crosses the Langemarck road and on this crossroads is a small group of buildings centred on a small inn.
Being in reserve the 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment spent the morning of 22 October 1914 cleaning rifles, clothes and equipment. In the early afternoon German shells began to fall in and around the village, and the men at once occupied some trenches close at hand, which had been dug by the French. These trenches were at best three feet deep, lacking barbed wire and were not a continuous defensive line making travel between the isolated trenches very dangerous.
At about 3.30pm, the Germans launched an attack focused on the crossroads which were being defended by the 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders. By sheer weight of numbers they were forced back from their trenches, but not before taking an appalling toll on the enemy. An estimated 1500 Germans were thought to have been killed.
At about 7pm the Northamptonshires were ordered to reinforce the Cameron Highlanders and at once C and D Companies advanced up the lane leading to Pilkem and succeeded in driving back the Germans to the crossroads.
It was decided to attack the inn before daybreak, and this task fell to A Company of the Northamptonshires and the remaining Cameron Highlanders. The attacking force reached the inn but heavy fire from the enemy and the rapidly increasing darkness forced them to retire.
By daybreak reinforcements had been bought up and a fresh attack made on the inn by the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. This assault was successful, the inn taken and about 350 Germans captured with it. The day was spent in improving the hastily dug trenches to shelter from the continuing German shelling.
At 6pm on 24 October the Germans attacked and managed to retake the inn. Shelling continued intermittently throughout the next day setting fire to houses and haystacks and when dusk fell the whole countryside was lit up by bright jets of flame.
It was announced that the Northamptonshires would be relieved by the French that night but it was 3am on 25 October that the last men reached the village of Pilkem. The casualties sustained by the Northamptonshires in the fight near Pilkem were about 150 men killed, wounded and missing.
One of those missing men was Private Herbert Whiting who was to spend the next four years as a Prisoner of War.
Map showing Pilkem
German attack map
The rebuilt Inn at Pilkem
Herbert was held in three different camps during his time as a prisoner, first in Gottingen Camp near Hanover and then from the summer of 1915 Munster1 camp near Dortmund. Summer 1916 saw Herbert moved to a new camp Munster 2 built on a nearby race course.
According to the rules of war officer prisoners did not have to work, enlisted men on the other hand were required to do so if asked.
Many prisoners were pleased to escape the boredom of life behind barbed wire and welcomed the change of scenery and the money they earned by working. Although some prisoners complained about working in mines where cruelty was sometimes inflicted on them, those working on the land often ate at the same table as their employer and became part of the family. They were often better fed than many city dwelling Germans.
Prisoners were paid at a rate determined by their level of skills. The lowest paid were farm workers, 16 to 35 pfennigs a day while those in heavy industry received from 75 Pfennigs to 1 Mark a day.
Working prisoners did not receive their pay in official currency, as it was feared they could use it to bribe guards to help them escape. Instead they were paid in Lagergeld (Camp money) which could only be used in the camp store.
Herbert’s three brothers and his Step-father all served during the war and all survived. One, Frank, was discharged wounded.
On the 23rd of April 1919 Herbert married Edith Abrams at St Mary’s Church Higham Ferrers. They went on to have six children, but unfortunately four of those were to die in infancy. Herbert died in 1980 and Edith in 1984.
Another Rushden man, Pte. 3/9655 Christopher Glidle, died in the battle at Pilkem. More information about the prisoners of war can be seen in this year’s exhibition at Rushden Museum opening on 5 May, 2018. MH.