On the day that England played their first match of Euro 2012, it seems apt to remember one of the many professional footballers who lost their lives in the Great War. Londoner Bob Whiting was a goalkeeper who joined the Footballers’ Battalion in 1914. He was killed in action in April 1917.
Robert Whiting was born in Canning Town in 1883; after his mother died in 1900 he worked as a dock labourer and later in ship-building in the London docks. After starting work at the Thames Iron Works Company, he joined their football team as a goalkeeper. The team had recently been re-named as West Ham United. Unable to get into the first team, Whiting moved to Kent to play for Tunbridge Wells Rangers. In 1906 we was signed for Chelsea FC and got his chance to since when their regular goalkeeper was injured at the start of the following season. He played 54 games for Chelsea before 1908, when he moved on again, this time to Brighton and Hove Albion, for whom he played 320 matches.
Whiting acquired the nick-name ‘Pom Pom’ – after the heavy machine-guns used by the British Army. The pom-pom gun was basically a scaled-up Maxim machine-gun that fired a one-pound round and apparently made a ‘pom pom’ noise when it was fired. Whiting’s goal kicks were so powerful that they reminded people of this deadly weapon.
After war was declared in 1914, many men joined the army – particularly after the battle of Mons in late August. By late autumn, the authorities felt that further encouragement was needed and the famous ‘pals’ units became a major tool in recruitment, allowing men to join up with people from their town or profession. One of these was the 1st Footballers’ Battalion – later known as the 17th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment – which Whiting joined (aged 30) on the day it was established in December 1914.
In May 1916, after six months on the Western Front, Whiting was sent back to the UK as unfit with scabies. His wife Nellie was able to stay in Brighton where he was recuperating and got pregnant with their third son. When the time came to return to France, Whiting instead deserted and stayed in the UK with his wife. He was absent from his unit for 133 days, for which he was demoted from Lance-Sergeant to Private and was sentenced to 9 months’ hard labour.
The following year his sentence was suspended and he rejoined his unit in time for the start of the Arras offensive in April. Private R. Whiting is one of the 1,969 British and Imperial soldiers commemorated on the Arras memorial who were killed on the same day on 28th April 1917 but have no known graves (and one of the 35,000 named on the memorial in total).
When news reached England of his death, a scurrilous rumour had it that Whiting had in fact been shot for cowardice rather than killed in battle. His wife provided a Sussex newspaper with copies of letters from his officers and the unit’s padre attesting to his honourable death by shellfire near Vimy Ridge. What unneccessary extra suffering such a rumour must have caused this grieving widow.
In 2010 a memorial was created for soldiers whose graves were never found, on the anniversary of the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Bob Whiting was one of the men remembered on that memorial. His war story is one of service and sacrifice, but also of the competing sense of duty that many men felt between their family and their nation.
An excellent page of photos and details describing Bob Whiting’s career and reproducing the article about the circumstances of his death.
A BBC story about Whiting
A Chelsea FC story about the memorial that includes his image