Baxenden Lads: Whitehead JW

31st May 1917

PTE. 26696 JOHN WILLIAM WHITEHEAD of the East Lancashire Regiment was killed in action south of Arras on May 31st 1917.

John Willie was 31 and lived with his mother at 8 Bridge Houses, Baxenden. Before enlisting he had worked for Messrs. Kearns Allan & Co., Baxenden since the age of 13. He enlisted in April 1916 and was at the front in France three months later. After a time he was invalided home because of shell shock and dysentery, but returned to France in March 1917. John Willie was a regular attender at St. John’s Church, Baxenden, and was a member of the Sunday School Men’s Class. He was also an enthusiastic sportsman and a playing member of Baxenden Cricket Club.

Miss Maden of Oswaldtwistle, John Willie’s fiancee, received a letter from a Baxenden soldier, a close comrade – “I am sorry to inform you of the death of John Willie. He was killed early yesterday morning in an attack on the German trenches which came under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. It may be some consolation to you that he suffered no pain. He was buried later in the day behind the line and a cross was put over his grave.” His officer wrote – “Tell Mrs. Whitehead I am sorry I could not get to him before he died. The lads sent for me but I was too late. I can’t imagine yet that we have lost him – I have lost a dear friend. Yours, H. Whiteley”

Although John Willie was given a decent burial by his comrades, his grave was later never found. The destructive forces of shell-fire obliterated the site. His name therefore is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. The Memorial is in a suburb of the town, and it is in the form of a cloister, built up on Doric columns. Inside the colonnade 35,395 names are inscribed on wall panels. These are the men who died in the Arras area in 1917 and 1918 and whose graves are not known. John Willie’s name is listed with 287 of his comrades.