Baxenden Lads: Whitehead R

31st July 1917

PTE. 204049 RILEY WHITEHEAD of the Lancashire Fusiliers was killed in action on July 31st 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Pilkem Ridge at Ypres in Belgium.

Riley was aged thirty one and lived with his mother, two sisters and a brother at 3 Harcourt Road, Accrington. He was a plumber by trade, and before enlisting he worked for Messrs. Stevensons of Haslingden. He was a popular young man and was a well-known footballer, playing in the local amateur leagues.

Riley’s mother received the news of his death in a letter from a comrade, L/Cpl. Barnes – “It is with deepest regret I inform you of the death of your son. We all feel his loss very keenly, as he was a splendid soldier, a brave man, and one of the most cheerful fellows in his platoon. He died fighting bravely, doing his duty. It was on the morning of July 31st when he was killed by a shell along with three of his section. His death was instantaneous, so he suffered no pain. Please accept the deepest sympathy of myself and his fellow comrades.”

Riley’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Bertram Best-Dunkly, won the Victoria Cross in the same action. The citation states “In the attack his battalion became disorganised, so he went forward and rallied his men to take their objectives. The Fusiliers sustained heavy losses, but his leadership helped the battalion to succeed. In the evening he helped to defeat a German counter-attack during which he was mortally wounded”. He died of his wounds on August 5th 1917.

In the ensuing devastation of battle, Riley’s body was never found. His name is therefore inscribed on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. On the Memorial are the names of almost 55,000 men who died in the Ypres area between October 1914 and August 16th 1917 and who have no known grave. The Memorial spans one of the two main gateways of the old town. The names are inscribed on panels inside the archway and the stairways leading to the ramparts of the town wall. Riley’s name is in company with 338 of his fellow Fusiliers.