SERVICE NO: 3501
YEAR OF BIRTH: Hamilton
PLACE OF BIRTH: 1886
DATE OF ENLISTMENT: 12 July 1915
PLACE OF ENLISTMENT: Dookie
AGE AT ENLISTMENT: 27
UNIT: 7th Battalion, 11th Reinforcement
EMBARKED: 11 October 1915
TROOPSHIP: HMAT A71 Nestor
HONOURS/AWARDS – Military Medal
FATE: Killed in Action – St Martin’s Wood, France – 23 August 1918
John Whitehead was born in Hamilton in 1886, a son of John Whitehead and Catherine Alice Morrison. During his teens growing up in Hamilton, John had many troubles including problems at school that saw him run away on occasions. He eventually left his family and boarded for nine years with Isabella and James Polan of Cosgrave near Dookie, apparently disowned by his family.
John was better known as Frank and he enlisted under that name in July 1915. He left Australia three months later with the 7th Battalion. He arrived on 7 January 1916 at Tel el Kebir, then embarked for France on 26 March 1916 arriving on 31 March. Frank was wounded in action on 23 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of Pozieres. The 2nd Field ambulance transported him on 25 July to the 44th Casualty Clearance station and then on to the 6th General Hospital at Rouen, arriving on 26 July. It was found he was suffering shell shock. Frank left hospital on 28 August and returned to his battalion.
On 18 October 1916, Frank was admitted to hospital in Belgium, rejoining his battalion on 23 October. For most of January 1917, he was in hospital with a stomach infection. During September the 7th Battalion was part in the Battle of Menin Road and in October, the Battle of Broodseinde, both in Belgium.
By November, the 12th was back in France and while in transit on 16 November, the battalion stopped over at Becourt. The battalion diary reported troops were billeted “over a widely scattered area”. The following day they moved out to Desvres, however, Frank was not with them. Arrested on 20 November, Frank faced a Court Martial on 24 November, charged and found guilty of desertion. If he’d been with the British Army, he would have faced death. Instead, he received a sentence of five years’ penal servitude. On 10 December, he was moved to the No. 7 Military Prison at Vendreux. On 24 February 1918, Frank’s sentence was reduced to two years and on 13 May, suspended. The following day, Frank was a “free” man and returned to his battalion.
The Battle of Amiens was 9 August 1918 and the 7th Battalion was situated about thirty kilometres away between Vauvillers and Lihons attacking enemy positions. An enemy machine-gun post was blocking the battalion’s advance and casualties resulted. Frank Whitehead went ahead alone and bombed the post. Not only did that action help the advance, but the Germans also retired. Frank, only three months out of prison for desertion, was awarded a Military Medal for his efforts, demonstrating “marked gallantry and devotion to duty”. His “disregard for danger was a fine example to the attacking troops”. (“Commonwealth Gazette” No. 109, 15 September 1919)
After a few quiet days on the front line, the 7th Battalion was relieved and rested before moving across to Hamlet, France on 18 August. They were preparing to go into battle at Proyart on 23 August. Frank was with a fatigue party at St Martins Wood on 23 August 1918 at about 11.00am. He was carrying barbed wire when a shell exploded badly wounding Frank. Some accounts suggest he was killed instantly, while others such as that by Lieutenant (Lt) Arthur James Waters, suggest he died of his wounds while having them dressed. Lt Waters also said he had heard Frank was a very popular man.
It was found in late September 1918 that there was no record of Frank’s next of kin. Meanwhile, on 10 November 1918, Base Records received a letter from Isabella Polan of Cosgrave inquiring about Frank’s will and shared her connection to him. In January, Isabella’s niece Miss Coulson, a teacher at the Fitzroy State School also wrote. Apparently Frank had told Isabella on his last leave that he would name her as the benefactor of his will. Frank had a lot of illness during his time with Isabella including an operation in Maroopna and time in hospital in Melbourne. She had been like a mother to him, Miss Coulson wrote.
His attestation papers showed a Miss Whitehead of Hamilton was next of kin. For that reason only, Frank’s possessions were sent to Hamilton and on 9 October 1919, documentation of his Military Medal was also sent. However, as Miss Whitehead had not responded, by November 1919 police thought Whitehead was an assumed name. Isabella Polan wrote to base records again on 3 November 1919 with no response.
In 1922, the State Trustees were searching for Frank’s next of kin as there was money held in trust from his estate. The Commonwealth Bank had forwarded letters to Miss Whitehead, Hamilton, but they remained unclaimed. In 1962, the Office of Trustees were still trying to track Frank’s next of kin. Frank did have a family. Also born to John Whitehead and Catherine “Kate” Alice Morrison were Clementina Margaret Whitehead, born at Hamilton in 1889 and Isabella Ruth Whitehead born in 1892 also at Hamilton. Clementina lived at Caramut North working as a cook from around 1912. In 1913, she married Henry William Rosevear, and they lived at Wallacedale for several years before moving to Portland. Clementina died in 1973 at Kew. Frank’s mother Catherine Alice Whitehead lived and died in 1926 at Brunswick. She was there at least two years prior to her death. There was also a Catherine Whitehead living at nearby Fitzroy at the end of the war.
Did his sisters and mother know of his fate and think of him? Maybe he fondly crossed the mind of Isabella Polan from time to time. Or maybe just May and Ivy Loveless of Cobram remembered him.