Popular soldier faced hell in the trenches

Henry Eric Whitehead, from Woolsthorpe, died on the battlefields of Gallipoli in 1915.

Henry Eric Whitehead, from Woolsthorpe, died on the battlefields of Gallipoli in 1915.

WHEN Henry Eric Whitehead enlisted for World War I he left his medical university course and Woolsthorpe family for the blood-soaked trenches of Gallipoli.

He died at the age of 24 in a hail of bullets only three months after arriving at the battlefields — 99 years ago this week.

Only hours earlier he had been promoted to the rank of “temporary” second lieutenant with the 8th Lighthorse regiment in recognition of his leadership abilities.

By the end of the ill-founded three-day attack at the Nek, Gallipoli there were 18,000 bodies on that battlefield and 20,000 wounded.

Eric, as he was known, and his brave mates were buried at the Lone Pine Memorial near where they fell.

He is also remembered on the Whitehead grave at Caramut cemetery, at the family Goodwood homestead near Woolsthorpe and at Warrnambool war memorial and RSL sub-branch.

For his services he was posthumously awarded the victory medal, British war medal and 1914/15 star.

However, there’s one more thing to be done for due recognition, according to his great-great-great-grand-nephew Christopher Whitehead, of Melbourne.

He wants a correction to the Warrnambool war memorial honour roll where there’s a G. E. Whitehead inscribed. It seems the letter G was incorrectly chiselled into the marble instead of H and may have been a mix-up with Eric’s father George.

“I’m of the opinion it would be only a small job for it to be fixed,” he told The Standard.

However, Warrnambool RSL sub-branch historian David McGinness was more cautious. “There are a number of procedures we need to go through before we can change names on the memorial,” he said. 

“We also need to have all family and organisations approve alterations, so it will take time to come to a conclusion.

“It is also very important we do not take away from the original builders of the memorial and those who sent the names.

“Next year marks the 100th anniversary of not only the landings on the 25th of April but also all the actions that took place on Gallipoli.

“These will be commemorated in the best way we can and in a respectful manner to honour their deeds for king and country.”

Mr Whitehead said his interest in the case was sparked by a visit to the RSL club rooms after last year’s Warrnambool May Racing Carnival.

He noticed a framed picture of Eric in the rear dining room and was puzzled why it wasn’t in the main foyer display. Then he embarked on extensive research of his relative.

Next year he hopes to travel to Gallipoli and attend the Lone Pine cemetery on the centenary of Eric’s death.

“He died for king and country and should be duly recognised,” Mr Whitehead said.

The Whiteheads first came to Australia in 1839 and ran the large pastoral property of Goodwood which is still in the family’s hands.

Eric was born at South Yarra and was educated in Warrnambool and Geelong College before studying medicine at Melbourne University.

Only two years into his course he enlisted and after a month of training embarked on the Star of Victoria for the Middle East where he embarked at Alexandria on May 16, 1915 for Gallipoli.

In a letter to his father in July he wrote: “it’s awfully fascinating watching the shells burst under the searchlight and we enjoy it immensely”.

However, a month later he was in the thick of battle.

His regiment was to launch an assault along a narrow strip of land known as the Nek. However an Allied bombardment stopped seven minutes earlier than planned because of a miscalculation which allowed the Turks to regroup.

Then when the lighthorse regiments sprung out of their trenches they were immediately mowed down. Despite the carnage successive waves of brave soldiers followed out of their trenches only to suffer the same fate.

Later, another Aussie soldier who send condolences to the Whitehead family described Eric as “one of the most popular fellows in his regiment ... his career would not have stopped at lieutenant had he been spared”.

“Every man and every officer knew it meant certain death to go out. If ever men faced hell they did, machine guns everywhere poured it into them, rifle fire and shrapnel,” he said.

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