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Freddie's tale is told

11 November 2013

Cooksey recounts Wheatcroft's wartime journey

In Saturday's issue of 'The Royal' military historian Jon Cooksey told the full story of another of Reading Football Club's wartime heroes, 2nd Lt Freddie Wheatcroft, 5th East Surrey Regiment.

It is a story we thought all Reading supporters should hear today, Remembrance Day... 

With his carefully-groomed moustache and angular good looks, Derbyshire-born Freddie certainly made an impact after he joined Reading from Derby County in May 1908.

Although the diminutive striker – only 5’ 10” tall and weighing in at 12st 4lb - stayed at Reading for one season, 1908/09, he finished it as top scorer with 14 goals before leaving for his second spell with Swindon Town where he stayed until the second year of the First World War in 1915.

Born in Alfreton in mid-Derbyshire in May 1882, former Derby County, Reading, Swindon and Fulham frontman Frederick George Wheatcroft enlisted as a private in the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment (Territorial Force) at the age of 33. No less a person than the Mayor of Swindon attested to his good character.

Unlike some of Reading FC’s Great War heroes like Joe Dickenson, Freddie was placed on the reserve and did not go overseas immediately.

Mobilised in May 1916 he was promoted to corporal and then lance sergeant before his potential for leadership was spotted and after completing training as an officer cadet he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 5th Battalion on 29 May 1917.

Six months later, after signing to fight overseas, he was attached to the 13th Battalion of the same regiment and found himself leading a platoon of men during the desperate fighting for the strategically vital high ground to the northwest of Bourlon Wood and Bourlon village near Cambrai in northern France.

Tasked with advancing to clear and hold Bourlon village with the support of tanks, when the time came for Freddie’s battalion to attack at 6.15 am on 25th November 1917 the tanks had not arrived.

The battalion attack went in in any case to try and link up with the Highland Light Infantry but the Germans, holding the village ‘in great strength’ put up a stubborn resistance and then mounted a strong counter attack of their own, hitting the East Surreys with heavy machine-gun, rifle and mortar fire.

Unable to get any further the battalion clung on desperately until the decision was made to extricate the men on 26th November so that the weary and depleted troops could be replaced with fresh men but again the tanks which were to assist in this move failed to materialise.

Freddie Wheatcroft and other small parties of men who had pushed on into advanced positions were still fighting for their lives and, as the withdrawal got underway under heavy German fire, Freddie Wheatcroft was mortally wounded. He died soon afterwards.

The battalion was finally relieved and came out of the line on 27th November. Total casualties during their short but desperate fight for Bourlon Wood and village between 24th and 27th November amounted to 6 officers and 233 men.

Freddie Wheatcroft had stuck to his post to the last and had died along with his men. He left a wife, Susan Jessie, behind.

Today one of Reading FC’s Great War heroes, he lies in grave I.F. 12 in Anneux British Cemetery in the shadow of a brooding Bourlon Wood and just a short distance from where he fell on that late November day 96 years ago.

A memorial to him was placed in Alfreton Church in 1927 but today, on this Remembrance weekend, Royals fans can remember and respect his service to club, king and country.

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