IT WAS a death that rocked a family and left a grieving mother forever heartbroken.
Now the tragic tale of a Portsmouth solider – who died almost 100 years ago battling to protect Britain – has finally been revealed.
Henry James Wheeler lost his life on November 11, 1917, after being wounded in the First World War. He was just 20.
But for years, the exact account of his final days had remained a mystery until his great nephew, Steve Wheeler, uncovered it.
Steve, who was born in Portsmouth, spent about eight years painstakingly researching his relative’s life and military service in a bid to preserve Henry’s memory.
His efforts even helped to fill in the blanks about Henry’s family life and home details, which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has since included in their own records.
RAF veteran Steve, 63, said: ‘When I was a little nipper, my mum used to take me down to Victoria Park. She always used to show me the memorial of my grandad’s brother.
‘In 2006 I was doing a lot of family research and decided I was going to look into this and find out more about my great uncle. My family thought he died on Remembrance Day but didn’t have any other details. I did some digging in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but I couldn’t find anything to match that.’
His uncle’s military records had been destroyed in Portsmouth during the Blitz in 1941.
And as older relatives died, his exact action in the war was lost to the annals of time. It wasn’t until Steve discovered a series of obituaries run in The News in 1917 that he was able to piece together Henry’s life.
‘When I found that obituary I was elated,’ he said. ‘This means an awful lot to me. Before Henry was just a casualty – nobody knew who he was and what he did. Now he is known.’
Henry – known as Harry by friends and family – was born in December 1896, He was the youngest son of William, a ship’s riveter at Portsmouth Dockyard, and Rosina Wheeler.
He grew up in Funtington Road, Copnor, and was a shop’s errand boy.
In late 1915 he enlisted in the Hampshire Regiment as a Private and later transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in the 146th Company. On October 9, 1917, his company was moved west of Passchendaele to prepare for a major assault the following day. Two were killed and 13 others wounded.
His company continued fighting, sustaining a further two more confirmed fatalities and five casualties on November 10 and 11. Andrew isn’t sure when his great uncle was injured.
But he died on November 11 and was buried near the Belgium town of Ypres. ‘The impact on the family was huge,’ added Steve. ‘Harry’s mother used to leave a key for him outside the home waiting for him to come back. She carried on doing this until she died during the Second World War.’
Passchendaele was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. About 275,000 British soldiers died during 105 days of fighting, with 90,000 bodies never being identified and 42,000 never recovered.