Robert was born in Bredbury, the son of John Henry Whittaker and Sarah Ann Whittaker. Nothing is known of his early life except that he had worked as a barman at a pub. The local press reported this to be called the Stockdrove and it may be the Stock Dove on Compstall Road. A committed Christian, Robert was regular worshipper at St Chad’s Anglican Church in Romiley
Shortly before the War, he had moved to Oldham where he lived at 5 Webster Street and worked as a labourer. On 29 August 1914, he travelled into Manchester and joined the army. His training started at Winchester on 1 September. Robert’s service papers still exist at the National Archives and these show him to have been a fairly short man, even for those times, standing at just under 5’ 4”. He weighed 120 pounds and had a 37” chest which he could expand by a further 2 inches. The examining doctor noted he had a “rosy” complexion with blue eyes and fair hair.
A couple of months later, on 19 November, he committed an unrecorded minor offence under army rules and was confined to barracks for three days. It is the sort of punishment that would be imposed on a soldier not returning to camp on time from an evening “on the town”. On 19 May, Robert left Britain with the newly formed 8th Battalion, ready to go into action.
On 29 July, the Battalion started another tour of duty in the trenches near Hooge – on the outskirts of Ypres (now Ieper). The unit’s War Diary notes their strength was 24 officers and 745 Other Ranks. They were in position by 2am on the 30th. “A” and “C” Companies occupied the front line whilst “B” and “D” were in close support in nearby Zouave Wood.
At 3.15, an expected German attack was delivered. The front line was subjected to an intense artillery bombardment for two or three minutes but then large sheets of flame broke out all along the front. A weapon new to war – the flamethrower - was being used for the first time. During the night, the Germans had crawled out across No Man’s Land and laid its hoses almost right to the British line. The Diary describes that, under cover of the flame, “swarms” of troops throwing grenades appeared on the British trench parapet. Others had already worked their way round the defences and attacked from the rear. “The fighting became very confused and the machine guns were soon all out of action.”
The platoons at either end of the Battalion’s position were able to resist the attack but in spite of the hardest fighting, the German broke through in the centre and there were many casualties from flame, grenade, bullet and bayonet. This is, almost certainly, when Robert was killed.
Just after 4am, “B” Company attempted a counter attack from Zouave Wood but was beaten back by machine gun fire. The Germans now occupied all the original British front line and attempted to bomb down the communications trenches , throwing grenades in front of them as they moved along. The men from the support companies blocked these trenches and were able to fight off the German assault. Another attempt to counter attack in the afternoon also failed under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. The British front line had now become Zouave Wood and the Riflemen held this until relieved at 2am the next morning.
Of the 769 men who had gone into the trenches, 89 were known to be dead, 277 were wounded and another 132 were missing and presumed to be dead. Robert was one of those missing. Nothing was ever heard of him again and, in March 1916, the War Office made the official presumption that he must have been killed and issued a death certificate.
Robert’s personal effects were sent to William Whittaker, 44 Great Portwood Street. His relationship to Robert is not known but he was probably a brother.