My recent article on this subject (link: https://www.oxfordhomeschooling.co.uk/blog/1917-runners-of-the-first-world-war/ ) gave a broad overview of the role of runners in the First World War. This piece is a biography of two of the real-life soldiers who performed this duty. I hope that these stories of ordinary heroes help bring you closer to the history of the Great War, and illustrates the bravery required to do the job.
They are just two of scores of names that can be found in various service and medal record databases.
Whitaker was born in Warley, near Halifax in West Yorkshire, in 1897. The son of an engineer and blacksmith, he served as a runner in the West Riding Regiment and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his service, likely during the Battle of Poelcappelle in Belgium, between 8-9 October 1917. Whitaker’s hometown newspaper, the Halifax Courier, reported on November 17th a letter sent by one Capt. Sykes:
‘In the trenches on the night of Oct. 8-9 this company runner (Whitaker) continued carrying messages between his company and another battalion, returning in very heavy enemy barrage. On the same evening his company commander was lost for five hours, and this runner went seeking him under appalling conditions and eventually found him. His gallant conduct was intensified by the fact that he was suffering badly with trench feet, but refused to go to hospital until ordered to do so.’
The official medal citation in the London Gazette of 4 March 1918 commends him ‘for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as runner.’ Whitaker survived the war and died in 1970.
Private Klinzing was an American farmer who lived in the sleepy Canadian hamlet of Marengo, Saskatchewan when war broke out. Enlisting in the 65th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry in 1916 at the age of 19, his small stature (5 ft 4 in) and farm-bred fitness made him an ideal candidate for runner.
He saw action in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where on 12 April 1917 his actions earned him the Military Medal. Under heavy rifle and machine gun fire he ‘continued to perform the duties of runner and guide to ration parties for some hours and throughout showed cool indifference to danger’ – all while nursing a dislocated arm suffered after being buried by a shell blast.
Klinzing again displayed his bravery and commitment to duty, earning an additional bar to his medal on the night on 2-3 June. After accompanying a unit in the successful capture of a large machine gun strong point, he ‘made several trips between Company HQ and this point, passing through a very intense barrage placed by the enemy in this area. He was sent back for a second machine gun and took this himself so as to quickly supply the need. He led the bomb carrying party, and gave a marvellous exhibition of cool bravery that won the admiration of all who saw it.’
Despite being shell-shocked and gassed, Roy Klinzing managed to survive the war and made it home to Canada. He died at the age of 84 in 1981, and is commemorated in the town history book of Flaxcombe, Saskatchewan.
These are stories of people doing extraordinary things under pressure. They are just two examples, but I hope they serve to illustrate the courage, contribution and sacrifice of even the most ordinary of soldiers, those who achieved no fame or fortune from their exploits.
Some information here was taken from records held by findmypast.com; The Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War project; and The Canadian Great War Project.